A MEMORABLE WIN FOR GOPI

Gopi T; after Sunday’s race (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In colloquial Malayalam, the term `adipoli’ is used to denote a fantastic experience.

“ Today’s race was adipoli. There is the joy of participating in the Tata Mumbai Marathon after a break of a few years. Then there is the happiness of having earned a podium finish,’’ Gopi T, winner among Indian elite men at the 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), said.

He covered the distance in a provisional time of two hours, 16 minutes and 41 seconds.

For the Indian Army runner, the outing of Sunday, January 15, was a comeback to good performance after a couple of years of no competitions owing to both the COVID-19 pandemic and a knee surgery.

Hopeful and motivated by the race result, Gopi was nevertheless realistic in his assessment. “ The weather was really good. One drawback – and it is personal – was that I felt some inadequacy in me given I was returning to competition after almost three years. There was lack of confidence in how things would end up. But with this podium finish, I feel happy and I can look forward to preparing for the Asian Games and other events ahead. The outcome at 2023 TMM will be a source of motivation,’’ he said.

According to him, the weather was kind. Cool weather prevailed for at least 30 kilometres. Towards the last bit, it began getting warm. “ But certainly, compared to the weather conditions I have experienced before at the Mumbai Marathon, this was much better. Like I said, the main negatives I felt revolved around my own rustiness and lack of confidence from not having competed in the preceding three years. There were mild cramps and that kept worrying me. Still, the way things evolved, I felt on the final stretch that the course record may be within reach.  The pacers were there till 32 kilometres. Had I been able to sustain the pace for the remaining portion, the outcome could have been even better. In retrospect, my inability to do so was a shortcoming,’’ Gopi said. The TMM course record for Indian men, of 2:15:48, is held by Nitendra Singh Rawat.

On Sunday, the initial pace in the race featuring elite Indian male athletes, was quite strong. Gopi said that till 32 kilometres he was doing a pace, which should have eventually given a total time of 2:13 to less than 2:15. In the last 10 kilometres, after the pacers left, things changed. “ I became slow. There was also that hill at around 35 kilometres; it added to the slowing down,’’ Gopi said. The impact of the early pace manifested as some tiredness in the later stages. According to him, if there was one more person around, he may have succeeded in maintaining the momentum longer. Further when training, he was targeting a slightly gentler time and the long runs done in training were not very long. In contrast, during the race, the strong pace lasted 32 kilometres and a great result would have been possible only if the same was sustained for the entire 42 kilometres. “ I will have to address my training. While preparing for Mumbai, my longest training run was 36 kilometres. Based on how the race played out, I will need to change that to at least 40. With such changes, I should be able to improve,’’ Gopi said.

For the near future, he is looking at two events. One is the New Delhi Marathon in February and the other is the Seoul Marathon in March. “ My goal is to do one of these. Seoul is my first choice,’’ he said. It was at Seoul in March 2019 that Gopi achieved his personal best of 2:13:39, which is also the closest any Indian runner has come to the longstanding national record of 2:12:00 set by the late Shivnath Singh in May 1978 in Jalandhar.  

Gopi T; from 2023 TMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Alongside, the qualifying mark for the Olympic Games has also been becoming more and more challenging for Indian marathoners. The selection parameters for the last Olympic Games were stiff. For the next Games in Paris (2024), the qualification time for the men’s marathon is tighter still at 2:08:10. However, one does not have to be wholly fixated on the qualifying time. “ If one can match the current national record and produce performances in the range of 2:11, 2:12 or 2:13, it will reflect in one’s ranking. In addition to eligibility by meeting the qualifying time, ranking is also considered. One can qualify that way. So, my main target now is the longstanding national record. Qualify for the Asian Games with a national record – that is the wish. The best place to try that would be Seoul,’’ Gopi said.

Indian marathon runners have been chasing Shivnath Singh’s national record for many years. Asked how achievable it seemed, Gopi said that the national record appears a realistic goal. Viewed from the perspective of speed, the Mumbai Marathon route is a tough one. As are the usual weather conditions. On a course that is friendlier to sustained pace with weather to match, it should be possible to strive for the national record. Also, unlike his preparation for Mumbai, which spanned around 35 days, there is about 40-45 days available for Seoul. The national record was definitely a formidable challenge some years ago. “ Then I touched 2:13 in Seoul and it drew closer. A lot of change is required, many changes in training. Training partners are few. Maybe training at the national camp under one of the coaches will prove effective. Maybe one needs to train abroad. But going abroad makes sense only as a group as otherwise, the athlete ends up doing everything oneself. So perhaps, working as a focused group in India is the viable option,’’ Gopi said.

The winner’s medal at 2023 TMM is a big motivation for him. Earlier at the 2022 Indira Marathon in Allahabad, his performance had been disappointing. That was his first outing since pandemic and surgery. “ I ran it with the intent of finishing, not competing. There were several deficits in performance, which I noticed there. Now with this podium finish, I am very hopeful. It proved that I could make a comeback after knee surgery. There was much pain, many adjustments and a lot of strengthening along the way. The win at TMM has given me fresh motivation,’’ Gopi said.  

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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