Nihal Baig; from 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Two hours, 31 minutes and 33 seconds. In early March 2021 when Nihal Ahamad Baig topped the amateur segment of the year’s Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon (NDM) with said timing, it was an improvement in his personal best (PB) by approximately 16 minutes.

The last full marathon he had run was the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), where he covered the 42.2 km-distance in two hours, 47 minutes and 30 seconds to place ninth overall in the amateur category and second in his age group (18-24 years). That year the winner among amateur runners at TMM had clocked 2:32:57. Although the 2020 edition of TMM was held as scheduled in January, Nihal had to sit that one out owing to a shin injury. The marathon in Mumbai was followed by the one in Delhi (2020 NDM) wherein the overall winner among amateurs clocked 2:35:10. A triathlete with successful finishes at Ironman events to his credit, Nihal’s major objective for the year was to participate in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships scheduled for November in New Zealand. The project went for a toss, courtesy something tiny and as described in a 2008 article in Scientific American “ inhabiting the grey area between living and non-living’’ – a virus. Roughly two months after 2020 TMM and almost exactly a month after 2020 NDM, India slipped into lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As humans sheltered indoors, outdoor sports ground to a halt. Initially, it was a sense of abject gloom and plans upset for those into the active lifestyle. Then, a different script began to play out. Nihal’s year gone by – as one looks back from the 16 minute-improvement registered at 2021 NDM – appears to have followed that script.

“ During my B.Tech and M.Tech days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, I was part of the athletics team. I used to participate in races over distances ranging from 400 meters to 5000 meters. I finished my M.Tech in 2016. But I did not stop running. I continued it on the IIT Mumbai campus thanks to my being alumni. I moved to exploring longer distances, starting with half marathons. Around this time, I took up employment in Mumbai. I work as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc. I started cycling to work, a distance of about nine kilometers from where I stay. Over time, I started to go for long rides. At that time, I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. I was keen to explore it and began learning to swim. In October 2017, I did my first half Ironman distance-triathlon in Hyderabad. What attracted me to the triathlon was that I got to do three sports in it instead of the usual one. And triathlon is all about fitness and endurance. I love how I get to push myself in these three disciplines,’’ Nihal had said in an article for this blog in November 2019, soon after he placed second in Ironman 70.3 Goa.

Nihal Baig (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When lockdown unfolded in the first quarter of 2020, of the triathlon’s three disciplines, swimming went into profound hibernation as authorities ordered pools shut as part of pandemic protocols. For those pursing the sport as well as the triathlon, the closure of pools would have left a bank of energy to be addressed – namely divert it into other activities that were still possible. Nihal, restricted to the confines of his apartment, found his refuge in cycling. “ I am not generally a fan of intense training sessions. But in the first few months of lockdown when we all had to stay indoors, I did a lot of intense cycling on my trainer,’’ he said mid-March 2021, some ten days after NDM. Cycling is recognized cross-training for running. The hours spent on the home trainer, besides working the relevant muscle groups, contributed to improving cardio-vascular fitness. He also worked out at home to stay physically fit. Additionally, as the frenzied urban lifestyle slowed down with pandemic and Work from Home (WFH) took hold, there was both greater ownership of time, an improved sense of personal ecosystem and therein, the inadvertent use of such existence for general recovery by minds and bodies traditionally addicted to relentless activity. Downtime, rest, mindfulness – these things matter. Running is an impact sport. Cycling, pounds the joints less than running. The reduced impact of cycling suited Nihal who was recovering from shin injury. Slowly, the injury began to heal. Around end May-early June, he commenced regular jogging on a loop of roughly 1.5 kilometers, within the premises of his housing society in Powai, Mumbai. Thereafter it was a gradual drift back to the training of old albeit with no events on the horizon for focus.

