SLOW AND SOLO

Vijay Beladkar; location: Cafe Colony (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Few avenues show you world as well as touring on a bicycle does. Nothing teaches as you as much about existence as traveling solo does. Combine the two – you get the solo cyclist, moving unhurriedly, noticing the spaces he / she is passing through. Vijay Beladkar, passionate about cycling from childhood found himself doing something with it after he joined an outdoor club specializing in hiking and climbing that had also in its fold, individuals interested in bicycle touring. Equally helpful in the process, was a group of cyclists he met outside the club, who came together to execute one project after another, setting Vijay up eventually, for his first major solo tour. This is Vijay’s story:

At the foot of Tilak Bridge in Mumbai’s Dadar East, is a popular Irani café.

It is a combination of restaurant and general store.

Most evenings, Café Colony – it has been there since the 1930s as per published media reports – is a busy eatery. Every Wednesday, the central table here is taken by a group of hikers and climbers; their club called Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. Couple of years ago, when the club celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, it brought out a souvenir; two pages therein were devoted to an article on bicycle touring by Vijay Beladkar.

NIM days (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The fascination for cycling has been there at Girivihar for a long time. It revolved around select individuals. Abhijeet Burman (Bong), at one point among the club’s most active members in hiking and mountaineering, had toured solo on his bicycle quite a bit. Among others at Girivihar, Rajneesh Gore pedaled with his friend Rishi, from Mumbai to Goa in 2002, and published a neat little book about it. Barring perhaps Bong’s later trips, a lot of this touring was before cycling culture as we know it today – foreign bicycle brands, snazzy bike showrooms, weekend cycling groups, BRMs and organized outings – became familiar sight in Mumbai. In fact, for his 1999 tour Bong had a bicycle assembled around an Indian frame; he kept improving it along the way using better bicycle components he came across in Nepal and Thailand.

Late evening; September 10, 2019, for some reason Café Colony was shut. I walked around the neighborhood scouting for an alternative to sit and chat with Vijay. Having found a place, I went back to Café Colony and waited in front of it. Mumbai is divided into east and west by its railway lines. Traffic on Tilak Bridge and the road connecting Dadar East to suburbs in the west, was heavy. When Vijay appeared he was on his cycle. That’s how he commuted to office and back. He worked at Lagu Bandhu, a major retailer of gold jewelry in Maharashtra. The trusted steed – a Trek 4300 bearing signs of long use and loving care – was parked and locked in front of the café. It seemed premises that Vijay, from years of having attended club meetings at the cafe, treated like home turf. We left the bike there and shifted to another café close by.

Vijay (foreground, left), Sanjay, Minhaz (centre, white shirt), Paresh and Anoop (foreground, right) at Cafe Gulshan, in times when Girivihar met there (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

People join Girivihar to pursue hiking and climbing. For Vijay though, his interest in cycling predates his affection for hiking built through the club. Born the middle child of three siblings, regular cycling for Vijay was his father’s recipe to keep son active and exercising.  Vijay’s father had initially served in the army; he later worked with the public sector oil company – Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL). When Vijay was in class nine, his father got him enrolled with a newspaper agent to distribute the morning paper. The job came with a bicycle.  That was how the tryst with cycling started. The bicycle provided by the agent was a roadster, the heavy steel bike once common throughout India and used for everything from commuting to ferrying load. Vijay took the roadster everywhere. Later, having outgrown this phase, he acquired a Flying Pigeon, a Chinese road bike, bought from retailers in Kalbadevi, the old hub for bike shops in Mumbai. After school, Vijay joined Patkar College where he actively participated in hikes to Maharashtra’s Sahyadri ranges besides a trek to Pindari Glacier in the Himalaya. His chemistry professor – Manohar Moghe – upon noticing his interest in hiking, introduced him to Girivihar. He joined the club in 1997-1998.

At the time of writing, Anoop Menon worked in Dubai. A journalist, he shifted that side from Mumbai in 2008. He was already a member of Girivihar when Vijay joined. Good friends to date, they met at one of the club’s rock climbing sessions in CBD Belapur. “ Vijay had done a rock climbing course in Mount Abu and had been on the Pindari Glacier trek. I had done neither, so that kept the conversation going at least from my end. Thereafter, we always managed to catch each other at Cafe Gulshan where Girivihar used to meet every Wednesday before we were forced to move to the current location at Cafe Colony. What I remember is that even those days Vijay would always be with a cycle – for the club meetings, for the climbing sessions,’’ Anoop said. At the club, Anoop, Vijay and Minhaz Kerawala became close friends. They went on adventure trips – like climbing rock pinnacles, a popular pursuit with Mumbai’s climbers then – together. In 2001, Vijay did his Basic Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). Over time, as the club’s climbing aficionados burrowed deeper and deeper into their specialized ecosystem (by now sport climbing was on the rise), Vijay was seen less and less at climbing sessions. The reason for this was his father’s ill health and the family’s subsequent decision to relocate (for some time) to their hometown, Akola. Vijay however stayed quite active in hiking and went on to become an office bearer of the club on repeated occasions. Every club has its internal politics. Girivihar had its share. Acceptance of Vijay straddled these divides; he had that quality.

From the December 2011, Mumbai-Goa bicycle trip with YHAI (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Around this time, Bong’s bicycle tours had become known in Girivihar. When Vijay asked him for suggestions on how to commence touring, Bong pointed him to Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI), which was scheduled to host a supported ride from Mumbai to Goa in December 2011. With the tour filled up, Vijay had to lobby to get his candidature accepted. The trip cost him Rs 4000; bike rent included. There was also a pre-ride workshop where participants were taught the basics of geared bicycles, still new to the Indian market. The session was anchored by Bong and his frequent partner in cycling, Kedari. “ I thought Mumbai-Goa would be easy,’’ Vijay said. He had factored in the scenic beauty of the coastal route overlooking the gradients. Out on the trip, it took him 4-5 days to get into the groove. Periodic interventions and suggestions from trip leaders, Ashish Agashe and Swapnil Gharigaokar, helped. “ When you cycle, you are one with nature. The connection is strong. You also sense solitude. I like that,’’ Vijay said. Among those on the Mumbai-Goa trip was Satish Sathe. Satish wished to cycle to Khardung La, the high mountain pass in Ladakh. The momentum of the journey in cycling Vijay had embarked on, started picking up with his next outing.

