ANJALI SARAOGI APPOINTED VICE-CHAIR OF IAU ATHLETES COMMISSION

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Indian ultra-runner, Anjali Saraogi, is the new Vice-Chair of the Athletes’ Commission of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU).

According to a related statement from IAU, Pablo Barnes, Argentinian ultra-runner, has been named as the Chair of the Commission.

The Athletes’ Commission was set up in 2018 with 15 members including two IAU Council members. Wayne Botha and Virginia Oliveri were the first Chair and Vice-Chair respectively.

“ As a group we are the voice of the athletes,’’ Anjali said when contacted.

The responsibility of the Chair is to speak for the group at IAU meetings, present reports, arrange and chair meetings with the Athletes Commission and represent the Athletes Commission at press conferences at championships and be available for interviews on social media, she said.

The Vice Chair will stand in if the Chair is unavailable and assist the Chair when required.

“ The Athletes’ Commission also serves as a link between federations and the IAU. It promotes good communication and relations between athletes, federations and the IAU,’’ Anjali said.

Kolkata-based Anjali has represented India in 100-kilometer races held internationally. She is also a podium finisher in races of other distances, including the marathon.

The former national record holder over the 100 km distance had won the ultra and trail running award of the Athletic Federation of India in 2019-2020. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, in November 2019, Anjali broke her own national record for the 100 km event.

The record has since been broken by another ultra-runner, Gunjan Khurana.

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

MY FIRST MARATHON

This is an article by invitation. Dr. Yamini Menon, a physician based in the US, writes about her first marathon, completed in December 2021.

Painting (acrylic on canvas) inspired by the trail at Wolf River Greenway, where the author did some of her training runs. This painting was done in the late summer months. The trail is a popular course for runners as the trees offer plenty of shade; the trail feels cool particularly in summer. Trails branch off in various directions and one of them extends over 18 miles. There are also a few bridges over flowing water along the way, adding to the beauty. If lucky, one can see a variety of birds, deer and the occasional beaver (artist: Dr. Yamini Menon)

Days after the event, I am still in a state of disbelief.

I was able to participate in and complete the St Jude Marathon of December 4, 2021; my first marathon.

I never considered myself a runner although for several years now, I have exercised regularly. 

Being a physician – a rheumatologist – I have tried to practice what I preach: that staying active and exercising regularly help physical and mental wellbeing.

In 2016, I happened to take part in a 5K run as part of a local community event and in the spring of 2017, a local 8k run. These events sparked my interest in pursuing longer distances. Soon, aside from being an exercise routine, my running seemed to feel a stress reliever. It was an opportunity to get fresh air and enjoy nature.

Living in Memphis, Tennessee, I was familiar with the St Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, usually held in the first weekend of December every year. I found myself registering for a 10k and then a couple of half marathons in the following years, the last of which was in Dec 2019. More inspiration came from my patients who I met over the years. Some of them have pursued walking and running long distances despite the physical ailments and chronic conditions they deal with.

In 2020, even as the pandemic was on, along with a dozen other lady physicians in the area, I became part of an ` athletics               group.’ We came from different backgrounds, had different personalities and interests. But we had a lot in common given our profession. Our shared goal was to take care of one’s health, be consistent with work outs and motivate each other to do more. Due to limitations imposed by the pandemic, initially these activities including walks and runs were posted on a virtual forum. Shortly after we were all vaccinated, we started gathering for early morning runs on Saturdays. As the months went by, these group walks and runs enabled us to share our feelings and frustrations, enjoy a breath fresh air. The outdoors gave us an opportunity to be away from N95 masks and face shields which had by then become part and parcel of our routines. No one seemed to mind the nipping cold of the early morning. At times, the run was followed by hot tea or coffee and snacks, which we all pitched in to bring and share.

The group had challenges assigned for a given month. It prompted us to post and share our activities and runs. In January, when Martin Luther King Day arrived, we were expected to post our work-out activity and a milestone therein to honour the late Dr King. My dream was to run a marathon with this team! I wondered whether this would be an impossible task; one that held high risk of injury. All the same, when registration opened, I signed up for the full marathon.

The reason for choosing St Jude marathon over others was simple. Aside from the fact that it was held locally in Memphis (my home for the past 15 years) and that there was no qualifying time to register for the race, I was excited to run for a cause – raising funds to find a cure for childhood cancer. In the past few years, I had had opportunity to meet and get to know a family whose infant son was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour and received treatment at St Jude Hospital.