Nihal Baig; cycling in Pune (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

“ Between swimming, cycling and running, I have always found running to be the most satisfying,’’ Nihal said. Given his last marathon had been in January 2019, he was keen to get back to running long distance. To satisfy the urge, he ran the virtual Boston Marathon in September 2020. He did this during a visit to Hyderabad, his hometown. Then he did something that fundamentally altered his training ecosystem. According to Nihal, he had all along been training alone in Mumbai. He wasn’t particularly attached to any group of runners or triathletes in the city. At the same time, he was aware of the need for a dose of intense training to improve his act and the deficit he experienced in this regard. Training with others can be helpful. The question was – how can he create an ambience offering better motivation; where would he find it? Nihal had noticed that intensity / commitment levels were more in Pune, Maharashtra’s second biggest city, approximately 150 kilometers away from Mumbai. With WFH rendering one’s location irrelevant when it came to office responsibilities, Nihal took advantage of the new trend to shift to Pune in October. There, training in the company of committed amateur athletes, his running and cycling gathered momentum. Two other things also influenced the decision. Thanks to its location at higher elevation (1840 feet / source: Wikipedia), Pune’s weather includes a winter. The place is generally less humid than Mumbai. Plus, its terrain is more varied than that of India’s financial capital; Nihal found himself cycling outdoors more often in Pune than he used to in Mumbai. “ Currently I have intense training sessions four days a week and long training sessions twice a week. I also do easy sessions in the evening. The training sessions are evenly divided between running and cycling,’’ Nihal said.

By late 2020-early 2021, as the first flush of pandemic subsided and lockdown rules relaxed, a trickle of sporting events reappeared in India and elsewhere in the world. Partial to running, Nihal itched to participate in a running event. He registered for the district cross-country championships in Pune; the race spanned 10 kilometers. Nihal secured third position, qualifying for the state championships (race length: 11km) in the process. At the latter, he failed to qualify for the nationals. But the timing from the district championships told him something – he covered the distance in 33 minutes, 29 seconds while his previous PB for the same distance was 35:30. “ I had the feeling that if I were to attempt a full marathon, I may be able to chop off eight to ten minutes from my PB. But it is difficult to extrapolate expectations for a marathon based on performance in a 10k. The marathon is four times longer, anything can happen,’’ he said. The cross-country experience of January 2021, encouraged Nihal to register for 2021 NDM. With an event to look forward to, he trained with greater focus from five to six weeks ahead of the competition. “ About 18 days before NDM I did a time trial over 25 kilometers. The timing I got in it was an hour and 28 minutes. I then felt that if all went well, aiming for 2:35 at NDM wouldn’t be unreasonable,’’ Nihal said.

Nihal Baig; on the podium after topping the amateur category at 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

On race day in New Delhi, he kept a conservative pace for the first six kilometers and then went slightly faster. “ I could catch the leaders around the 10k mark and then we started pushing each other till 30k before they began slowing down. I stuck with the same pace till 37k but then I got a bad cramp which forced me to stop. I had to stretch and walk for about 30-40 seconds before I could recommence running,” he said. He was able to hold on to his pace and finish ahead of others in the amateur category. The timing – 2:31:33 was an improvement in PB by 16 minutes; it also fetched a position on the podium.

When the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand was cancelled due to COVID-19, Nihal had opted for the event’s 2021 edition scheduled in Utah, USA. At that time, a year had seemed adequate for humanity to counter the virus. Early 2021; in hindsight, that smacked of over-optimism. With the world still in the clutches of the pandemic and international travel yet to become normal, Nihal is unsure whether he would be able to attend the event in Utah. Races closer to home appear more practical. “ I hope to participate in the 2021 TMM in May, if it is held as planned,’’ Nihal said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Nihal Baig, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/05/a-fine-bit-of-cycling-at-ironman-goa-and-a-podium-finish-to-remember-it-by/)


Amar Singh Devanda

Amar Singh Devanda, Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in 100km

Top four male finishers break existing 100km national best

Binay Sah, Deepti Chaudhary win 24-hour race

Amar Singh Devanda and Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in the men’s and women’s 100 kilometre-race respectively at the Tuffman 24 Hour Stadium Run held on March 13 and 14, 2021 in Chandigarh.