Ficycles (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Ficycles was the adopted name of a group of five cyclists – Satish Sathe, Girish Mahajan, Milind Yerzarkar, Rutesh Panditrao and Vijay. From December 2011 to mid-2012, they did stints of hill cycling at Khandala, Matheran and Mahabaleshwar. They also cycled most weekends in Mumbai, from Mahim to Marine Drive and back. During this time, Vijay also acquired the Trek 4300. Then, in July 2012, Ficycles set off to pedal from Manali to Leh and on to Khardung La and thereafter, to Srinagar. Given this was cast as a project with social media for linking back to well-wishers at home, Prasanna Joshi – another longstanding member of Girivihar – stepped in as web administrator. The ride was a supported one; a member’s wife and the sister of another, traveled in support vehicle. The entire ride took nine days.  “ It was tiring but given the support and company I had, it was enjoyable,’’ Vijay said. Reaching Khardung La had been a personal wish for Vijay too. That done and returned to Leh, he took the flight back to Mumbai and work, while the others proceeded to Srinagar. After graduation, Vijay had done his catering studies and was at this point, working at a banquet hall. In his mind, one particular episode from the Manali-Leh-Khardung La ride stayed very alive. Two foreign cyclists the group met en route had chided them for using support vehicle. Real bicycle touring is self-supported, they said. Back in Mumbai, Vijay chanced to mention this in a mail to Minhaz, since shifted to Canada. On his next visit to Mumbai, Minhaz brought Vijay panniers, speedometer and some other cycling accessories.

The next Ficycles project was Goa-Kanyakumari. Resolved to keep it self-supported, the group trained harder. “ We were now getting bit more serious about the whole thing,’’ Vijay said. The reason was simple – none of the performance parameters from supported rides hold true in self-supported circumstances wherein your bike is laden with the weight of essentials. To get used to riding with panniers, Vijay and his friends did rides in Mahabaleshwar, around Bhandardara, up Malshej Ghat and Khandala Ghat. Besides getting used to cycling with load they had to also get acquainted with the new gear ratios. “ You figure out the correct ratios as you keep cycling. At first I went with what I was instructed. Then I slowly discovered the ratios that worked best for me,’’ Vijay said. Done in December 2012, the Goa-Kanyakumari trip took 12 days. Once that trip was completed, the outline of a larger project started to take shape. Vijay had done Mumbai-Goa, Manali-Khardung La and now, Goa-Kanyakumari. How about filling in the remaining stretch on India’s west coast?

Vijay (right) with Abhijit Burman aka Bong ahead of his 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

By now there was also a pattern emerging in Vijay’s life. He does not normally take leave from work. Every Wednesday evening he drops by at Café Colony for the weekly Girivihar meeting.  Weekends he reserves for his bike rides or outings with the club. Every winter he digs into his annual leave to do a long bicycle trip. In December 2013, Vijay and his friends did a self-supported ride from Koteshwar in Bhuj, Gujarat to Verawal. “ The route was interesting, with good food,’’ Vijay said. The trip took them 10 days. Next winter – December 2014 – they cycled from Verawal to Mumbai. Now, a whole coastal stretch from Koteshwar to Kanyakumari had been visited and seen on the bicycle. In December 2015, Vijay and company cycled from Jammu to Jaisalmer touching four states – Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, a bit of Haryana and Rajasthan. It took them 14 days. “ People ask: why are you cycling? But nobody bothers you,’’ Vijay said. The cyclists relied on Google for navigation including potential spots to rest or break journey along the way. On this trip, the route brought them occasionally close to the India-Pakistan border.

From Ficycles, Vijay said, Girish Mahajan has done BRMs (randonneuring) of 100km, 200km, 300km and 1200km besides attempting the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France. Vijay did BRMs of 200km and 300km out of curiosity. “ I did it on my MTB. I couldn’t complete the 300. I prefer touring to riding fast or racing. I like to see the country,’’ Vijay said.  He never went back to BRMs. Meanwhile that fascination for cycling along India’s periphery continued. In December 2017, Vijay and his friends pedaled from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam on the Indian east coast. In December 2018, they rode from Visakhapatnam to Pondicherry.  Now that segment from Pondicherry to Kanyakumari remains. As does a whole amount of potential cycling in North East India and hopefully, linking that up to Manali via Sikkim, Nepal and Uttarakhand. How that will be done is a question mark. Ficycles isn’t anymore the old group it was – Satish has cut down on his cycling and Girish is more into BRMs. Vijay too was getting pulled in another direction. The first time this writer met Vijay was at a Girivihar weekend outing in 1999-2000. It was a rock climbing session in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The thing you quickly noticed about Vijay was this – he got along with people. His was a personality, at peace with the world, what you would call laid back or chilled. Coupled with a weakness for napping, it became inspiration for a moniker – Sotya – encapsulating that nature, at the club.  Of Vijay’s call sign, Anoop said, “ what clinched it, is his knack then and now, for making himself comfortable with bare minimum accessories in the most trying situations.’’ It’s a useful trait to have if you are traveler, especially one on the verge of upping the ante in his travels.

One of the most famous landmarks from the Shimla-Spiti route; the road passes through a hole cut into the rock (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Rutesh Panditrao had given Vijay a book to read. Called Rarang Dhang the book by Prabhakar Pendharkar told the story of building a road at altitude. “ I liked it very much. It described the lives of personnel from the Border Roads Organisation, how they live and work at altitude,’’ Vijay said. It left him with the desire to visit Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Looking around for company, he found that most people he knew had already cycled there. The few, who hadn’t, didn’t have time to spare for a trip. Slowly the reality loomed – if Vijay wanted to go, he had to cycle solo. Riding alone wasn’t entirely new for Vijay. There had been several day trips done alone, a few lasting 2-3 days and in 2016, even a solo trip all the way from Mumbai to Goa.  That last one had been interesting. It was done in the heat of March availing a short break from work that was available. Given few days, Vijay had cycled along the national highway – NH17 – instead of taking the quieter coastal road. He covered the distance in three and a half days. “ I was taking a chance. I made it to Polatpur in time; the first day was Panvel to Polatpur. That gave me confidence,’’ Vijay said. Further on NH17, after Khed, traffic hadn’t been too heavy or bothersome. “ Traffic is high around settlements and industrial clusters. It picks up by morning and evening but is manageable for the rest of the day,’’ he said. Besides gradients are less on NH17 and in March 2016, the highway was in decent condition. Still that is Mumbai-Goa. Spiti and its landscape would be a different cup of tea.

