“ THE SATISFACTION IS BEYOND MEASURE”

Geeno Antony (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A morning in late September, social media indicated that Geeno Antony was in Thiruvananthapuram.

Two days later, I found myself waiting for him at a small café close to the city’s Raj Bhavan (governor’s residence). In the months following lockdown and pandemic, the café had become favourite meeting place for my friends and I (when I was in town). We were the odd lot; on the wrong side of age in a clientele dominated by college students. On the other hand, the oddness didn’t matter. The need to hang out and converse over coffee isn’t the birth right of any one demographic. So, there I sat, waiting for the best ultra-runner from Thiruvananthapuram yet.  

While his periodic podium finishes saw Geeno mentioned on this blog from a couple of years ago, my first meeting with this athlete from the Indian Army was in July 2022, at the IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru. Part of the Indian men’s team, which took gold at the event, Geeno had placed third in the individual category covering 238.977 kilometers in the assigned 24-hour period (that’s more than the distance from Kerala’s capital city to its commercial capital, Kochi). When the competition concluded (Amar Singh Devanda of India who ran 257.62 kilometers was overall winner), it was a sight very different from the usual city marathons. Exhaustion was writ large on the face of most athletes. Some couldn’t stand up and had to be wheeled in on wheelchairs or supported by others for the short walk to the podium. Notwithstanding battered body, there were smiles. It’s the one thing the universe promises distance runners – after all the sweat and hardship, there is an enjoyable peace. In that lot of tired, happy people, was Geeno. Cheering him were his wife and parents.

Born in Chalakkudy in central Kerala, Geeno grew up at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram. Thumba is close to the sea. It is flat terrain although the city of Thiruvananthapuram nearby, built on seven hills, sports plenty of uphill and downhill. The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), part of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is located in Thumba, its presence marked for years by the weekly launch of a sounding rocket. Geeno’s parents are speech and hearing-impaired. Both father and mother were into sports. Within their category of physical challenge, they did well in sports. His father played table tennis while his mother captained the state volleyball team for the speech and hearing-impaired.

Thanks to his track record in sports, Geeno’s father could secure employment at ISRO. The job provided the family, quarters to stay in and Geeno, a school to study at. The boy was active in sports and by the time he reached eleventh standard had begun to show promise in athletics and games. He went for competitions within the world of CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) schools. An early sign of potential was when he topped Thiruvananthapuram district in 2000m, for boys under 16 years of age.  On another instance, he topped the state in 1500m. But at the subsequent nationals, he failed to secure podium position. While in the eleventh standard he attended trials at the local arm of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). He was selected for training but couldn’t do justice to it because he was doing too many things at school, ranging from an interest in dance to being part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC).

In the twelfth standard, Geeno secured a second place at state level in the 1500m but like before, returned empty handed from the nationals. Following school, he joined St Xavier’s College in Thumba to do his graduation in physics. He played basketball and handball. Within a year of being at college, he applied to join the army. Based on his success in the selection process plus his NCC background, he was drafted into the Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (EME) arm of the Indian Army. Thumba gave way to Bhopal; that was the location for soldier’s training.

Shortly after reporting to Bhopal, Geeno was selected to play basketball at the company level. But it was a case of limited progress thereafter. He lacked the height to tackle further competition in basketball. Ability at sports is valued in the army, especially against the backdrop of contests between the army’s units. Following that lack of progression in basketball, Geeno got selected for cross-country running, hockey and handball. Upon the first half of his training concluding in Bhopal, he was shifted to Vadodara. Once the whole period of training was over, he received his first posting – it was to Allahabad. The day after he reported, he ran his first cross-country race there and ended up first. Then like before, the circulation through various games for company’s prestige, commenced.

Geeno Antony (Photo: courtesy Geeno)

Amidst this, noticing his performance in cross-country, Geeno’s colleagues suggested that he try his hand at training to be a paratrooper. Consequently, in May 2013, he reported at the relevant training centre in Agra for selection. A battery of tests spread over a month, followed. He cleared most of them but couldn’t clear the one in which he had to perform with maximum load. Plus, he did well in cross-country. A second chance to get through the tests he didn’t clear, was offered. He cleared all except one. Unfortunately, a further attempt wasn’t possible because it was time to pack up and return.

“ I took this reversal in fortunes rather badly,’’ Geeno said. In the army, living up to expectations and the goals one sets for oneself, matter. He felt that he had let himself and his colleagues, down. A phase of disinterest in sports and a degree of self-neglect crept in. Things changed a bit, when he was transferred from Allahabad to Dibrugarh. Compared to Allahabad, Dibrugarh was away from India’s hustle and bustle. Slowly Geeno got back to running. It was difficult. “ Even one to two kilometres of running felt tough,’’ he said of the climb back from a depressing phase. But luck continued to dodge him. He applied for selection to the National Security Guard (NSG). They didn’t have any vacancy. In due course, Geeno moved within the EME, to Nashik. Here, his fortunes improved.  To begin with, he found that he could get time to train. Courtesy his colleagues, Subedar J. N. J. Charles and Havildar K. B. Reddy, who were into cycling and distance running, he got introduced to the marathon.