This report by ABC24 Memphis, available on YouTube, provides an overview of the St Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, especially the charity angle associated with the event (the link to the video is for representation purpose. No copyright violation intended)

After signing up for the marathon I chose a six-month training plan and modified it to fit my schedules. I am an early riser; 4 AM on a regular workday. I modified my morning routines – I tried incorporating a few miles on the treadmill on workdays besides some core exercises and stretches. On my days off, I tried to be consistent with walk-runs in the neighbourhood, averaging about 3-5 miles. On Saturday mornings a few of us in the group would meet and run along Wolf River Parkway – which has pedestrian and biker friendly lanes, and later with sunrise, run along the Trails of Wolf River Greenway. Shelby Farms Park is another popular spot to walk / run – it is usually quiet and serene and the route goes around a lake. In previous years, I had learnt that one loop around the lake would be about 2.4 miles. That made it easy to calculate a given mileage-target. The route also had restrooms and water fountains along the way. However, during the pandemic, they stayed temporarily unavailable.

As the weeks progressed, I was able to run and walk in intervals, gradually increasing the distance. One fear I had was the possibility of injury. I maintained a pace that avoided injury and walked when necessary; if a twinge of pain or cramp started, I walked. Though alone for most of my long runs, the constantly changing scenery, leaves changing colour with the seasons, the sound of birds chirping, even sightings of a few deer and fawn, plus my playlist of devotional songs, kept me upbeat. A couple of friends in the group, who had completed marathons in the past, provided tips on the hydration and nutrition required during the runs. My longest run was about four weeks prior to race day. Then, I tapered down mileage as per my modified training plan. I tried to stay calm and focused.

Aside from the above said practice runs with gradual increase in mileage, I also devoted some time to strength training every week. This included core strengthening exercises, a few of them featuring the use of light weights and resistance bands. I also followed a clutch of modified yoga routines and stretches.

Though my specific training for the marathon lasted about six months, I feel that my daily 1–2-mile runs, regular stretching exercises and some of the core strengthening exercises that had been a part of my routine for the past few years, benefited me greatly. They also reduced the risk of injury. I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of listening to one’s body as pushing through any pain may precipitate additional injuries. During my training, I never felt compelled to finish in a certain time. In our group, we always applauded those who have a good pace. But I never took that up as a challenge – for me, it was about completing the race without injuries. The focus was definitely to enjoy the run and finish it.

A few weeks prior to race day, the weather turned quite cold in the morning; anywhere between 30-40 degrees F. That meant learning to dress appropriately for the long runs. I found myself checking the forecast for race day about 3-4 weeks in advance and soon realized that it may be warmer and even rainy by then.

Picking up the race bib a day before the race, brought excitement. The countdown had begun. The previous day and night were filled with a sense of anticipation as well as nervousness. Due to the pandemic, we were allotted corrals and arrival times were staggered to prevent overcrowding. Masks were required until the start line. In the morning there was a drizzle. It was breezy and the weatherman had predicted temperatures ranging from 50-65 degrees F, much unlike the days leading up to race day.

Crowds could be seen close to the start line at B. B. King Boulevard. There was excitement all around, music and cheering for the participants. My turn came to start and praying that everything goes well, I launched into the run. After the first mile, participants run through the Saint Jude hospital campus, where patients and their parents cheer us on. It is a very emotional part of the run. One mile at a time, the run progressed. I had to tell myself to slow down as in the all the excitement I was running faster than my usual pace for the first 2-3 miles. Our group had the half and full marathoners splitting around mile 6-7. Soon the crowd of runners grew thin. Fortunately, the cheering crowd and hydration stations did not!

Dr. Yamini Menon (photo: courtesy Yamini)

Around mile 9-10, I felt some fatigue. But I was looking forward to seeing my husband who was to cheer me on at about mile 13. He met me there as planned and also surprised me with a ` cheering squad’ including my mom who was so happy to see me run. My older son Ashwin and a few of my friends had also joined with posters encouraging me along. Running with intervals of walking continued, my pace seemed a bit slower after mile 14. There were two loops within a large park which caused me some confusion and I had to make sure I was on the right track. Around mile 20, I felt tired again and was walking more than running in short intervals. I could see that many of my co-runners appeared tired as well.