From the Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The 2019 solo trip to Spiti was Vijay’s first major solo project. Besides acceptance of the fact that he would be cycling alone in a place far off from Mumbai, it was also project entailing funds as unlike before when he cycled with group, solo endeavor rested completely on his shoulders. Girivihar stepped in to help. The mountaineering club officially backed the expedition, attaching its name to it; such association helps when raising funds. Credit for this should go to a hard fought precedent set in place years ago. In 1999, Girivihar had supported one of Bong’s trips. Supporting the trip was not easy as it required the club’s office bearers to think outside the box. As a hiking and climbing club, Girivihar imagined its mandate narrowly. Is it right to back cycling? – That was the dilemma. Approval was hard to secure. According to Bong, Girivihar’s support was eventually had on paper and it was mostly due to efforts by Minhaz, who pushed the hiking and climbing club to leverage its mandate for supporting its core adventure activity “ and allied sports,’’ to include cycling. Any financial assistance that eventually manifested, happened through his own personal connections, Bong said. In 1999, he cycled solo from Mumbai to Kathmandu and from there through Bihar and Bengal to Bangladesh. Having visited Dhaka and Cox Bazaar, Bong planned to pedal through Myanmar to Thailand. But Myanmar’s ruling junta was averse to touring cyclist just then and forced by the police, Bong had to discontinue his Myanmar leg after a couple of days. Shifted to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, he continued his tour from there to Bangkok, Cambodia and parts of Malaysia before flying back to Mumbai from Bangkok. Some years later, he commenced a chapter of cycling in the Himalaya. He covered Srinagar-Leh-Manali; Manali-Spiti-Shimla, Rampur to places on the Char Dham circuit, and later, a brief foray into Bhutan. With precedent available, things appear to have been clearer in 2019. By this time, the component of cycling had also grown at Girivihar. When it came to Vijay’s project, the club stepped in to back it. That in turn inspired a crowd funding campaign to assist him. “ The club’s members and well-wishers helped me a lot,’’ Vijay said. On a rain-swept day in Mumbai, amid the monsoon season of 2019, he also made sure to drop by at Bong’s house and apprise him of the project.

With one of the cyclists he met along the way during the 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Spiti is a cold desert mountain valley in north east Himachal Pradesh. It borders western Tibet. Its average elevation of 12,500 feet is higher than the average elevation of neighboring Ladakh. The road journey to Spiti is a bit wilder than the access to Ladakh, which is now characterized by well laid out road. Over July 7-28, Vijay cycled solo from Shimla to Kaza (in Spiti) and onward to Manali. He met other cyclists on the way. Of the lot, two were riding solo – himself and a British cyclist. Additionally, there were two, two-person teams; one from the US, the other from Spain. The whole trip – he visited Rekong Peo, Tabo, Kaza, Hikkim, Komik, Key, Kibber, Losar, Kunzum La and Rohtang Pass before touching Manali – took him 17 days. Every long ride throws up some problem – a puncture or a brake pad issue. On long self-supported trips, Vijay typically carries spare tube, brake cable, brake shoes, hand pump, puncture repair kit, bike repair kit, lubricating oil and chain cleaner. He maintains the bicycle himself, cleaning and repairing it as needed. “ On this trip, I had no problems,’’ Vijay said. He had serviced the Trek 4300 in advance and also changed some of its parts.

At Solang (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Parked in front of Café Colony the bike shone every bit like a well-loved mode of transport. It was faded; tad scarred here and there and yet, sounded smooth to the ears as it moved. That’s the mark of a bike, well taken care of. People who have logged as much mileage as Vijay did are usually prone to owning multiple cycles. In technically specialized verticals like racing and triathlon, ownership of multiple bikes is common. A traveler loving the significantly slower act of ambling along, Vijay has stuck to the one bike he bought at the start of his long trips. It is a different approach to wheels, valuing a different set of attributes; you and bicycle gather memories, grow into each other. The Trek had aged; even become tad outmoded – it is a MTB on 26 inch-wheels in India now given to 27.5, 29 and 700c. Vijay has never felt that his cycle is old or may give him trouble. He speaks the same way lovers of the 26 do, of how the bike suits them. “ I am attached to this cycle. I am used to it and it handles well,’’ he said. For now (as of mid-September 2019) he wasn’t toying with any new projects. He admitted though to having a personal wish, reserved for the future – a shot at Tour de Bhutan. Back in front of Café Colony, the Trek 4300 was unlocked, final pleasantries exchanged and freelance journalist departed to catch a bus to where he stayed. Vijay and bike disappeared into Mumbai’s traffic.

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

SPORT CLIMBING / PHASE TWO OF OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION DUE BY NOVEMBER END

Tomoa Narasaki (foreground); this photo was taken during the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The first list of sport climbers qualified for the Tokyo Olympics was announced in August, 2019. Qualification is a process in three phases lasting till May 2020. Interestingly, some of the athletes who made the cut in the initial list would be familiar to Indian climbing aficionados; they had participated in the two IFSC World Cup events held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017.

The selection process of sport climbers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will enter its second phase next month with the IFSC Climbing Combined Qualifier in Tournefeuille-Toulouse, France scheduled over November 28-December 1.