Well, introduced isn’t the correct word. It was more of a revisit. In the past, soon after he completed twelfth standard, Geeno had attended long distance races in Kottayam and Kochi. He also did a half marathon from Neyyattinkara to Thiruvananthapuram and while in college, had placed seventh in the Kerala University’s cross-country competition. In Nashik, he placed second in the defence category in the half marathon he participated in (it was otherwise a civilian event). He took one hour, 25 minutes to cover the distance. Taking note of the performance, his company gave him permission to attempt another half marathon in Aurangabad. But there he finished in “ seventh or eighth’’ spot. In January 2019, Geeno ran his first full marathon in Nashik and finished nineteenth with timing of three hours, 13 minutes. This was followed by a first place in the Golden Peak Half Marathon, a 22 kilometre-run up the hill called Ponmudi near Thiruvananthapuram. In February 2019, he tried his hand at the Deccan Ultra but lost his way on the trails and came off, a Did Not Finish (DNF). However, he didn’t lose hope. He registered for the 2019 Hennur Bamboo Ultra in Bengaluru. It set him up to try running 100 kilometres.

One of the things Geeno lacked from school to Hennur, was proper training. He also missed having a good coach. In the army, he would get help from his colleagues. But mostly, he was on his own. The abrupt transitions reveal it. He didn’t think much about jumping from 21K to 42K, a transition amateur runners spend a great deal of time, training for. Similarly, he didn’t think deeply about moving from 42K to 100K. He just dove into the opportunity. “ I was unaware of the correct training methods,’’ Geeno said. To prepare for the race in Hennur, in addition to whatever regular running he did, he added a couple of 40K runs. As things turned out, Geeno finished first in the 100K at Hennur. Eventually, the Hennur run became important for another reason as well. It was here that Geeno got to know of stadium runs and the upcoming stadium run in Mumbai organized by NEB Sports.

Geeno and two colleagues from the army decided to try the 12 hour-category in the stadium run. They had two months to prepare. The outcome was encouraging. In Mumbai, Geeno placed first in the 12 hour-category for men. He covered 109 kilometres in the allotted time. One thing leads to another. At the event he met Sunil Chainani and Nagraj Adiga, both closely associated with the selection and grooming of Indian ultra-running teams. They told him of the upcoming selection for the 100K team scheduled to participate in the Asia & Oceania Championships due in Jordan. To be eligible for consideration, Geeno would need to run 100 kilometres in nine hours. It required training. To his great luck and joy, his commanding officer in Nashik comprehended Geeno’s need. Col Joshi made sure that Geeno was transferred to Secunderabad, where EME had its base for sports. But there was a problem and it is something many ultra-runners in India talk of.

Ultra-running is not an Olympic sport yet. Because of this, it escapes the attention of those putting together specialized training programmes for various disciplines. Such efforts in distance running typically favour the long-established middle-distance races and the marathon. They are firmly Olympic and therefore supported by sports organizations, sponsors and the government, as regards focused training. Although its distances exceed that of the marathon and an ultramarathon entails much effort by the runner, it is not awarded the importance it deserves. It is a victim of the distortion in perception, excessive emphasis on the Olympics causes.

Notwithstanding the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) setting up a committee to oversee the sport in India, compared to other disciplines in running, the ultra-marathon exists a bit of an orphan. Further city marathons have spread awareness of the marathon far and wide. People know what it is. But an ultra-marathon (as athletes themselves told this blog) may still be greeted with questions from the public asking about its purpose. Why do you run 100 kilometres? What do you get out of it? – such questions nowadays spared for the marathon, haunt the ultra-marathon.

Geeno Antony; from the 2022 IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships (Photo: courtesy Geeno)

When Geeno arrived in Secunderabad with preparation for the ultra-marathon in mind, the bulk of local training in athletics was focused on the middle-distances and the marathon. He had two weeks to prepare for the Indian team-selection in the 100K. Physical training is only one element of the ultra-marathon; there is in addition, mental training and aspects like nutrition. He designed his training as best as he could. On the day of the run for team selection, nutrition felled him – a few hours into the event, he ate something inappropriate and his stomach went for a toss. Geeno was forced to seek a second chance. Then, post-medication and availing the second chance, he ran for 12 hours covering 126 kilometres. What’s 12 hours and 126 kilometres doing here when the goal was to cover 100 kilometres in nine hours? – you may ask. Geeno explained: the 12-hour run was availed as part of three options offered that year to gain eligibility for potential selection. The options were: completing The Comrades Marathon (it is actually an ultramarathon of 89 kilometres) in South Africa in a certain time, managing 100K in nine hours and covering more than 120 kilometres in 12 hours. Roughly three weeks after he gained the above said eligibility, Geeno ran the Hyderabad Marathon and finished first in the open category with timing of two hours, 57 minutes. Then, excited at the possibility of going abroad as part of an Indian team, he busied himself acquiring a passport. Unfortunately, even as he gained eligibility to be considered for the Indian team, he didn’t get selected because there were others with better performances to their credit. But Geeno didn’t give up.