I had read about a wall that one hits during a marathon; a point when mind and body protests and wonders what the hell one is doing. I wasn’t sure whether this was that or the fabled wall was yet to come. I saw a young man sit down. As I paused to check on him, he said he had leg cramps. Soon he was back on the track albeit with a slight limp. Exiting out of the park, there was more cheering and I felt glad that the finish line appeared closer. A family that was cheering the runners offered pickle juice. I gulped it down; I had heard that it may help relieve muscle cramps.

To my delight, my personal cheering squad was there again after mile 22. With rekindled energy and another nutrition gel and a round of hydration, I cruised along trying to visualize the finish line. Soon I heard many people shouting, “ almost there, you can do it.” I crossed mile 24 and 25; the last mile felt rather long. The finish line loomed to view, a few meters ahead. I was excited, relieved, happy and in disbelief. I heard the announcer say, “ her ponytail oscillating in the wind” followed by my name. Someone handed me a finisher medal, I was tired but smiling,

I had just completed my first marathon.

(The author, Dr. Yamini Menon, is a physician based in Memphis, Tennessee. In her spare time, she likes to paint.)

AMAR SINGH DEVANDA – WORKING HIS WAY UP IN ULTRARUNNING

Within a short while, this 25-year-old has notched up a series of podium wins, including a couple of national bests.

Amar Singh Devanda (Photo: courtesy Amar)

On December 5, 2021, Amar Singh Devanda, a long-distance runner from the Indian Air Force (IAF), won the 24-hour Ageas Federal Life Insurance Stadium Run in New Delhi, covering a distance of 223.20 kilometers.

Four months earlier, Amar, running the Bengaluru chapter of the 24-hour Ageas Federal Life Insurance Stadium Run, had covered a distance of 240.8 km, setting a new national best (on Indian soil) in the category. The overall national record for 24-hours is held by Ullas Narayana. Ullas had not only won the bronze medal at the men’s 24-hour IAU Asia & Oceanic Championships at Taipei in December 2018 but he also set a national record in this event covering a distance of 250.37 km.

Amar already holds the national record for the 100 km category. Running the 100 km race at the Tuffman 24-Hour Chandigarh Stadium Run in March 2021, he crossed the finish line in 7:32:43 hours. He had improved on the previous national best of 7:56:22 set in January 2021 by Surat-based ultra-runner Sandeep Kumar.

“ I trained well for the New Delhi stadium run of December 2021. I was excited about participating in this run. Some international runners were expected. Also, Ullas was running. This was a chance for me to meet him and some of the top runners,” Amar said following his win.

All the same, at 8.30 AM on December 5, 2021, as he stood at the start line of the 24-hour event in New Delhi, he wasn’t feeling fine due to an uneasy stomach. Nevertheless, he started his race and continued to run for about 10 hours, which was when a co-runner suggested a remedy for his problem. He took a break to execute her suggestion of having a spoonful of carom seeds (ajwain) with warm water, a remedy that helped him almost immediately. “ Barely 200 meters after I resumed, I started to feel better,’’ he said.

Amar Singh Devanda (Photo: courtesy Amar)

“ I just wanted to keep running at a steady pace and get to a winning finish. Already Damian Carr was 10 km ahead of me,” he said. Damian Carr was eventual the winner in the international category at New Delhi, covering a distance of 240 km. His mileage made him the overall winner of the 24-hour segment.

Amar finished the run in Delhi covering a distance of 223.20 km, 17 km short of his Bengaluru stadium run (held in August 2021) mileage.

“ In Delhi, many top runners quit the race mid-way. With each runner exiting the race, the competition became easier,’’ he said. He believes, one reason that prompted runners to exit was the bad air quality. The national capital had been facing days of extremely poor air quality prompting the authorities to take stringent measures.

He wonders if the absence of competition may have prevented him from stepping up his pace further as he was already heading for a win. “ Weather could have been better. It did get quite warm during the day,’’ Amar said.

With virtually no exposure to sports in his school years, Amar’s winning performance in the last few long-distance running events came as a surprise to him.

Growing up in Cheethwari village in Jaipur district, Amar did not participate in sports at the Shri Krishna Senior Secondary High School he attended. Once back from school, he was actively involved in farming and dairy activity. His family cultivated wheat, jowar, bajra and vegetables on the land and also carried out dairy farming.

“ I feel that farming and dairy activity helped build my endurance,’’ Amar said.

Post schooling, Amar enlisted to do his B-Tech at the Government Engineering College in Jhalawar. “ I was there for all of three months. I quit to join the Indian Air Force as a technical soldier,’’ he said.