In August, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) had announced the first list of selected climbers after the Combined World Championships in Hachioji, Japan. “ Over 156 athletes competed in all three disciplines at the IFSC Climbing World Championships Hachioji 2019 with the hopes of earning a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Following a week of competition, the top 20 climbers in each gender were selected to participate in the Combined World Championships and the first Olympic qualifying event. The seven highest-placed athletes per gender of the Combined World Championships, with a maximum of two per country, will receive invitations for the Olympic Games,’’ an IFSC statement had said then.

Those in the first list, qualifying so (as available on the IFSC website; the list is titled: Sport Climbing’s First Olympic Qualified Athletes), are Janja Garnbret (Slovenia), Akiyo Noguchi (Japan), Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain), Aleksandra Miroslaw (Poland), Miho Nonaka (Japan), Petra Klinger (Switzerland) and Brooke Raboutou (USA) from the women’s category;  Tomoa Narasaki (Japan),  Jakob Schubert (Austria), Rishat Khaibullin (Kazakhstan), Kai Harada (Japan), Mickael Mawem (France), Alexander Megos (Germany) and Ludovico Fossali (Italy) from the men’s category.

Shauna Coxsey; this photo was taken during the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ All qualification places are provisional until confirmed by each athlete’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Formal invitations will be sent by the IFSC to the relevant NOCs within five days of the conclusion of Combined World Championships. The NOCs will then have two weeks to either confirm or decline the quota places,’’ the IFSC statement of August 21, had mentioned.

According to a report in the Japan Times, in the combined discipline Narasaki placed first in bouldering and second in lead and speed. Scores are decided by multiplying the finishing position in each of the disciplines; this is the scoring model for the Olympics too. Done so, Narasaki’s score was four, which was the lowest among the competitors, making him victor of the combined championships. In the men’s category, there were three other Japanese climbers including Narasaki’s younger brother, finishing fourth, fifth and sixth. But the two-person cap per country per gender appears to have kicked in. “   Japan will select the other male and female climbers based upon outcomes in the Olympic qualifying tournament, Asian Championships and Combined Japan Cup,’’ the report said. As host country, Japan gets a reserved slot per gender.

Besides those qualified at Hachioji, six additional athletes in each gender will be qualified to the Olympic Games from the Toulouse event scheduled for end-November 2019. The final opportunity to qualify will be five IFSC Combined Continental Championships due to take place in 2020. The schedule as available on the IFSC website is – Africa, 1-3 May, Johannesburg (South Africa), Asia, 18-24 May, Morioka (Japan), Europe, 16-18 April, Moscow (Russia), Pan-Am, 27 February-1 March, Los Angeles (USA) and Oceania, 18-19 April, Sydney (Australia). Climber hoping to qualify should head to his / her respective continental championship.

This is the first time climbing will be featured at the Olympics. All three disciplines of sport climbing – lead, bouldering and speed – will be seen. However in a departure from the normal practice of climbers specializing in a discipline of their choice and competing in it, at the Olympics, the same climber will have to endure all three disciplines with the highest aggregate scores ending up on the podium. The controversial format – it was tested at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics – had to be resorted to because the Olympic committee allotted the sport only one gold medal per gender.

Akio Noguchi; this photo was clicked at the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the Olympics, there will be altogether 40 climbers competing; 20 men and 20 women. This limited availability of slots automatically implies a selection process for qualifying and not every country that is into climbing will be able to have a representative competing in the discipline at the Olympics. Out of the 20 slots for each gender, one slot will go to the host country, another to a NGO called Tripartite Commission, which can give Olympic bids based on exceptional circumstances. That means, effectively, the qualification battle is for 18 slots in each gender. Each country is permitted only two qualified competitors; if more numbers qualify from a given country, then only the top two will be considered. By the time the selection process reaches the stage of the Continental Championships, there will be only five slots left to fill in each gender category (the rest having been filled by events at Hachioji, Toulouse, host country and Tripartite Commission. Should any athlete withdraw after the selection process is completed and the national rosters have been set, then the invitation for the Olympics will go to whoever ranked next to that person at the relevant qualifying event.

Climbing is among sports at the 2020 Olympics, wherein host country Japan has strong medal prospects. Overall at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan Olympic Committee is known to be targeting at least 30 gold medals, higher than their nation’s previous best haul of 16 secured in Athens (2004) and when the games was last held in Tokyo (1964). That said, the going won’t be easy for Japan in climbing. There is stiff competition in the women’s category (at Hachioji, the Japanese female climber with the best score – Akiyo Noguchi – placed second in the combined final after Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret who finished first) and on the men’s side, despite not making it to the first list, Czech ace Adam Ondra (he was disqualified over a technical issue in the Olympic qualification at Hachioji) has two more opportunities to qualify.

The selection process obliquely reminds the Indian climbing community of the good fortune in Navi Mumbai having hosted two climbing World Cups – in 2016 and 2017. Some of the athletes in the first list of qualified – like Akiyo Noguchi, Shauna Coxsey, Miho Nonaka, Tomoa Narasaki and Jakob Schubert had participated in one or both of the world cups held in Navi Mumbai. To that extent, the stars are not strangers; you remember them.

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

BRIGID KOSGEI SETS A NEW WORLD RECORD IN WOMEN’S MARATHON

Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, owner of the new world record in women’s marathon, with Paula Radcliffe of UK who held the previous record, at the 2019 Chicago Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Victory completes a Kenyan sweep of world records in the marathon

Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei has set a new world record in the women’s marathon.

She won the 2019 Chicago Marathon in two hours, 14 minutes, four seconds (2:14:04) bringing the curtains down on the previous 16-year-old record of 2:15:25 held by Paula Radcliffe of UK.  Radcliffe had her record-making run at the 2003 London Marathon. Kosgei’s performance is naturally a new course record for Chicago Marathon. Interestingly, the previous course record of 2:17:18 was also held by Radcliffe.

Ethiopia’s Ababel Yeshaneh came in second in the women’s race, finishing nearly seven minutes behind Kosgei in 2:20:51. Gelete Burka also of Ethiopia finished in third position in 2:20:55.

In the men’s race, Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono was the winner with timing of 2:05:45. He was followed by Ethiopian Dejene Debela who finished in 2:05:46. In third position was another Ethiopian runner, Asefa Mengstu who finished in 2:05:48.