Something about how he fared during the 12 hour-run told him that a 24-hour run wouldn’t be too great a stretch to attempt. As before, he didn’t think. “ Had there been somebody to advise me, I wouldn’t have increased the challenge levels so fast,’’ Geeno said. On the bright side, despite such jerky transitions, he hasn’t sustained any injury. In February 2020 with a view to chasing a place in the Indian team in the 24-hour category, he participated in the Tuffman stadium run in Chandigarh. Eligibility to be considered for the team was set at 205 kilometres. Geeno did 209 kilomteres to place third in the stadium run. But then, the Asia & Oceania Championships in the discipline scheduled to be held in Bengaluru was cancelled due to the onset of COVID-19. There was no Indian team to submit eligibility to. Worse, the pandemic spelt cancellation of events across the board. Worldwide running slipped into the grips of a great slow down. It would take the sport, a few months to get moving again; normalcy was a long way off.

In July 2020, Geeno got married to Josmy Joesph, who has a background in sports. In school she had been a race-walker. By the time she was working with sports goods retailer Decathlon in Kochi, she had successfully transitioned her competence in race-walking to long distance running. She had settled into the half marathon as her chosen discipline and was once a podium finisher (second place) in the open category in Kochi’s annual Spice Coast Marathon. According to Josmy who now works as a fitness trainer, in her days of peak performance, she could manage a half marathon in an hour and 30 minutes.

Roughly six months after his marriage and still pursuing his dream of being in the Indian team, in January 2021, Geeno participated in the 24-hour category at a NEB stadium run in Bengaluru. He logged 219 kilometres and placed second. But any further leveraging of the performance for prospective place in an Indian team stood diminished as the World Championship due in Romania was first postponed due to the pandemic and later, cancelled. Yet another avenue to be in the team, opened up through hard work, appeared shut.

Not one to give up, at the next 24-hour stadium run of August, Geeno ran 227 kilometres. This time, his luck held. He was accepted into the Indian team for the 2022 IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships. He had adequate time to prepare for the event slated to be held in July 2022. Training largely on his own, he structured the first phase of his training around inputs gathered from YouTube. For the second half, he also gathered inputs from colleagues and fellow runners. At the end of the IAU competition in Bengaluru, with a third place on the podium earned, he must have been happy. The road leading to that podium finish had been a long struggle.

“ People ask me – why do you do this? Why do you run such long distances? All I can say is – the satisfaction you get is beyond measure,’’ Geeno said. The search for a purpose in running amuses him. “ Why do you do this? What do you get out of it? These are the questions bothering everyone. The questions based on which anything gets done,’’ he said laughing about the human obsession with reward. For most of us, satisfaction it would seem, counts low as reward. Promise of money, fame, promotion at job – they count. Coffee and chat done, we split for the day. Geeno and his scooter, disappeared into Thiruvananthapuram’s evening traffic.

Geeno with his parents and wife Josmy at the 2022 IAU 24H Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two weeks later, we were at his house near Nehru Junction in Thumba. It is a locality changed initially by the establishment of VSSC nearby and subsequently, by the ascent of Thiruvananthapuram’s IT industry in Kazhakkoottam, part of the region’s extended neighbourhood. A balcony, two cups of Kashmiri kahwa tea, a clutch of cookies and a conversation featuring neither rocketry nor information technology. Having seen him communicate with his father during a video call at the café, I had asked him on the drive to the house, whether he had formally learnt sign language. It turned out, Geeno hadn’t. He picked up the signs he used much the same way a child picks up language. Back in time, there was a phase in his childhood, when the absence of normal conversation and language at home, made him tad slow to speak. He overcame that.

From among the three ultra-running disciplines, he has been exposed to – 100K, 12-hour run and the 24-hour run, he believes the 24-hour category is his calling. In that space, going ahead, he hopes to be at a world championship one day. Aside from being part of an Indian team, the motivation therein includes the opportunity to see first class ultra-runners in action. Geeno is not in a hurry. Ultra-running has traditionally been kind towards older human beings. Sterling performances have been reported from people in their forties and fifties. Narrowed down to the requirements of world class competition, Geeno thinks, peak performance these days for an elite ultra-runner may be at 37-38 years of age or thereabout. As of October 2022, he was 29 years old.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on two sets of conversation with Geeno. The sequence of events, the dates of competitions and the timings at races are as mentioned by the interviewee.)

