Nadeem Khan, president, International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nadeem Khan is the president of International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). Over July 2-3, 2022, India hosted its first IAU event – the IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships. During his visit to Bengaluru in connection with the championships, Nadeem spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:  

How has the pandemic affected the world of ultrarunning and how is the recovery panning out?

It has affected quite a bit. Speaking from the point of view of the IAU, we did not have championships for two straight years. We don’t like cancelling events but it was important to cancel in these times given what the world was going through. And also, for the safety of athletes, officials and federations. Its bouncing back now. This event in Bengaluru is the first one we are hosting after the pandemic. So, it’s a big event for us. As you can see, some of the countries are not here because they are not allowed to travel right now or they have huge quarantines when they go back. As the year goes on, I am hoping that the world is going to open up a lot more. We are going to see a lot more athletes come back. A lot of the races under our labelling have started going back out again. They have begun organizing races and all of them are suffering from numbers because the athletes do not feel comfortable going out and running.  The hope is – as the year goes by, things are going to open up a little bit more and more athletes are going to start participating in these events.

In the early stages of recovery, one would assume there would be challenges in qualifying for events owing to the shortage of races….

Qualification is handled by the national federations. Every country has its own qualifying standards, whether it’s the time frame they will go back to or the performances; the minimum distances and times they will accept. I am sure some of the federations have made some allowances when it comes to that just because of the lack of events out there. It’s up to national federations to decide that.

Has the two years of pandemic and issues like long COVID, altered the traditional views we have on entry level fitness for sports requiring extreme endurance? Is there a case to revisit the established benchmarks?

A lot of our runners took a back seat and said, our health is important (much like people who had had previously taken their visits to the physician lightly, changed their approach due to the pandemic); let me re-evaluate my life and see where I am at. So, we see a lot of people re-evaluating where they are. I know most of them are aching to come back on the roads and start running ultras and things like that. We as an organization, just had our first online medical seminar. It was held a couple of months back. We got good participation. It was all about exercise, health, fitness, shoes – things on those lines. It was really critical that we put something out there particularly during the pandemic times. Hopefully, once the pandemic settles down, we can talk more about it and do some research seminars. So, I will say: to be continued, for that? (Nadeem said, issues like long COVID does interest as potential topics of research for in the end, “ lungs are a very important part of this sport.’’)

What is your take on India’s performance in ultrarunning? It is not long since the country became a member of the IAU.

I have seen ultrarunning in India from its infancy. I was there when they joined the IAU, I was there when they came to their first championship and I am here when they are organizing the first championship in India! So, it’s been interesting to see how they progressed over the years. One of the main things I have seen is the changed performance level and the perception of the selectors on how they pick their athletes. We got two very, very close events now – between the 24-hour continental championships here and the 100K world championships and one of your top runners, who is a 240K in the 24-hours is also your best 100K runner. But they picked him to run here. So, its strategy. Because there are chances of getting a medal here. They brought their best team out. So, the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) and other selectors are applying that mindset, which they usually adopt for track and field athletics. That is nothing but the very best for ultrarunning.

You have disciplines like the 100K and the 24-hour race which make ultrarunning containable in a certain sense and at the same lend themselves for potential inclusion in large sporting events like the Olympics. Is it something that the IAU is thinking of – would you like to see disciplines of this sort featured in the Olympics at some point?

That has always been the game plan. I have been on the council since 2008. Prior to being President of IAU I was the Director of Communications for eight years. Yes, the goal is always to be in the Olympics but we are also very mindful about which event has to go to the Olympics. It has to be media-savvy, it has to be popular, it has to grab attention. The media wants events that will cater to a worldwide audience. We feel that trail may be a very good option for that. We have combined forces with World Athletics and ITRA, the trail running organisation and WMRA (World Mountain Running Association). We are putting up a trail championship together, which this year happens to be in Thailand. World Athletics is going to be part of it. We hope that this will be the stepping stone in taking an ultrarunning event into the Olympics. The other events we have are the road events, track events such as 24-hour, 100K and 50K. Any one of these can also make it to the Olympics but just now we are hopeful that trail makes it. It is still a work in progress. We are a lot closer to it now than we were previously. There is still quite a bit of work to do to get into the Olympics.

From your standpoint how do you see the distinction between the marathon and the ultramarathon. Geographies that have traditionally birthed marathoners don’t seem to churn out ultramarathoners. The latter currently hail from various other parts of the world…

That’s great, isn’t it? That’s the inclusiveness of the sport. The ultramarathon is not exclusive to any area. My goal as president of IAU has always been to take the sport where it is not present. I would not have come to India if the bid (for the championship in Bengaluru) wasn’t good. The bid was excellent. Taking the sport to a new geography is also developing the sport. Though there is only an eight kilometre-difference between a marathon and an ultramarathon of 50 kilometres, they are miles apart when it comes to the popularity of the sport and things on those lines. The reason we started with the 50K is that we wanted to offer a launching pad, something for marathoners who were done with their marathon careers and wanted to move into something different and be competitive. We see a lot of African nations joining this discipline. The current record for 50K in both the genders are held by athletes from South Africa. There are some very fast events over there. Next year’s world championships in the 50K is being held in South Africa. I am hoping that’s going to jumpstart the sport in the continent. But there have been some amazing events there including the Comrades and the Two Oceans. I am hoping that the upcoming world championships will take the sport to a new level.