Defending champion Mo Farah of UK finished in eighth position clocking 2:09:58.

Galen Rupp of the US, returning to a major race after a long gap due to surgery, was forced to pull out, a report in Runners World said.

With her victory and world record of October 13 in Chicago, Kosgei has helped effect a Kenyan sweep of world records in the marathon.  The men’s record – 2:01:39 is held by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge who touched that mark at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. The women’s half marathon record (1:04:51) belongs to Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei (1:04:51 set in Valencia, Spain) , while the same in the men’s category (58: 01, set at the 2019 Copenhagen Half Marathon) is held by Geoffrey Kamworor, also of Kenya.

The new women’s world record is just a day after Eliud Kipchoge ran an unofficial timing of 1:59:40 – the first time anyone ran the marathon in under two hours – at an event custom-built for the purpose.

Kosgei was in the news early September 2019 for setting a new course record in the women’s half marathon at the 2019 Great North Run in UK (this event held every September in north east England is the largest half marathon in the world). She covered the distance in one hour, four minutes and 28 seconds (1:04:28), shattering the previous record held by Mary Keitany (1:05:39 / also of Kenya) by more than a minute. Kosgei’s course record was better than the existing world record – 1:04:51 – held by Jepkosgei. However owing to technical reasons, the new mark couldn’t be considered for a world record. The problem lay in the Great North Run’s course. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had noted, “ as a point-to-point course and slightly downhill, it’s not valid for record purposes, but that shouldn’t take away from the performance by the 25-year-old Kenyan who dominated the race from the outset.’’

Prior to 2019 Great North Run, Kosgei was known best for her finishes at the Chicago and London marathons. She placed second among women in the 2017 Chicago Marathon, second in the 2018 London Marathon, first in the 2018 Chicago Marathon and first in the 2019 London Marathon.

Paula Radcliffe is one of the greatest runners in the women’s marathon. Her longstanding world record had unique significance in India. While the Indian national record in the men’s marathon is 2:12:00, set by the late Shivnath Singh in 1978, it has remained an enigma and a tough target for the current generation of marathoners to match. Realizing the gap between their performance and the national record and world beating performances, Radcliffe’s world record – 2:15:25 – had served as intermediate goal for some of the country’s elite marathoners.

In a conversation with this blog in November 2017, Indian elite marathoner Nitendra Singh Rawat had spoken of focusing on Radcliffe’s world record as a realistic goal to accomplish while he was preparing for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In that phase, at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, Nitendra touched 2:15:48 (a new course record), very close to Radcliffe’s record; he eventually surpassed it with the 2:15:18 achieved at the 2016 South Asian Games in Guwahati. T. Gopi completed the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics in 2:15:25. He went on to clock 2:13:39 at the 2019 Seoul International Marathon.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

BARRIER FALLS, KIPCHOGE GOES SUB 2

Eliud Kipchoge (in white vest) and his team of pacemakers running as part of Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge has covered the 42.2km distance of the full marathon in 1:59:40, breaking the two hour-barrier.

The result was achieved in near perfect weather conditions – save 90 per cent plus humidity and a spell of rain – at the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna today (October 12, 2019). People lined the carefully chosen course in the Austrian capital to see the event. The course was 90 per cent straight, evenly paved and lined by trees. For the first time in Kipchoge’s running career, his family – wife, Grace and three children – were present to see him in action.

Kipchoge is the current world record holder in the marathon (2:01:39 set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon) and reigning Olympic champion. The strategy for the run, worked back from the need to go sub-2, was executed to precision. There was a car up front setting the pace accurately and more importantly, projecting a green laser lit-line on to the road just behind which, the athletes recruited to be pacemakers ran maintaining their momentum. The course had a small corridor down the middle marked by two orange lines. Kipchoge had to stay within that to make sure the required length of the run was met.

The pacemakers were arranged in the form of a `V’ (open arms facing the wind) with the captain of a given set of pacemakers anchoring the point of convergence. This formation was the best option for aerodynamic efficiency. It reduced wind resistance for Kipchoge who ran behind the captain. Two pacemakers ran on either side of Kipchoge, slightly behind him. Every few kilometers, the team of pacemakers changed. The transition was done smoothly.  There were 41 pacemakers drawn from 10 countries assembled for the task; all of them world class athletes.

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Kipchoge and his pacemakers were on target almost all through the run. At 41 kilometers, the pace car peeled off. At an hour and 58 minutes with just a few hundred meters left, the last team of pacemakers slackened their pace and let Kipchoge take the lead. At 1:59:22, goal nearly in grasp, he began pointing to the crowd in excitement. The finish was at 1:59:40.

Although this is the first time in history that a marathon has been completed within two hours, the timing will not be recognized as a world record for three reasons – Kipchoge was the sole competitor at Vienna; he not only had pacemakers but the team of pacemakers was periodically replaced to ensure they stuck to required pace and he had fluids for hydration being handed out from a bike unlike the hydration points of regular marathons (this is as per event commentary).

“ His run today won’t be ratified as a world record, but will nonetheless be remembered as one of the greatest pioneering milestones in athletics history,” a report on the race available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said.The IAAF, which is the top body for athletics worldwide, is the agency that ratifies world records.

The event in Vienna was the second time Kipchoge attempted breaking the two hour-barrier. In May 2017 at a similar project organized by Nike, he had covered the distance in 2:00:25.  The course was straighter at Vienna, the shoes used were better than the ones employed at Monza (the scene of the 2017 attempt) and Kipchoge’s nutrient intake during the race was further improved, the event’s commentators pointed out.