Amar Singh Devanda (Photo: courtesy Amar)

“ At IAF, they encouraged us to participate in sports such as running, ultra-running and mountaineering. Among my first events in running was a 12 km cross country race at Jaisalmer, where I was posted. My coach told me to complete the race and then he would commence training me. I ended up winning the race. He was very happy,’’ Amar said.

A corporal in IAF, he commenced his journey into long-distance running in 2016. He has participated in a number of races organised by the defence services over the past few years. In 2019, he took part in a marathon in Bengaluru, organised by the Indian Air Force. He finished the race in second position with timing of 2:37.

The first time he participated in an open event was in December 2020 when he ran the 60 km ultra-race at Shivalik Ultra. Later that month he ran the 100 km race, The Border, which starts in Jaisalmer and ends in Longewala in Ramgarh, Rajasthan. Here, he ended up winner in the 100 km segment with timing of 10:47:21.

Amar Singh also participated in the 100 km race at NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held in Bengaluru in January 2021. He covered the distance in 8:26 hours.

Guided by his IAF coach, Thakur Singh Bajetha, Amar has been able to focus on training, race strategy and nutrition.

Amar believes he will be able to do well in the 24-hour category. “ The 24-hour category is tougher than 100 km because you need to be mentally strong to sustain through the hours. At the August 2021 run in Bengaluru, I kept getting negative feelings. At the end of 18 hours, I felt I could not continue. My coach spoke to me and that helped,’’ he said.

Amar Singh Devanda (Photo: courtesy Amar)

He is open to participate in either or both the 100 km and the 24-hour category at the IAU events, which India represents.

At Bengaluru’s August 2021 run, he had set a personal target of 220 km but ended up creating a new national best on Indian soil with the help of a robust support crew.

In India, ultra-runners were forced to pause their outdoor running training when the country went into a stringent lockdown in March 2020. But most of the runners used the time to step up their strength training and focus on diet and rest, equally important elements of training.

“ I could not do any training during the initial lockdown period,’’ Amar said, adding, “ our routine work increased during that period.’’

Posted at Jalandhar then, he would occasionally step out for a 5 km run.

“ I was in peak training before the lockdown and had participated in a 160 km ultra-race organised by the air force, in February 2020,’’ he said.

Unknowingly, the forced rest caused by the lockdown, helped him to recover.

Amar Singh Devanda (Photo: courtesy Amar)

Apart from his occasional short runs, he took to cycling. Sometime in September 2020, he resumed his proper training, building up mileage week after week.

At the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon 2021, held in March, he was the winner in the half marathon.

A week later, he set a new national best for 100 km at the Tuffman 24-Hour Stadium Run, Chandigarh. The following week, he ran the IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run, covering a distance of 74 km, third highest mileage among Indian runners.

He is currently in the process of figuring out the correct training, nutrition and hydration for ultra-running races.

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

2021 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON / KORIR, JEPCHIRCHIR WIN

Albert Korir. This image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of NYCM; no copyright violation intended.

Shalane Flanagan successfully completes her challenge of running the six marathon majors in six weeks with sub-three hours timing in each.

Albert Korir of Kenya triumphed at the 50th edition of the TCS New York City Marathon, held on November 7, 2021.

He covered the distance in 2:08:22 hours. In 2019, he had been first runner-up at the same event (2:08:36).

Olympic champion, Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya won among women at the 2021 New York City Marathon.

She finished the race in two hours, 22 minutes and 39 seconds.

In August, she had secured gold in the women’s marathon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with timing of 2:27:20.

In the men’s race in New York, Mohamed El Aaraby of Morocco finished second with timing of 2:09:06. In third position was Eyob Faniel of Italy with timing of 2:09:52.

Shalane Flanagan; this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of NYCM.
Peres Jepchirchir; this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of NYCM.

In the women’s race. finishing in second position behind Jepchirchir was her compatriot Viola Cheptoo (2:22:44). In third position was Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia (2:22:52).

American athlete Shalane Flanagan completed her challenge of running the six marathon majors in six weeks with sub-three hours timing in each; she got her best timing at the 2021 New York City Marathon (2:33:32). She ran the marathon at Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Portland and New York. The run in Portland was as part of the virtual version of the Tokyo Marathon.

Flanagan’s personal best in the marathon is 2:21:14 set in Berlin in September 2014.

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

KENYANS KIPRUTO, KIPYOGEI WIN AT 2021 BOSTON MARATHON

Benson Kipruto; this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Boston Marathon.