Amar Singh finished the distance in seven hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds, a new national best. The previous national best of 7:56:22 was held by Sandeep Kumar; set at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run at Bengaluru in January 2021. At the Chandigarh Stadium Run, the top four male finishers from the 100 km-race broke this national best.

Gorkha Ram

Finishing behind Amar Singh was Gorkha Ram with a timing of 7:40:55, followed by Sunil Sharma (7:47:19) and Suman Kumar Mishra (7:51:57). It was only last week that Amar Singh, who works with the Indian Air Force (IAF), had won the half marathon race at the 2021 Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon.

Amar Singh took up running at the age of 18, during his training days at IAF. However, he is a recent entrant to the discipline of ultra-running. A corporal in IAF, he started out tackling the 10 km-distance before commencing training for the marathon. The 24-year-old participated in a number of races organised by the Services. Closer to the present, he ran the 60 km ultra-race at Shivalik Ultra and the 100 km category at Border 100 2020, where he ended up winner with timing of 10:47:21. He also participated in the 100 km race at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held in Bengaluru in January 2021. “ I ran at marathon pace and burnt out. I finished the distance in 8:26 hours,” he said.

His coach from IAF, Thakur Singh Bajetha, advised him to reduce his pace for the Chandigarh run. “ Here, my target was to achieve a sub 8:10-finish. I reduced my pace and was able to run without any break till the end,” he said. This time around, his training, race strategy and nutrition were in properly place and it helped.

Darishisha Iangjuh and Gunjan Khurana

A week earlier, he had won the half marathon race at the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon 2021. Next on the cards for Amar Singh is the IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run to be held on March 21, 2021. He is part of the Indian team for this virtual run.

For Gorkha Ram, who finished second in the men’s 100 km race, the Chandigarh run was his first competition outside of events conducted by the Services. A sergeant in the IAF, Gorkha Ram commenced running in 2015 but stayed focussed on events within the armed forces. At Chandigarh, the 36-year-old runner ran alongside his compatriot Amar Singh.

In the women’s 100km-race in Chandigarh, Gunjan Khurana covered the distance in 9:08:18, an improvement on the previous national best of 9:22:03 set by Anjali Saraogi at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, in November 2019. Gunjan was also part of the team representing India at the event Jordan. The women’s team had secured silver at the championships. In second position behind Gunjan at Chandigarh, was Nutan with timing of 9:22:49. Darishisha Iangjuh finished third; her timing was 9:41:13. Darishisha’s previous best in the 100k was 10:19:28, also set in Jordan. 

Deepti Chaudhary (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A year of intensive training helped Gunjan achieve her new personal best (now also the national best). “ I was able to train well through the year. However, I had a setback in December when I contracted COVID-19. My entire family came down with the virus. After I recovered, I could not immediately resume intensive training,” Gunjan, a resident of Surat, said.

She did several training-runs of 30 and 40km coupled with strength workout. In terms of a really long run, she was able to do just one as she lost all of December to recuperating from the infection. “ At the Chandigarh race, I ran strong for the first 60-70km. Also, the weather was perfectly suited to push for better timing,” Gunjan said. Her previous best in 100 km was 9:57:42, set at the earlier mentioned championships in Jordan in 2019.

In Chandigarh, the 100 km-race commenced at 5PM on March 13. Weather was mostly pleasant but participants in the 24-hour race had to cope with warm weather during the day. In the 24-hour category for men, Binay Kumar Sah was the winner with distance of 236.919km covered. Saurav Ranjan finished second; he covered a distance of 225.14km while Rakesh Kashyap secured third position with 203.85km to his credit. Among women, Deepti Chaudhary covered a distance of 178.935km in the assigned 24 hours. Kalpana Saha finished second with a distance of 173.95km to her name while Shashi Mehta finished third, covering 172.59km.