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

7KM SHORT, 215KM OF LEARNING

Shikha Pahwa (Photo: courtesy Shikha)

What defines outcome – the goal or the experience? This is an article by invitation. In 2019, Delhi-based runner Shikha Pahwa set out to attempt the 222km-race of La Ultra-The High in Ladakh. She tackled 215 kilometers before a combination of weather, fatigue and injury forced her to pull out (215 is the figure Shikha heard at the time of DNF, the figure shown on the race website is 212km. We decided to go with 215 because this is  a first person account of an experience and what you hear in the thick of an experience is part of it). For the past few years, Shikha has been a regular on the Ladakh circuit. In 2018, she ran the 111km distance category of La Ultra-The High, completing it in 18 hours, 15 minutes, 42 seconds. The year before that she was winner among women in the 72km Khardung La Challenge. In 2016, she had placed second among women in the Ladakh Marathon. This is her account of participating in the 222km race of La Ultra-The High in 2019.

My decision to attempt the 222km race at La Ultra–The High in Ladakh had its share of apprehensions. Not only was it double the longest distance I had run till then but its route also lingered at high altitude for a longer period of time given two mountain passes to tackle. Temperatures would range from minus 10 to 30 degrees Celsius.

I was not new to running in Ladakh. I had participated in events there since the past three years. I knew what I was getting into. To sum it up, I would say the 111km I had done the previous year was just a trailer.

Training for the 222km-run was not easy in Delhi. The weather and the terrain of the national capital are nowhere close to what one experiences in Ladakh. I focused therefore on just one aspect – more time, staying up on my feet. To be able to move for 48 hours at a stretch I needed to do a lot of training on tired legs. I started with two consecutive days of running 40km and 30km during the weekend for a month or so and then progressed to three consecutive days of 50km, 40km and 30km starting from Friday through the weekend for about two months. During Delhi’s summer months of May to July, this routine sapped my energy. In this period, I also participated in the Tuffman Shimla 80km ultra-marathon, mainly as practice for La Ultra-The High. It turned out to be a good decision as the event route featured some steep uphill and downhill portions; exactly what I needed.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Weather conditions in Ladakh can be unpredictable. At La Ultra-The High, runners are warned to be prepared for rain or snow or heat or all of them. I knew the drill and I was ready. But the mountains proved me wrong.

On August 17, 2019, runners assembled at the start point in Nubra Valley. The race started at 6PM in light rain; it continued for approximately 60 kilometers. After that, it transformed to snow and blizzard. Going uphill to an altitude of 18,000 feet in those conditions was something I had never imagined. I felt like giving up several times but somehow, looking at Nischint Katoch, the only other runner in sight, fighting the situation ahead, I pushed on putting one step before the other. As I had never walked in snow before, it was nothing short of a nightmare. To add to the whole experience, I started to feel a pinching pain in my left shin (it later turned out to be a stress fracture in the shin and a ligament tear in my ankle, as per the MRI test report).

I felt a sense of relief upon reaching Khardung La. I expected the downhill from there to be easy. But I was completely wrong. Moving downhill in the snow was very difficult. I slipped at least seven to eight times in the snow. I had absolutely no control over my feet. I was either stepping deep into snow or into icy puddles. Worried about the manner in which I was moving, the medical teams stopped several times to check if I was alright. I was okay, except that my shin pain was increasing with no clear solution for it.

Downhill running is something I love. I just give into gravity. As I am wont to, I let go and almost immediately I felt the pain in my shin. The next four kilometers I resorted to run-walk.

As part of the 222km event (and for distances in excess), we are assigned support crew. They joined us at the 87th kilometer. The crew is not there to merely help runners with hydration and nutrition. They also act as motivators to ensure that participants keep moving.

When I reached the said mark, my crew, Milam Shah from Nainital and Kunzes Dolma from Ladakh, immediately jumped into getting things ready to make me comfortable. After a short re-charge break, I headed out again. With no rain and snow, it felt like things were back on track.

Arriving at the 111 kilometer-mark at Shanti Stupa felt great as it was almost halfway point for my distance category. There was a huge round of cheering by the gathered volunteers. After a break at a guest house ahead, we headed out again. From Leh, it was pretty much a flat route for the next 60 odd kilometers. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t so in real terms. It was mentally exhausting to get through the endless road especially at night. It was pitch-dark. My crew car was the only vehicle tailing me. I started feeling extremely sleepy. I fought to keep my eyes open and at one point started seeing things on the road that weren’t there. That was when I stopped the car and decided to take a 20 minute nap. Even after that it was a struggle to stay awake and so the crew stepped in. They took turns to walk with me, talking, making sure that I didn’t lose self-control. We had another stop to eat and sleep in the car. Eventually we made it to the 173 kilometer-mark at the next guest house. By then, my shin was red and swollen and I was suffering from fatigue. After consulting the doctors, eating and taking medicines for the pain, I slept for around two hours.

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on the last leg, we started moving again. It was just 49 kilometers to the finish line but half of it was climbing up to Wari La at an altitude of 17,500 feet. The weather was good and there were many people around, as the 55 kilometer-category runners were on the course. Slowly making my way up, I saw two friendly faces; my good friends Taher Merchant and Gregor Gucwa, who had come all the way just to support me. These are the priceless moments of participating in an event like La Ultra-The High. We get to meet amazing people. Both Gregor and Taher were participants of La Ultra-The High. Gregor was attempting the 222km and Taher, 111km (unfortunately, both had to give up due to altitude sickness. They came to Wari La for the final stretch of the race to support me).

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

After a couple of kilometers, Taher had to leave. Gregor and I, with the crew following, kept walking. As we gained altitude, the uphill walk became difficult. Gregor was going strong. He kept chatting with me and making sure that I was eating and hydrating all along. He helped me get through every sharp climb, one step at a time. We were on track, I was sure of making it to the finish in time. Then, reality hit back. We were told that there was snow along the route on the top. It brought back memories of the Khardung La stretch. The target got very very tight at this point prompting us to move faster. With snow and blizzard, there isn’t much you can do. It was slippery and wet all the way. Those four kilometers seemed endless. It played on my mind even more since I couldn’t see the point where I had to turn around; everything was just white.

At that juncture, I met Jyotsna Rawat, who is part of the La Ultra core crew team. She became my motivator, supporter and morale-booster for the moment, giving me the push that I needed, helping me to turn around. Gregor caught up soon enough, fighting the extreme weather, to be by my side. Although it was all downhill now, the snow and altitude didn’t allow us to gain much pace. With every step, time was slipping out of our hands. After the snow cleared, I started running down in small stretches. The pain in my shin was getting worse and the altitude was making me breathless. I knew there was very little chance of making it to the finish line before the cut-off time. Nevertheless, I kept pushing ahead.