Flanagan gets her fourth sub-three of the current World Marathon Major-season

Kenyan elite runners took top honours in the men’s and women’s race at the 125th edition of the Boston Marathon held on October 11, 2021.

Thirty-year-old Benson Kipruto of Kenya won the men’s race in two hours, nine minutes and 51 seconds. Diana Kipyogei also of Kenya, won the women’s race in her first appearance in a World Marathon Major event. She crossed the finish line in 2:24:45.

Diana Kipyogei; this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Boston Marathon.

In the men’s race, Lemi Berhanu of Ethiopia came in second with timing of 2:10:37. Jemal Yimer, also of Ethiopia, finished third in 2:10:38.

Podium finish in the women’s race was a Kenyan sweep with Edna Kiplagat finishing second in 2:25:09 and Mary Ngugi placing third in 2:25:20.

India’s elite marathoner Nitendra Singh Rawat finished the race in 2:22:01 securing 31st position overall as well as in the men’s segment.

Shalane Flanagan; this 2019 image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the athlete and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright violation intended.

This year, the six World Marathon Major events are jammed into a six-week window. American runner Shalane Flanagan, on a quest to run all the six road races in sub three-hour timing, finished the Boston Marathon in 2:40:34, a day after she completed the marathon in Chicago in 2:46:39.

It has been sub-three so far for the 40-year-old Flanagan. Starting September 26, 2021, she completed the Berlin Marathon in 2:38:32 and seven days later, the London Marathon in 2:35:04 followed by Chicago and Boston.

According to a report in the New York Times (dated October 9, 2021), Flanagan who recovered from two major knee reconstructions in 2019 and has hamstring tendons from cadavers, plans to do the virtual version of the Tokyo Marathon.

Her last World Marathon Major of this crammed season will be the New York City Marathon scheduled for November 7; Flanagan had won its women’s category in 2017 (2:26:53), the first American woman to win the event since 1977.

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

TURA, CHEPNGETICH WIN 2021 CHICAGO MARATHON

This image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Chicago Marathon.

Ethiopia’s Seifu Tura and Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich won the men’s and women’s race respectively at the 2021 Chicago Marathon, held on October 10.

Chepngetich, the former half marathon world record holder and first runner-up at the 2020 London Marathon, took an early lead in the women’s race and stayed ahead until the end, to finish in two hours, 22 minutes and 31 seconds.

Emma Bates of the U.S finished in second position with a personal best timing of 2:24:20. In third position was Sara Hall, also of the U.S., finishing in 2:27:19.

This image was downloaded from then Twitter handle of Chicago Marathon.

In the men’s race, Tura won after breaking away from Galen Rupp of the U.S. and Kenya’s Eric Kiptanui. Tura’s winning time of 2:06:12 came amidst warm, humid conditions. Rupp crossed the finish line in second position in 2:06:35 and Kiptanui in 2:06:51 to place third.

American runner, Shalane Flanagan, finished in 2:46:39, securing 34th place among women runners. Flanagan had announced plans to run six World Marathon Majors in 42 days. The 2021 Chicago Marathon was her third since she started with the year’s Berlin Marathon held on September 26.

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

KENYA’S JEPKOSGEI, ETHIOPIA’S LEMMA WIN 2021 LONDON MARATHON

Joyciline Jepkosgei. This image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of London Marathon.

Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya and Ethiopia’s Sisay Lemma emerged winners of the women’s and men’s race respectively, at the 2021 edition of London Marathon held on October 3, 2021.

Jepkosgei, 28, finished the race in a personal best timing of two hours, 17 minutes and 43 seconds. She warded off competition including from the race favorite Brigid Kosgei, to storm to victory.

Kosgei, the world record holder at 2:14:04 set at Chicago Marathon in 2019, had to settle for the fourth position.

In the women’s race, Degitu Azimeraw of Ethiopia finished second with a timing of 2:17:58. In third position was Ashete Bekere also of Ethiopia with a finishing time of 2:18:18.

In the men’s race, Lemma crossed the finish line in 2:04:01. He was followed by Kenya’s Vincent Kipchumba (2:04:28) in second position and Mosinet Geremew (2:04:41) of Ethiopia in third position.

2021 London Marathon; this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of the race.

Defending champion Shura Kitata of Ethiopia finished in sixth position.