Right now, what are the priorities before IAU regarding the sport?

First is to get back safely after the pandemic. That’s a huge concern right now. At the end of the day, IAU events are organized by the community; we are very athlete-centric. So, we want to make sure that they get the platform they deserve in a safe and secure manner. Second, we want to develop the sport. We are organizing events on different continents and the goal is to continue that trend. We had an initiative some time back, wherein we took the sport to many parts of the world. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the momentum stopped. But we are picking up where we stopped and we are building that out again. The third goal is – how we get into the Olympics. Its not an immediate goal, it is an ongoing one. The upcoming trail championships will be a good testament on how our past efforts have worked out and where we can go in the future.

From day 1 of the IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru; elites on the inside track. This photo was clicked just after the competition formally commenced (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Years ago, the sprint events used to be the central piece of running at major events like the Olympics. Now with the likes of Eliud Kipchoge around, the marathon has emerged as a fantastic showpiece of running. Sustaining oneself at speed for that much time and over that much distance is no small matter. Somebody like Aleksandr Sorokin is redefining the paradigm further by taking on traditionally held times in the 100K. Do you think that these endurance events have come to represent running better than the sprint events of yore?

It’s an age-old question, right? Its about the time. Back in the days, you had people like Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson – it was exciting watching them. I grew up watching them. I am not saying, that isn’t exciting anymore; it is super exciting. I have been at world championships where Usain Bolt’s race is going to happen and the stadium just fills up like crazy. Its exciting to see those athletes sprint across the line. And then, Eliud Kipchoge – how many of us were glued to the TV when he was breaking the two hour-barrier, right? It’s all about the time. I am sure if Usain Bolt were to step back on the track, some of the attention would be diverted that side. With our events, the interest has to be there for a longer period of time. Aleksandr Sorokin is friend of mine; I have seen him grow over the years as an athlete. I don’t think I have ever come across an ultra-athlete, who is redefining the sport like him. I mean, you can imagine someone break the record in the 24 hours; you can imagine someone else breaking the record in the 100K. You can never imagine the same person holding both the world records. He is really redefining the sport. He is putting our sport in the spotlight. People are going to take an interest in it. They are interested in what the human body can accomplish. (Nadeem also pointed out that what Sorokin is doing will inspire other athletes to try the same resulting in an ambiance in which they push each other to greater levels of performance. He sees growing the sport globally without it losing its intrinsic camaraderie and sense of community as among his goals, going ahead.)       

Ultrarunning is a very participatory sport. If you want to understand the mechanics and taste the experience, then, you have got to try the sport yourself. From an IAU point of view which would be the greater priority — taking the sport towards a structured ascent like going to the Olympics or popularising it laterally, gifting it a greater following?

If I was a wishful man, if I could be offered anything in the world, I would ask – why can’t I have both? Why can’t I go up and go lateral as well? It is true that it is getting to be a very popular sport. I find that they go hand in hand. If it becomes popular, people are going to take note and ask what is ultrarunning and how can we incorporate it into our mainstream athletics? I will use 50K as an example. We started with the world trophy races, wherein we had a bunch of races across the world. Then we had a final race in one location where all these winners from different races, ran. Six or seven years ago, we felt, this format is not working as we want it to but we have brought the sport to where we wish it to be. So, why not make it into 2world championships standard? Now, we have world championships in 50K. World Athletics has begun recognising the record in 50K as a world record. Same thing goes the other way around. If it grows vertically and gets into the Olympics, a lot more people would wish to participate.  

There was a mention that India may want to bid for the World Championships. Are there any criteria that countries like India need to satisfy?

I am here, participating in these championships but I am also an observer to see what is the potential of this sport in this country. That’s important because the support needs to grow worldwide and to grow it in a place like India where the population is pretty huge and people are getting involved into healthy lifestyle – that will be amazing. We are coming back here for the 100K Asia and Oceania Championships and in the meantime, we are going to evaluate this championship. I am going to have some discussions with AFI and NEB Sports and see where we can take this sport in this country. Obviously at this juncture we don’t have a bid or anything but it’s a discussion we need to have. From what I have seen so far, it’s been a great experience.

Between the Asia & Oceania Championships and the World Championships would it be required for India to host any intermediate championships to reach that level?

Absolutely not. We do ask the federations to organise at least a continental championship to get that experience but it is a recommendation rather than a mandatory requirement. If India puts an application forward it will be exciting. We will definitely look at it and see how we can evaluate it and develop the sport.

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

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