The next time I asked Gregor if we would make it in time, he said it was too tight. Jyotsna, who was following me in a car, came up to ask if I wanted to continue, as there wasn’t enough time.

I was keen to finish even if it was after the cut-off time. But I had to slow down because of the agonizing pain in my shin. After another couple of kilometers I was again asked if I wanted to continue. There is that point when runners don’t see logic or consequences and are willing to endure pain and discomfort, just to reach the finish line. Gregor and the crew members tried very hard to convince me to stop, trying to prevent my injury from getting worse. After much resistance, I finally gave in. At that point I wasn’t sure how much distance was left. I later discovered that I had dropped out just seven kilometers from the finish line. Not wanting to go to the finish point at all, I was driven straight to the guest house close by to rest. After that, I only remember being comforted by Gregor, my crew and all the core crew members around.

I reached the 215 kilometer-mark but fell short of the finish by seven kilometers. To me it was an experience of a different kind. I wouldn’t term it failure. I witnessed several things for the first time, learnt a lot, realized my mistakes and understood how much the mind can push the body. Those 47.5 hours were one hell of a journey and I was extremely lucky to have so much support throughout. I couldn’t have gone through it without my crew and especially Gregor, who really is from another planet.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Having said all this about how insane this experience was, I then look at those three super-humans – Jason Reardon, Matthew Maday and Ashish Kasodekar – who completed the 555 kilometer-event in similar conditions and over much longer distances; I feel I need to work a lot harder. Human endurance has seen a whole new level and I would be extremely happy to reach at least halfway there.

Putting together an event like this is a mammoth task. The core crew members were not there to just man the hydration points; there were multiple complex factors to take care of simultaneously in those harsh weather conditions and for several days at a stretch. Despite all that, they went all out to motivate and encourage every single runner on the course. These are the people who make the impossible, possible.

I wouldn’t call La Ultra-The High a race. I was competing with myself, fighting mind and body, battling fatigue, suffering sleep deprivation and nursing an injury. In a span of 48 hours, I saw an unbelievable side of nature and tremendous support from some amazing people. It was a completely overwhelming experience. As difficult as it was, I would like to go back and try again.

(The author, Shikha Pahwa, is a Delhi-based runner. She owns Café Qahwa, located in the city’s Safdarjung Development Area. The 222km category of La Ultra-The High saw only one finisher in 2019 – Amit Kumar, who covered the distance in 41 hours, 48 minutes. There were eight DNFs. As per the race website, both Shikha and Munir Kulavoor pulled out at 212km covered, the farthest run by those who stopped short of the finish. Shikha’s DNF followed that of Munir, the race organizers said.)

COMING UP: INEOS 1:59 CHALLENGE

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Roughly a week after the action ends at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the world record holder in the marathon – Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge – is scheduled to attempt running the 42.2km distance in less than two hours. No human has yet managed to do a sub two-hour marathon.

The event called `INEOS 1:59 Challenge’ is the second such attempt by Kipchoge. The first was a project by Nike called `Breaking 2,’ held at a race track in Italy in May 2017, when Kipchoge managed a time of 2:00:25. It remains unofficially the fastest time so far for a marathon; it didn’t merit official recognition as world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for several reasons including the use of a battery of pacers. Same would be the case with INEOS 1:59. Variables have been weeded out for singular pursuit of timing. A suitable course has been selected in Vienna, Austria and a window of select days – originally October 12-20, 2019 and since narrowed to October 12-14 – shortlisted to stage the attempt when conditions are most favorable.

In his diary entries ahead of the challenge (available on the event website) Kipchoge has acknowledged that while his preparation for the event is similar to his preparation for any marathon, he is new to Vienna and will need “ a day or so’’ to get used to the city. He has seen pictures and videos of the course but will need to jog there once or twice to imprint it in his mind. He says that he didn’t sleep a wink before Breaking 2. This time, he hopes to catch some sleep before embarking on the challenge. But a couple of aspects about INEOS 1:59 make it distinct from previous runs. Usually you know the exact date of a run. Here, you don’t. “ I will need to have a flexible mindset, while also preparing as though I am competing on October 12,’’ Kipchoge says on the website. Further, unlike Breaking 2 where he had two runners – Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia – competing with him, in Vienna, Kipchoge will be competing with himself.

He will have pacers. The list, as available on the event’s website is long: Thomas Ayeko (Uganda), Selemon Barega (Ethiopia), Emmanuel Bett (Kenya), Hillary Bor (USA), Mande Bushendich (Uganda), Matthew Centrowitz (USA), Paul Chelimo (USA), Augustine Choge (Kenya), Victor Chumo (Kenya), the Ingebrigtsen brothers – Filip, Henrik and Jakob (Norway), Philemon Kacheran (Kenya), Stanley Kebenei (USA), Justus Kimutai (Kenya), Shadrack Kichirchir (USA), Noah Kipkemboi (Kenya), Gideon Kipketer (Kenya), Jacob Kiplimo (Uganda), Marius Kipserem (Kenya), Eric Kiptanui (Kenya), Moses Koech (Kenya), Shadrach Koech (Kazakhstan), Micah Kogo (Kenya), Alex Korio (Kenya), Jonathan Korir (Kenya), Ronald Kwemoi (Kenya), Bernard Lagat (USA), Lopez Lomong (USA), Abdallah Mande (Uganda), Stewart Mcsweyn (Australia), Kota Murayama (Japan), Ronald Musagala (Uganda), Kaan Kigen Ozbilen (Turkey), Jack Rayner (Australia), Chala Regasa (Ethiopia), Brett Robinson (Australia), Nicholas Rotich (Kenya), Patrick Tiernan (Australia), Timothy Toroitich (Uganda) and Julien Wanders (Switzerland). Some of these athletes were in action at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.