LONGER THAN THE MARATHON AND STILL SHORT OF A JOB

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Everyone needs a job. In India, `sports quota’ has often helped athletes find employment. But it isn’t a level playing field and among things altering parity in consideration is our obsession with the Olympics. This story from the world of ultramarathon in India, was published in mainstream media in August 2022. There have been changes since to world records quoted. The updated figures may be found in the post script.

At the heart of performance in sport lay the human body and mind, both of which, require maintenance. Livelihood, jobs – these are as important for sportspersons as anyone else. Perhaps more, because athletes often come from tough financial backgrounds.

Not long ago in Shillong, an ultrarunner who was part of an Indian team that secured silver at an international championship abroad, wished to apply for a job under sports quota. The person needed an official letter establishing association with the sport and a silver medal-winning team. The letter couldn’t be put together.

It is a predicament best understood obliquely.

For years, what enthralled us in running were the sprint events. Speed exemplified running. However, away from the sprints, a different beast took shape. By the time of the 2018 Berlin Marathon, the world record in the marathon had reduced to two hours, one minute and 39 seconds, courtesy Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge. In 2019, at an unofficial event in Vienna, he broke the two hour-barrier and covered the 42.195 km in 1:59:40.2. Such performances showcased a fantastic pace of running sustained over a long distance. Kipchoge is regarded as the greatest marathoner. But some wonder – isn’t he the greatest runner? In select quarters, the Kipchoge debate has itself got challenged with the ascent of Lithuanian ultrarunner, Aleksandr Sorokin. He holds the world record for 24 hours (309.4 kilometres) and 100 miles (160 kilometres, covered in 10 hours, 51 minutes and 39 seconds).

Anything over a marathon distance, is an ultramarathon. Usually in the sport, ultra-distances start from 50 kilometres. India’s formal entry into ultrarunning happened late. It is not long since the country became a member of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). All the same, India’s showing on the world stage has been encouraging. Over the past few years, the country had picked up a couple of individual bronze medals, a team gold (men) and a team silver (women) – all that at the continental level. In July 2022, at the IAU 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru, Indian ultrarunners not only maintained the team gold and silver they had won before, they also swept the podium in the men’s category as regards individual medals and rewrote the national best time for 24 hour-running in both the men’s and women’s categories.

Ultrarunning is a demanding sport. In Bengaluru, exhausted ultrarunners had to be helped on to the podium during the awards ceremony. They were a bunch, at once tired, sleepy and happy for they had been running or walking near continuously for the previous 24 hours. The winner – Amar Singh Devanda of India – covered 257.62 kilometres. That’s over six marathons at one go. Yet, between the marathon and the ultramarathon is a gulf of disparity in how sport is perceived.

Despite it showcasing extreme endurance, ultrarunning is not an Olympic sport (it is also not part of the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games). Nadeem Khan, president, IAU, said recently in Bengaluru, “ the goal is always to be in the Olympics.’’ But there is a challenge to address. The Olympics prefers broadcast-friendly sports and sport formats. Ultrarunning – even as it is getting faster – is time consuming given the long distances covered. The reading is that to get into the Olympics, ultrarunning may have to showcase one of the smaller distances in its fold. In India, a sport that features in the Olympics acquires recognition for purposes like getting a job. The lack of such recognition for ultrarunning hurt the prospects of the Shillong based-ultrarunner, people familiar with the aborted attempt to get a job, said.

Notwithstanding the sport yet to feature in the Olympics, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) showed the foresight to support ultrarunning. That is how India’s membership at the IAU happened. The AFI set up a committee for ultrarunning; the committee selects the national teams. The AFI also worked with race organizers to bring IAU events to India.

According to a former national level athlete who holds a government job and is familiar with the process followed to secure jobs for sportspersons, there is first and foremost a list of recognized sports available with the government, which is partial to the Olympics for a discipline to be included. In addition to this, several departments and companies now have their own list of sports to support, which includes disciplines that don’t feature at the Olympics. In ultramarathon’s case, although it may not be an Olympic sport yet, the AFI has shown the foresight to support it, pointing to an element of recognition too in place, he said.

Question is – will this suffice to convince employers in India that the ultramarathon is as much a sport as the other disciplines endorsed by inclusion in the Olympics?

Post script: In September 2022, Aleksandr Sorokin improved his own world record in the 24-hours category to 319.614 kilometres. Same month and year, Eliud Kipchoge slashed 30 seconds off his earlier world record in the marathon. At the 2022 Berlin Marathon, he covered the distance in 2:01:09.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was published in the Telegraph newspaper in August, 2022. This is the link to the published piece: https://www.telegraphindia.com/sports/longer-than-the-marathon-and-still-short-of-a-job/cid/1879884)