Binay Kumar Sah (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A week before the 24-hour run in Chandigarh, Binay Sah ran the full marathon at the 2021 New Delhi Marathon (NDM); he finished with timing of 2:49:18. “ Much of my training was focussed on the 24-hour run. But after I did a long training run of 84 km on February 14, I switched to speed training for my marathon event at NDM. I reduced my weekly mileage, which was around 150-180km, to around 100 km, for the marathon,” he said. At the 24-hour run, his strategy was to run strong for the first 12 hours. “ My race started at 4PM. Until 8AM, I ran continuously as the weather was pleasant. Post 9AM and up to 1PM, I slowed down as it was quite warm. I took a short break and then picked up pace. During the last three hours, I resorted to fast paced running,” he said. According to him, in the last three hours, he covered a distance of 35 km.

Binay, 39, trains on almost all days. He employs a combination of running on track, road and mud. He couples this with yoga and gym training. An employee of Adidas, at the time of writing, he was working from office three days a week and working from home the remaining two days. “ Once I am back from work, I run for nearly two hours at a park or a stadium near my house. In the afternoons, I do yoga if I am at home and if I am at the office, I work out in my office gym,” he said.

In the 12-hour category in Chandigarh, the winner in the men’s segment was Ajay Yadav; he covered a distance of 114.12km. In second position was Abhishake Gupta (109.14km). Sushant (108.45km) placed third. In the women’s segment, Anshu Saini won covering a distance of 100.43km. Anjali (91.15km) finished second while Mamta Sharma (88.81km) placed third.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Photos by arrangement, where credits haven’t been mentioned.)


2021 NDM / Srinu Bugatha at the finish line (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

2021 New Delhi Marathon / Srinu Bugatha, Sudha Singh win

Elite runners Srinu Bugatha and Sudha Singh won the men’s and women’s race respectively at the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon (NDM) 2021 held on March 7, 2021. However, both runners fell short of the qualifying mark for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.

Srinu finished the marathon in two hours, 14 minutes and 58 seconds, a personal best (PB) according to published news reports, that was however short of both the Olympic qualification mark of 2:11:30 and the national record of 2:12:00. Shivnath’s Singh’s national record in the marathon was set way back in May 1978; it continues to daunt the best of Indian marathon runners. “ The race was good. I tried to go below 2:12 but in the end my wish was denied,’’ Srinu said, when contacted.

Sunday’s performance was after just three full marathons in Srinu’s career to date. According to him, the first big marathon he participated in was the 2018 Mumbai Marathon; two years later he won in the Indian elite men’s segment at the 2020 edition of the event. Roughly two months after that victory, India slipped into the lockdown caused by COVID-19. In the second half of 2020, as lockdown commenced easing, a trickle of road races trimmed to suit pandemic protocols, began to appear. At the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), held in November last year as an elites-only physical race, Srinu had finished second. Thereafter, he had focused on preparations for the 2021 NDM. On February 8, 2021, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) formally informed that the performance of athletes at 2021 NDM would be considered for selection / participation in the Tokyo Olympics “ provided they achieve the qualifying standard as fixed by World Athletics.’’ With a PB to his credit but Olympic qualification not had at 2021 NDM, Srinu now plans to run at least one more race overseas for another shot at the task. He has time till end-May to qualify.

2021 NDM / Sudha Singh at the finish line (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

From among elite women at 2021 NDM, Sudha Singh (2:43:41) secured the first place. But her timing was short of the Olympic qualifying mark for women – 2:29:30 as well as the national record of 2:34:43 set by O.P. Jaisha in August 2015. At 2021 NDM, second position in the elite men’s category went to Nitendra Singh Rawat (2:18:54); Rashpal Singh (2:18:56) finished third. In the elite women’s segment, second place was secured by Jyoti Gawate (2:58:22) while Jigmet Dolma (3:04:51) placed third. “ My training was inadequate because of the pandemic and lockdown. After the 30 kilometer-mark, I started to feel tired,” Jyoti who hails Parbani in Maharashtra, said when contacted. Her next race is the 2021 Tata Mumbai Marathon, slated for end-May. Jigmet, who is from Ladakh, said that Sunday’s race was good overall but an error she committed in her pacing cost her the timing she had hoped for. “ The weather, route and facilities – everything was good. I had set a target of finishing in below three hours. The race required us to do two loops of the assigned route. Unfortunately, I was a bit slow in the first loop. Although I did the second loop at the correct pace, it wasn’t enough to make up for the timing I lost,’’ she said.

