A PHASE OF UNCERTAINTY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In mid-February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that the event would be restricted to elite athletes. This followed the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread to multiple nations including Japan. Some days later, news appeared of the 2020 Seoul Marathon being cancelled.

At a press briefing of March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. At the time of writing, the number of cases was over 220,000 worldwide. Nearly 9000 people had died. Among precautionary measures recommended has been restricting mass participation events. Contributing their bit to contain the disease outbreak, organizers of major marathons started announcing cancellation or postponement of events.

In the second week of March, the organizers of the Boston Marathon announced postponement of the event to September 14. Soon afterwards, London Marathon made a similar announcement, postponing the race to early October. Both these World Marathon Majors are usually held in April. Other major cancellations included the 56-kilometer Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, Athens Half Marathon, New York Half Marathon. Several other marathons in Europe and the US have also been rescheduled. On March 16, the organizers of Swimathon Goa, an open water swimming race, decided to cancel the event. It was originally scheduled to be held over March 28-29.We spoke to some of those who had planned to attend the above said events; we also spoke to some currently training amid lack of clarity on what may happen to the event they are due to go for.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Bengaluru-based Deepti Karthik was scheduled to run the Tokyo Marathon of March 1, 2020. Mid-February, the World Marathon Major, announced that it was restricting the race to elite athletes. Recreational runners were informed that their registration would be carried forward to the next year. Post 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) Deepti had stepped up her mileage in training aiming to go for the Tokyo Marathon. Notwithstanding the financial loss due to arrangements already made for travel and stay in Tokyo, once news of the cancellation sank in, Deepti decided to take a short break from her training.

She shifted her attention to the 2020 Boston Marathon. “ I was putting in a lot of mileage. I was running 80-85 km each week,” she said. But then, Boston got postponed. Forced to refocus her efforts and recalibrate her training schedule, she has now in her sights the TCS 10 K, slated for May 17, 2020 in Bengaluru. But past that event she is staring at a small pile-up on her plate. Deepti had also signed up for the 2020 Berlin Marathon. With the postponement of Boston Marathon, Deepti will now have to do two World Marathon Majors in two weeks.  Boston Marathon has been rescheduled to September 14 and Berlin Marathon is set for September 27.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan Jayaraman)

“ I have no choice but to run both the marathons. I guess I will take Boston Marathon as an easy run and go strong at Berlin. Boston has a tougher route while Berlin is flat,” she reasoned. If the situation does not worsen, Deepti hopes to resume her training for the two international marathons by early June. So far, she has completed three of the six World Marathon Majors – London, Chicago and New York City Marathon. This year a good number of recreational runners from India were slated to go for the Tokyo Marathon. The news of its cancellation came as a disappointment particularly because some of them were hoping to complete the World Major Marathon series in Tokyo.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army, was at the peak of his preparations for the Boston Marathon, when the year’s running calendar started to come apart. Now with news of the Boston Marathon being postponed to September, he is taking a break. “ I will go back to building my foundation and focus on strength training,” he said. “ My coach Ashok Nath has asked his mentees to do a self-assessment of their strong and weak points. Based on that we will have to work out our training plan,” he said. The army doctor hoped to resume his training in May and do one domestic marathon – either the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon or the AFMC Marathon in Pune, both scheduled to be held in August this year.

Apoorva Chaudhary is scheduled to run the 2020 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships to be held in July in Bengaluru. Based in Delhi, Apoorva commenced her training sometime in mid-March. So far, thanks to the disease outbreak, her training has been muted. She plans to ramp it up from April though that would depend on how COVID-19 impacts the environment. “ I run solo and most of my training runs are done very early in the morning when there are few people on the road,” she said.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group Championships, which was to be held as part of London Marathon. She is also one of the runners representing India at the 2020 IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2020. With London Marathon getting postponed to early October, Anjali has decided to give it a miss as her main event is the World Championships. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, Anjali had set a new national best with her finish in 9:22 hours. “ I have decided to opt out of London Marathon as I will not be able to recover well after the World Championships and do justice to it,” she said. She plans to resume her training for the World Championships in April.

Sunil Chainani was in the midst of his training for Boston Marathon when the news of postponement came in. Now with the date of Boston Marathon moved to September 14, Sunil will have to participate in two marathons in a period of four weeks – Boston and Chicago. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 11, 2020. He has gone back to minimum essential training. “ I run for fun. Right now my focus is to stay fit,” Sunil, who lives in Bengaluru, said.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It was not long ago that Zarir Baliwala, Mumbai-based businessman and recreational endurance athlete, decided that he will focus on swimming for a change. He decided to temporarily stop running and cycling and get ready for the Goa Swimathon, scheduled over March 28-29. He had just made the decision in his mind when the Maharashtra government acting to contain spread of COVID-19, announced closure of Mumbai’s swimming pools till further notice. Zarir was forced to reassess. Subsequently, the organizers of Swimathon also announced the cancellation of the event in Goa. “ I will now go back to running and cycling,” Zarir said.

