2020 VIRTUAL LONDON MARATHON / THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For the virtual format of the 2020 London Marathon, 45,000 runners ranging in age from 18 to 87 had signed up to run at various locations worldwide. As per the commentary from the physical race held around St James Park in London, outside the UK, participation in the virtual run was highest in the US, Taiwan and Hong Kong. India too had its share of amateur runners who registered for the virtual run of October 4. We spoke to some of them – including those who had featured in an article on this blog ahead of the virtual run – on how things panned out.     

In Mumbai, Himanshu Sareen had initially planned to take the virtual London Marathon as a training run with no targeted timing in mind. He had done the virtual Boston Marathon, a little over a fortnight ago and it seemed apt not to push. But 10 kilometers into the run of October 4 he realized that he could push his pace in pursuit of a better timing. This time around, he started his run at around 5.40 AM, earlier than he had for the virtual Boston Marathon. Rains during the night and continuing drizzle that morning helped keep the weather pleasant.

Himanshu Sareen (Photo: Shweta Sareen)

“ I started at a slow pace because in my mind this was not a race. After the first 10 kilometers, I decided to increase my pace,” Himanshu said. For the first 18 kilometers he ran in a 500 metre loop and then expanded that to a loop of about one kilometer till the 26th kilometer. “ The stretch between 26 and 35 kilometers is often tough for me,” he said adding that he in this phase he stretched his loop to about 10 kilometers. This worked well for him and he was able to maintain a good pace throughout. His wife Shweta was the sole person providing support for his run; during the virtual Boston Marathon several other runners and the security staff of his apartment complex had pitched in to help with hydration.“ As I was not planning to run the virtual London Marathon like a race, I did not inform anyone,” he said.

Himanshu finished with a provisional timing of 2:52:35. Although tad short of his personal best, Himanshu believes this is his best performance in running, to date. He is now due to run the Virtual New York City Marathon. He may consider the option of traveling to New York to run this virtual marathon.

Kamalaksha Rao (Photo: courtesy Kamalaksha)

Elsewhere in the city, Kamalaksha Rao was attempting the virtual London Marathon after recovering from COVID-19 infection.  “ I started my run at 4.40 AM. It was raining quite heavily then. The weather stayed pleasant for some time but soon the heat and the humidity began rising,” the 73 year-old said. He ran the first half of the marathon and walked the next 21 kilometers. “ I had a target of finishing in eight hours. I finished in 7:20 hours,” he said.

Kamalaksha had placed water bottles for hydration at two places along the loop he had chosen to run on. He managed to hydrate but at some point during the virtual marathon he realized that one of the bottles had gone missing. Thankfully there were shops along the route where he could buy bottled water. “ It was a self-supported run. I had carried a bag. During the run, I had two gels and two nutrition bars,” he said. He plans to do recovery walks over the next few days.

Mahesh Bedekar (Photo: courtesy Mahesh)

In neighboring Thane, Dr Mahesh Bedekar opted to run the virtual London Marathon primarily as motivation to keep the momentum of his regular runs, going. A gynaecologist, who runs his own hospital in Thane, Mahesh has been running for the past seven years. He has participated in many marathons and half marathons. Along the way, he also did five of the six World Marathon Majors – Tokyo, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City. He is yet to do the Boston Marathon but has managed to qualify for the event, in his age group of 45-49 years.

“ Normally, one needs to put in four to five months of training to run a marathon. We had only about two and a half months of time to train for the virtual London Marathon,” Mahesh said. Striders, his marathon training group, offered him a training plan keeping in mind the limited time available. He was accompanied by six other runners for the virtual London Marathon. They chose to run the distance in Thane, which offers undulating terrain. “ We started at around 4.30 AM. The rain helped keep temperatures at bay for the initial 25 kilometers,” Mahesh said.

Support was arranged at every five kilometers with the runners who volunteered for the task also lending some cheering. Mahesh finished the run in 3:33:08. His personal best is 3:15. “ It is quite challenging to run a marathon without the normal elements of a race,” Mahesh said.

In Bengaluru, Bhadresh Shivashankar was happy with the route chosen for a small group of runners attempting the virtual London Marathon. “ The weather was good and Pacemakers had arranged for a cyclist to accompany each of the runners,” he said. Pacemakers is a Bengaluru-based marathon training group built around coach K.C. Kothandapani.

From left: Harish Vasista, coach K.C. Kothandapani (Pacemakers), Gauri Jayaram (Active Holidays), M.Nanjundappa, Anubhav Karmakar and Bhadresh Shivashankar (Photo: courtesy Bhadresh)

The runners commenced their run at 5 AM. “ I managed well for the first 30 kilometers but the final stretch was tough,” Bhadresh said. He finished his run in 4:47:16. Running alongside was M. Nanjundappa, one of Bengaluru’s best amateur runners. Nanjundappa finished his run in 2:37:10, data on the London Marathon website showed.