In the half marathon category at 2021 NDM, Amar Singh Devanda was the winner with timing of 1:13:58. In second position was Dhananjay Sharma (1:15:33); third place went to Sangh Priya Gautam (1:16:35). The podium finishers among women in this category were Jyoti Chauhan (1:20:57) in first place, Pooja (1:28:39) in second and Tashi Ladol (1:30:13), third.

In the open category of the full marathon, Nihal Baig won the men’s race with timing of 2:31:33 while Nupur Singh won the women’s race covering the distance in 3:03:17. In the men’s race, Manoj Yadav finished second with timing of 2:33:25; Pramod Chahar (2:33:55) finished third. In the women’s open category, Prachi Raju Godbole finished second with timing of 3:03:44; Disket Dolma (3:18:56) placed third. Nupur’s timing of 3:03:17 was her personal best, an improvement by seven minutes. “ My training was good except in the last one month. The training helped me to do well today. Also, last week I had a focused nutrition plan. That helped me during the race as well as in the post-race recovery,” Nupur said.

IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run witnesses good performance by Indian ultra-runners

The IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run was held as scheduled on March 21, 2021.

The virtual run saw some good performances from Indian ultra-runners.

Sampath Kumar Subramanian covered the maximum distance among Indian runners chosen to participate in the event. He covered a distance of 81.98 kilometers in the stipulated six hours.

Velu Perumal, who won the 24-hour category at the NEB Sports Stadium Run held at Bengaluru in January 2021, covered a distance of 76.69 km. Amar Singh Devanda, who secured a national best in 100 km at the Tuffman Chandigarh Stadium Run held earlier in March 2021, covered a distance of 74.04 km.

Among women, Preeti Lala, winner of the 24-hour NEB Sports Mumbai Stadium Run, covered the maximum distance of 60.52 km. Ashwini Ganapathi covered 53.14 km distance during the stipulated period. Aparna Choudhary covered 51.06 km during the six-hour period.

Running at their respective locations, the participants dedicated the run to ultra-runner L.L. Meena, who passed away on February 10, 2021.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

BAA announces virtual Boston Marathon open to first 70,000 entrants

The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) has announced that it will offer a virtual Boston Marathon, open to everyone aged 18 or over, in celebration of the 125th Boston Marathon this fall. “ Held in addition to the in-person Boston Marathon scheduled for Monday, October 11, 2021, the virtual race will be open to the first 70,000 registrants,’’ a statement dated March 2, 2021, available on the event organizer’s website said.

“ We anticipate having a reduced field size for the in-person road race on Monday, October 11 but want to celebrate and honor the 125th running of the Boston Marathon through this virtual race,” Tom Grilk, President and CEO of BAA, was quoted as saying. “ For the first time in our history, most everyone will have the opportunity to earn a Unicorn finisher’s medal for every B.A.A. race in 2021—no matter whether they choose to walk or run,” he added. 

Registration for the virtual Boston Marathon will open through the BAA’s Athletes’ Village and will take place separately from the in-person registration. “ All participants will need to complete the marathon distance of 26.2 miles in one, continuous attempt in order to earn their Unicorn finisher’s medal, but will not be limited to any time restrictions. Participants in the virtual 125th Boston Marathon also will receive a virtual toolkit with an official bib number, champion’s breaktape, start and finish line, and more,’’ the statement said.

In 2020, 16,183 runners from nearly 90 countries and all 50 U.S. states had finished the Boston Marathon Virtual Experience.

According to the statement, field size for the in-person Boston Marathon, scheduled to take place on Monday, October 11, has not yet been finalized but will be smaller than previous years in order to enhance participant and public safety. “ The BAA will strive to achieve a field size composition as close to previous years as possible, with approximately 80% of the field being comprised of qualified entrants and 20% being comprised of invitational entries, including charity program runners. Details about the in-person race, including registration dates, COVID-19 safety measures, and participant requirements will be announced in the coming weeks,’’ it said.

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