During the event, there will be a car in front of Kipchoge setting an accurate pace for the run and maybe (as some reports suggested), providing benefit of draft. Draft or none, the car is critical and its selection provides insight on the battle with variables when a single attribute – in this case 1:59 hours – has to be chased in isolation. The reason the car came in is because the best way to run a fast marathon is to sustain an even pace. Runners including Kipchoge, have the tendency to vary their pace over the duration of a marathon. This must be avoided as far as possible when the quest is sub-two, margin for error is thin and difference by a few seconds can impact final outcome. As they set about looking for the right car, the organizing team discovered that the cruise control systems on cars were not 100 per cent accurate. So specialists were engaged. The eventual choice was an electric vehicle. That was also because it helps the runners run behind without worry of breathing in harmful engine emissions. Finally, for redundancy, a second vehicle will also be on stand-by, the event’s website said.

All this raises the question – if it is so complicated, if so many variables have to be managed, then why have the sub-two attempt at all? Doesn’t it become too synthetic?

The answer to that lay in the sheer magnetic pull of dipping below two hours for a full marathon, something no person has done before. The publicity pitch for the event likens it to man reaching the moon. Not everyone agrees. In August 2019, CNN reported that Professor Ross Tucker of South Africa (he was an expert witness in Caster Semenya’s hearing at the Court of Arbitration of Sports in 2019) found the comparisson contrived. The crux of the argument relates to setting an utterly impartial baseline to decide athletic performance. Within that concern, fingers were pointed at advancements in shoe technology with models like Nike’s Vaporfly four per cent promising a quicker pace to its wearer. They are totally legal. But the shoe featuring carbon fiber plate and special mid-sole foam provides the athlete an element of unnatural advantage.

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of INEOS 1:59 Challenge and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ According to Tucker, a runner expelling four percent less oxygen for the same energy output is able to improve on his or her performance by 2.5 percent at the elite level. Over the course of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.2km) – this could translate to as much as two minutes,’’ the CNN article said. However other studies – there was one reported by Runners World in February 2019, involving a team of researchers from University of Colorado Boulder – show that four per cent energy saved with such shoes needn’t necessarily translate into a four per cent faster run. The runner’s height and weight as well the air resistance encountered, matter.

All this technology is construed as altering the baseline for deciding human athletic performance and comparing it. As Tucker argued in the CNN article – to reach the moon, man had an unalterable baseline to surpass; gravity. A controlled run in pursuit of sub-two with technology like the above for company, is akin to claiming a marathon record on Mars.

Notwithstanding such perspective, curiosity for the sub-two marathon will always be there. And along with it, the marketing leverage it provides. As it is, without dipping below two hours and running along with other marathoners at an established event like the Berlin Marathon, the world’s two fastest timings so far in the discipline – 2:01:39 by Kipchoge (Berlin 2018) and 2:01:41 by Ethiopia’s Kenenise Bekele (Berlin 2019) – are in a league by themselves. The pace therein, sustained over 42.2 kilometers, is beyond the reach of most runners.

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

COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER, BUT AM SATISFIED: T. GOPI

T. Gopi (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ Given the prevailing weather conditions and the need to push reasonably in such circumstances, I am satisfied with my performance. That said I do wish it had been a better performance,’’ T Gopi told this blog on day 10 of the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships. The men’s marathon, wherein Gopi finished 21st with a timing of 2:15:57 happened on the intervening night of days 9 and 10.

According to him, he had trained well for the event in Doha. At the national camp in Bengaluru he made sure to do the bulk of his training in the afternoon hours, when temperatures are warmer. Roughly a fortnight before the championships he also altered his sleep cycle given outdoor endurance disciplines were slated to happen during night in the Qatari capital. Despite all these preparations, the weather on arrival in Doha – Gopi reached there on September 30 – was dissimilar to the conditions he had trained under in Bengaluru. It was warmer and the humidity was quite high. The general feedback from the women’s marathon, staged soon after the championships got underway, was further wake up call to reconsider plans. Gopi admitted that in the flurry of news around what happened at the women’s marathon (28 runners pulled out, unable to continue in the prevailing weather), he had wondered whether he would cover the whole distance.

It is true that qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was pending and there was a timing of 2:11:30 to match for that purpose. Even as he acclimatized as well as he could to the local weather, Doha didn’t seem the appropriate mix of conditions to push for a severe target. It made better sense to run responsibly and save oneself for potential Olympic qualification in more hospitable weather conditions. Olympic qualification is a huge push for any Indian marathoner because it entails breaking the long existing national record of 2:12:00.

Luckily for the male marathoners in Doha, weather conditions on the intervening night of days 9 and 10 of the championships, was not as bad as it had been for the women’s marathon. According to Gopi, the race commenced with temperature at around 30 degrees Celsius but soon settled to 29 degrees. Humidity was 48 per cent (in contrast the women’s marathon was staged in 30-32.7 degrees Celsius and humidity of 73 per cent).  “ I did face one problem – my old calf muscle issue continues to return.  The muscle got tight towards the later stages of the race. The last ten kilometers was therefore slow,’’ Gopi said over the phone from Doha.

Gopi believes that he hasn’t done too badly with 2:15:57, the timing he eventually churned out at the marathon in Doha. To explain, he pointed to the personal bests (PB) of the runners who finished on the podium. Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa for instance has a PB of 2:04:45. Against that his race winning time in Doha was 2:10:40. Mosinet Geremew, also of Ethiopia, has a PB of 2:02:55; his finish time for the silver medal was 2:10:44. Kenya’s Amos Kipruto who finished third in 2:10:51 has a PB of 2:05:43. They were all slower by 5-8 minutes.  Compared to that Gopi’s finish time was 2:15:57; his PB, 2:13:39. “ Viewed so, I am satisfied with this outcome,’’ Gopi said.

His next priority is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On the radar for the purpose is the next edition of the Tokyo Marathon. “ I hope to run at that event and seek qualification,’’ Gopi said. Other options also exist, among them the next Asian Marathon Championships due in December 2019. According to a May 2019 article in Outside magazine, there is time till May 31, 2020 to qualify for participation in the 2020 Olympics marathon.

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