For many Indian runners and triathletes focusing on national events, the current phase represents the quieter part of the calendar. Major domestic events have concluded and the new season will commence in three months. However for runners attempting international events – especially events under the World Marathon Majors – the calendar has turned topsy turvy. Between September and November, there are now five World Marathon Majors: Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath had signed up for the 2020 Boston Marathon. Subsequently, he also qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group World Championships to be held as part of the 2020 London Marathon. Having completed Boston Marathon multiple times, he opted to give its 2020 edition a miss and focus instead on the London Marathon. The new revised schedule has cast a fresh spin. He feels there is a manageable gap between Boston and London but the Berlin Marathon, given it is too close to the London event may have to be run another year – that is, for those planning to attempt more than one of these events.

“ The running season in India concludes by end-February and the focus shifts to rebuilding the basics until it is time to commence race specific training. The first major race on the new calendar is the TCS 10 K in Bengaluru, in May,” Ashok said. Following that, India’s season of long runs and the now revised schedule of international marathons will unfold. Depending on how the virus outbreak plays out it may cast a shadow on how you prepare for the year ahead. The critical word is immunity. In these times, training has to be within manageable limits so as not to compromise one’s immunity, Ashok said. “ Long runs will lower immunity. Is that the right thing to do in the current situation?” he asked.

Samson Sequiera (left) with Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Samson)

The Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held annually in South Africa, is among major events in the running calendar. It has been steadily gathering a following in India. The organizers of the event are scheduled to review the situation on April 17, 2020, an official Comrades Marathon press note said. Indian runners attempting the 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon have been pressing ahead with their training. “ Training for Comrades is going on full steam so that we are not found lacking the training mileages required,” said coach Samson Sequiera, who heads a large Mumbai-based marathon training and fitness group called Run India Run.

Training for Comrades Marathon is strenuous. It includes three or four long runs spanning distance of 45 km, 55 km and 65 km. According to Samson, runners are practising self-restraint. They are taking care of their hydration and paying attention to rest given the current situation caused by COVID-19. A total of 35 runners from Run India Run have registered for Comrades Marathon (downhill version) this year. In all, approximately 330 runners from India have registered to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon. The race is scheduled to be held on June 15, 2020.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

“ Runners slated to do Comrades are quite confused on how to take their training forward. Normally, April is the peak month of training for Comrades. We are scheduled to do the longest run of 65 km during the second week of April,” ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, who completed Comrades for the tenth time in 2019, said. He felt, it would be better if the organizers announce their decision early so that runners can stop training and go back to basic fitness routine.  “ One option is to scale the training down now and pick it up after April 15 depending on what the situation is on the pandemic,” Satish said.

According to Ashok, it would be prudent to cancel all sporting events including those two months away such as the Comrades Marathon and TCS 10 K. Given the training for these events happen now, postponing or cancelling them will prompt amateur athletes to stop race-training and focus on fitness-based training.

Septuagenarian Kumar Rao was well into his training for the Boston Marathon, when COVID-19 began upsetting schedules.  He was aiming for a 3:50-3:52 hour finish, an improvement over 3:59, his time to finish last year in Boston. “ I was doing 85-90 km per week. Now, I have decided to scale back. This week I plan to do 35 km. I will eventually settle for 60 km per week,” he said.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

It also appeared practical; apt for these times. “ Considering my age, I think it is better for me to scale down. Initially, I was cavalier about this and continued training. I even did a glycogen-depleted training run,” Kumar said. Boston wasn’t the only major race overseas, on his plate. He had also registered for the New York City Marathon. “ I may have to go to the US twice; once for Boston Marathon in September and then again for NYCM in November. If my wife agrees to come with me, I may stay back in the US with my son for the period between these two marathons,” he pointed out.

Although he shuttles between India and the US, Kochi-based recreational runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom hadn’t signed up for any major international event in 2020. He did think briefly of running in Paris but then didn’t pursue it. He felt that the shifting of major races to the September-October period could make for a crammed fall season calendar, particularly in the US. On the bright side, provided the disease outbreak tapers, the additional choices emergent for the fall season may prove interesting to runners.

For now, a whole planet of major events in sport is at the mercy of the virus.

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

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