Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Runners from around the world including India will be attempting the virtual race of the Comrades Marathon – Race the Comrades Legends – on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

The 2020 edition of the ultra-marathon, held annually in South Africa, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizers of the Comrades Marathon decided to hold a virtual race on the same day as the real race was scheduled to be held.

The virtual race offers various distance options – five kilometers (Couch2Comrades – Fun run), 10 km (Comrades Sprint), 21.1 km (Comrades Legends Half Marathon), 45 km (Half Comrades) and 90 km (Comrades Legends Ultra). Participating runners are expected to upload their race data at the end of the day. Finishers will be couriered the Race the Comrades Legends medal.

Among overseas events, Comrades has a dedicated following in India. Preparations for it are different from taking a shot at one of the World Marathon Majors. The route at Comrades links Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province. Besides distance, the route features elevation gain and alternates each year between an uphill and a downhill run. The event is actually an ultramarathon lurking behind the name of a marathon. Participants therefore court an extended period of training. In Mumbai, those who sign up for Comrades usually graduate through regular long distance training runs (and events therein) to several group runs including in places like Lonavala for a feel of hilly terrain. This long duration of engagement with the event and fellow runners headed to South Africa, builds an ephemeral sense of community. The onset of pandemic and the eventual cancellation of the real event in South Africa would have brought inevitable disappointment. June’s virtual Comrades will offer some consolation.

“ I guess the attractive part is that it will probably be one of those few chances to run virtual Comrades Marathon. Also, the medal will be unique,” said Mumbai-based ultra-runner Satish Gujaran. Satish is the first and the only Indian runner yet to complete Comrades Marathon ten times consecutively. At the time of writing, nearly 80 runners from India had enrolled for the virtual race, of which nine were scheduled to run the 90 km distance. In India, recreational runners have not been able to get out for training runs as the lockdown was stringent. “ Without much training, it may not be possible to run 90 km, especially for runners from Mumbai,’’ Satish said. He has opted not to run the virtual race. Instead, he may pace some runners on Sunday.

Dr Anand Patil (This photo was downloaded from the runner’s Facebook page and is being used here with his permission)

Notwithstanding Satish’s observation, among those attempting the 90 km virtual race is Mumbai-based ultra-runner and triathlete, Dr Anand Patil. He is a surgeon by profession. “ This was to be my ninth Comrades,’’ he said referring to the now cancelled 2020 edition of Comrades. He has run the ultra-marathon for eight years in a row.

Dr Patil is attempting the virtual race despite not having done any training during the lockdown so far. He was hoping to resume running after the latest round of relaxation to lockdown. That would still leave him only a week or so to the virtual event. A recreational triathlete, Dr Patil said he has completed the Ironman triathlon 19 times. He also did the Ultraman in Australia in 2017. His background in endurance sports, including a past featuring back to back long distance runs, is what has given Dr Patil the confidence to try the 90 km-run without any dedicated training done recently.

“ I have worked on a training formula called fitness pyramid. At the base of this pyramid is stamina. The other elements of this pyramid are endurance, strength and speed. Even if I don’t train for a couple of months, I will be able to do an ultra-distance event,” Dr Patil said. Further, according to him, a diet that is abundant in micronutrients and is devoid of supplements is good to build immunity.

It is generally said that during exercise and for some time thereafter, the body experiences a dip in immunity. Consequently, in these times of pandemic and need to preserve immunity, debates on exercise have been partial to avoiding extreme strain. Asked of this angle, Dr Patil said he is not worried about his immunity dipping during the 90 km run. Immunity, according to him, is a function of many factors. “ Factors such as hereditary attributes, diet – these are important for building Immunoglobulin G, an antibody, in the human body. Any physical activity releases cortisol, which is also good for the immune system,” he said.

For Sunday’s virtual race, Dr Patil is contemplating routes in two places – Lonavala and Mumbai. He sought approval from CMA (Comrades Marathon Association) to start his run at 5:30PM on Saturday to enable him to run in Lonavala. “ CMA replied saying that I can start my run at 1AM on Sunday. That does not work for Lonavala,” Dr Patil said. He will therefore be running in Mumbai. He has sought approval from local authorities in Mumbai to start his run at 1AM as there is a curfew from 9PM to 5AM due to the ongoing lockdown.

Manisha Srivastava (Photo: courtesy Manisha)

If all goes as planned, on Sunday, Dr Patil will commence his run from Gateway of India; move to Colaba, Metro Cinema, Mantrayala, NCPA, Babulnath and onward to Haji Ali, Worli Sea Face, Mahim, Bandra Sea Link toll naka, Mela junction at Worli and end the route at Shivaji Park. The distance required for the virtual event will be completed using repeated short loops within the larger route.

Gurgaon-based ultra-runner Manisha Srivastava has also opted for the 90 km distance for Sunday’s virtual race. She will be running inside her apartment – it is a fairly big one, and on the stairs of her building to accumulate the required elevation gain.

For the entire period of lockdown, she focussed on home-based workout and did not step out for a run. “ Until the lockdown was announced, I was training for Ultraman Canada,’’ she said. Confined to her apartment for the past two months, Manisha decided to do the virtual race as a means to reconnect with her training.

Ultraman Canada, originally slated to be held in July 2020, has been postponed to July 2021. Ultraman is a three-day triathlon stage race. The first day starts with a 10 km swim followed by a 145 km bike ride. The second day has a 275 km bike ride and on the third day there is an 84.4 km run. Each of the disciplines must be completed in 12 hours.

Update: Dr Anand Patil completed his 90 km run in 14 hours, two minutes and 32 seconds. Having secured permission from the authorities, he commenced his run at 12:05AM from Gateway of India. He finished the run well although Mumbai’s humid weather and heavy vehicular traffic did weigh him down. Manisha Srivastava completed her run in 11:29:45 hours. Running inside her house was a challenge as it caused the GPS device to work with a lag, she said. At last count over 300 people from India had registered to run the virtual Comrades Marathon. In all, some 43,000 people from all over the world, participated in the event.

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

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