Harish Vasista also ran the virtual London Marathon at the same venue. “ My running went as per plan. I started my run at 5.30 pace and then improved it slightly, on and off, till around 30 kilometers. Thereafter, my pace eased a bit,” he said. Harish finished his marathon in 3:48:11. He appreciated the support for the runners provided by Pacemakers and Active Holidays.

The physical race of the 2020 London Marathon – as held in the British capital – was restricted to elite athletes. It was only the second World Marathon Major (of the six in that league) being held this year; the rest got cancelled owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed a fallout of the pandemic has been the widespread cancellation of city marathons. In Mumbai, Kranti Salvi and her husband Pramod Salvi opted to run the virtual London Marathon as a means to stay motivated in times with no mass participation events. “ We had originally registered for the 2020 edition of the London Marathon and booked our hotel and air tickets. It was postponed to October and later the organizers converted the race for amateurs into a virtual event. That’s when we decided to register for the virtual version,” Kranti said.

Kranti and Pramod Salvi (sporting bibs on their T-shirts) with friends, Abbas Sheikh and the policeman who flagged off their run (Photo: Tashi Ongya)

The duo’s plan was to commence the run at 4.30 AM on October 4, 2020. They woke up to find heavy rains; the forecast indicated that the showers would continue for a few hours. “ We had made a lot of preparations for the run. We had printed banners and posters. Some friends were to come and cheer us as well,” she said. Kranti and Pramod decided to cancel the plan to run the marathon in the morning. Instead, they decided to give it a go in the evening.

“ By evening, I was quite tired from household work. We started the run at 5.30 PM from the NCPA end of South Mumbai’s Marine Drive promenade,” Kranti said, adding, “ we were a group of 4-5 runners at the start point. We decided to ask a policeman to flag off our run.” Their route was mostly along Marine Drive up to Chowpatty. Kranti wanted to do one loop across to Gateway of Mumbai. “ It was difficult running in the evening. Marine Drive was crowded. There were many people, children jumping and playing across the entire stretch. The weather was warm and humid and the air quality was bad,” Kranti said. Marathon runner Abbas Sheikh ran the entire distance with her. As per data on the London Marathon website, Kranti finished her run in 4:37:39 and Pramod in 5:31:08.

From left: Pawan Punjabi, Girish Bindra and Yash Shekatkar (Photo: courtesy Girish)

At its height, the lockdown in Mumbai had been quite strict. It was prolonged in some areas. For those returning to running after the consequent disruption to training, it meant that mileage build-up had to be done slowly. When lockdown measures commenced easing, Girish Bindra and his team of runners were in the process of slowly enhancing mileage when they learnt of the virtual London Marathon. “ On August 10, 2020, we registered for the virtual London Marathon. We had all of five weeks to train and that included the tapering period,” Girish – he is also a coach for Asics Running Club (ARC) – said. Joining him for the virtual run were Pawan Punjabi and Yash Shekatkar.

Soon after registering for the run, they stepped up their training. Still the preparation fell short of the ideal training required for a marathon. “ Although, it was a crunched training plan, there was a lot of learning in those five weeks,” Pawan said. According to Yash, on the Friday before the date of the virtual London Marathon (October 4, 2020) they finalized the route – it would be as loops on the service road that runs parallel to the city’s Eastern Express Highway.

On race day, the trio was to start the run at 4.30 AM. Unfortunately, there was heavy and it prompted them to delay their start. “ Eventually, we began our run at 4.55 AM. The downpour resumed and along the route there was much water logging,” Girish said. “ Within the first 45 minutes of the run, our shoes were soaking wet,” Yash added. However, the rain progressively eased off and thereafter the weather stayed pleasant.

From the virtual run; Arun Nambiar (on cycle), Harish Salian and Girish Bindra (Photo: courtesy Girish)

Many of the runners of ARC chipped in to assist the three runners. “ Support from our runner friends was incredible. At every three kilometers, we had access to sports drinks, salts and dates among others. The support and cheering were very well planned,” Pawan said. “ They also arranged for breakfast besides tea and coffee at the end of the run,” Girish said adding that all the safety norms pertaining to the pandemic were followed. Cyclist Arun Nambiar accompanied the three runners throughout on his cycle to lend support. Further, fellow runner Harish Salian ran the entire distance of the marathon as support, Girish said.

Girish finished his run in 4:03:48, Pawan in 3:59:08 and Yash in 3:58:51. For Yash, the timing he got in the virtual London Marathon was a personal best. Pawan fell tad short of his personal best of 3:54:51 set at the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon but is happy to have managed a sub-four-hour finish as he was returning to running after a shin splint problem. The trio will now attempt the half marathon distance in the virtual events of the Chicago Marathon, Amsterdam Marathon and New York City Marathon.

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

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