Gitanjali finishes fourth in her age category
The 2022 edition of Comrades Marathon was held in August.
The ultramarathon, held annually in South Africa, was happening after a gap of two years lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Participation of Indian long-distance runners in the event, has been increasing over the past few years. This year’s race was downhill starting from Pietermaritzburg and ending at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. The ultramarathon, measuring approximately 90 kilometres, usually alternates between uphill and downhill routes. This year’s downhill route measured 89.895 km.
Thane-based Gitanjali Lenka was the fastest finisher from among Indian women runners in 2022. Kartik Joshi from Indore was the fastest male finisher from India.
Gitanjali,50, finished the race in eight hours, 52 minutes and 58 seconds. This makes her the second fastest finisher among Indian women in the years since Indians began appearing at this ultramarathon. In June 2017, Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had completed the ultramarathon in 8:38:23, the fastest time yet by an Indian woman.
Among Indian men, Kartik Joshi was the fastest finisher this year with a timing of 7:51:56. He is the third fastest finisher among Indian male runners so far. Sandeep Kumar of Surat is the fastest finisher yet, having covered the course in 7:30:17 in the 2018 edition. Deepak Bandbe, the second fastest finisher, completed the race in 7:43:34 in 2019.
Besides the time she clocked, Gitanjali was also the fourth finisher in her age category of 50 to 59 years. She missed her age category-podium by a small margin. This was Gitanjali’s second outing at the Comrades Marathon. In 2019, she finished in 11:36:16 hours. The nearly three-hour improvement in her timing comes after a rigorous training schedule set for her by her coach, Ashok Nath.
Gitanjali attributed the improvement in her timing to her coach Ashok Nath’s training and nutrition methods. “ I followed my coach’s plan very meticulously. I could sense the difference between 2019 and this year, when I stood at the start line of Comrades. Back then, I was clearly nervous,” she said.
There were days when she would step out for a training run in the bright sunshine and growing heat of mid-morning as she had to complete her responsibilities at home. Through the lockdown of pandemic when many runners took a break from running, Gitanjali continued her training relentlessly.
She enrolled with Ashok Nath in February 2019, a few months before her first attempt at Comrades. A gritty runner, the main focus in Gitanjali’s training was to get her fit, Ashok said. “ For an ultramarathon, the reason for running such long distance is critical to keep going when the body says: stop. Getting Gitanjali to understand her purpose or reason was a focal point in the training,” he said.
“ Cardio is over-rated in an ultra and most err on the side of overdoing it. It is equally sheer fitness and mental strength that are crucial,” Ashok explained. In the three years of Gitanjali’s training – the intervening years between her first and second outing at Comrades – these two elements, fitness and purpose, were incorporated well, he added.
Gitanjali’s journey in running commenced in 2016 when she signed up for Hiranandani Thane Half Marathon. The run is held annually at the Hiranandani residential colony where Gitanjali resides. “ A couple of my friends would go for this run every year. I decided to sign up for the 2016 edition, choosing the 10 km distance. I had no clue about running or its attire,” she said. Gitanjali finished the run in 1:19:11. At the end of the run she realized that she finished easily without any strain despite the absence of any training while many others were “ huffing and puffing at the finish line”. Two months later, she signed up for another 10 km race, finished within one hour and landed on the podium.
She has found herself on the podium quite a few times since.
Prior to 2016, barring the occasional sports day outing while at school and college in Cuttack, Odisha, Gitanjali had not been involved in sports formally. But she was always focused on fitness through the years of her college life, marriage and later as a mother of two children.
Once she took to running seriously, she signed up with coach Haridasan Nair for training. During the many running events she attended thereafter, Gitanjali began familiarizing herself with details of the sport. Among other things she heard of Boston Marathon and the stringent qualifying timing required for the race.
Gitanjali had started running ultramarathons without actually running a marathon in a formal sense. Her running is marked by many podium finishes but along the way she was dogged by injury forcing her to pause her running for some time until she recovered from it.
Her training for Comrades 2022 commenced in April. “ I would wake up at 3:30 AM and get out at 4:30 for the training run. Initially, I stuck to a one-kilometre loop until daylight appeared and then stretched the loop as per my plan for the day,” she said. Her training included two days of strength workout. Her weekly mileage during the months of May, June and July was in the range of 150-160 km. “ In August, the focus was on speed running,” she said.
Comrades done; she is slated to go for the 2022 Berlin Marathon later in September. As for the Boston Marathon, having qualified for it, she is scheduled to participate in the 2023 edition of the race in April next year. “ I would love to focus on ultra-running as ultras are my preferred distance,” she said adding that she, would however like to complete her pursuit of the World Marathon Majors.
For Kartik Joshi, the 2022 Comrades was his first international running event. He had a comfortable run for much of the 89.895 km-long course in South Africa. “ I found the last 10 km quite tough. The wind was quite strong,” he said. He had a tough time on the nutrition front as he is vegetarian. “ Going forward I will have to figure out my nutrition if I am going to be running international events,” he said.
Twenty-year-old Kartik started running during his senior school days. “ During my school days I would often see the personnel at the Rustamji Armed Police Training College in Indore. I was inspired, seeing them run,” he said.
Seeing the police personnel run, Kartik was prompted to attempt running himself. “ On the first day I ran about 500 metres and spent the rest of the hour watching runners. A few of them were running slow but they kept going for a long time,” he said adding that he eventually chose to run long distances.
Kartik took up running in a serious fashion at the age of 15 and over the past five years have participated in a number of half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons. The ultramarathons that Kartik participated include Hennur Bamboo Ultra 250 km, 12-hour and 24-hour stadium runs, Backyard Ultra and Malnad Ultra.
He lost a year at school after his father Om Prakaesh Joshi went into coma due to health problems. Further in 2021, Kartik had to take up a job midway through his college education after his father suffered a heart attack. At 20, he is in the process of completing his degree and attempting an entry into the armed forces.
(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)