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.
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.
“ 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.
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/)