As reported by BBC, an estimated 80,000 persons took part in the 2021 London Marathon in person and via an app. More than 40,000 people participated in the physical race. “ It is 889 days since the colourful charity spectacular in front of cheering crowds last took place. A number of changes were in force this year to try to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Those running in central London had to show a negative lateral flow test for Covid-19,” the report said.

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

2021 BERLIN MARATHON: ETHIOPIANS TRIUMPH

Guye Adola of Ethiopia (this image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Berlin Marathon)

In the first major road race with sizable participation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Berlin Marathon saw Ethiopian runners triumph in both the men’s and women’s race.

At the 47th Berlin Marathon, held on September 26, 2021, Guye Adola of Ethiopia won the men’s race in two hours, five minutes and 45 seconds, way. He finished ahead of race favorite Kenenisa Bekele but the timing was way behind the world record of 2:01:39 set by Kenya’s Eluid Kipchoge at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In the women’s race, Gotytom Gebreslase of Ethiopia won her debut marathon in 2:20:09 hours. It was an Ethiopian sweep on the podium for women. Hiwot Gebrekidan finished second (2:21:23) and Helen Tola third (2:23:05).

Two-time winner of the Berlin Marathon previously, Bekele finished third among men with a timing of 2:06:47. Kenya’s Bethwel Yegon finished second with a timing of 2:06:14. The near total sweep of podium positions by Ethiopian runners in Berlin follows a rather disappointing performance by the country in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics.

Gotytom Gebreslase of Ethiopia (this image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Berlin Marathon)

American marathon runner Shalane Flanagan, who had announced plans to come out of her retirement and attempt six World Marathon Majors in 42 days, finished Sunday’s Berlin Marathon in 2:38:32, securing the 17th position among women.

The 2021 Berlin Marathon was the first race with sizable participation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports said nearly 24,800 runners from 139 countries participated in the race.

Over the next 42 days, five Elite Platinum Label marathons are scheduled to be held. The upcoming races are London Marathon (October 2, 2021), Chicago Marathon (October 10), Boston Marathon (October 11), Amsterdam Marathon (October 17) and New York City Marathon (November 7).

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

16 MINUTES

Nihal Baig; from 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Two hours, 31 minutes and 33 seconds. In early March 2021 when Nihal Ahamad Baig topped the amateur segment of the year’s Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon (NDM) with said timing, it was an improvement in his personal best (PB) by approximately 16 minutes.

The last full marathon he had run was the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), where he covered the 42.2 km-distance in two hours, 47 minutes and 30 seconds to place ninth overall in the amateur category and second in his age group (18-24 years). That year the winner among amateur runners at TMM had clocked 2:32:57. Although the 2020 edition of TMM was held as scheduled in January, Nihal had to sit that one out owing to a shin injury. The marathon in Mumbai was followed by the one in Delhi (2020 NDM) wherein the overall winner among amateurs clocked 2:35:10. A triathlete with successful finishes at Ironman events to his credit, Nihal’s major objective for the year was to participate in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships scheduled for November in New Zealand. The project went for a toss, courtesy something tiny and as described in a 2008 article in Scientific American “ inhabiting the grey area between living and non-living’’ – a virus. Roughly two months after 2020 TMM and almost exactly a month after 2020 NDM, India slipped into lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As humans sheltered indoors, outdoor sports ground to a halt. Initially, it was a sense of abject gloom and plans upset for those into the active lifestyle. Then, a different script began to play out. Nihal’s year gone by – as one looks back from the 16 minute-improvement registered at 2021 NDM – appears to have followed that script.

“ During my B.Tech and M.Tech days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, I was part of the athletics team. I used to participate in races over distances ranging from 400 meters to 5000 meters. I finished my M.Tech in 2016. But I did not stop running. I continued it on the IIT Mumbai campus thanks to my being alumni. I moved to exploring longer distances, starting with half marathons. Around this time, I took up employment in Mumbai. I work as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc. I started cycling to work, a distance of about nine kilometers from where I stay. Over time, I started to go for long rides. At that time, I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. I was keen to explore it and began learning to swim. In October 2017, I did my first half Ironman distance-triathlon in Hyderabad. What attracted me to the triathlon was that I got to do three sports in it instead of the usual one. And triathlon is all about fitness and endurance. I love how I get to push myself in these three disciplines,’’ Nihal had said in an article for this blog in November 2019, soon after he placed second in Ironman 70.3 Goa.

Nihal Baig (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When lockdown unfolded in the first quarter of 2020, of the triathlon’s three disciplines, swimming went into profound hibernation as authorities ordered pools shut as part of pandemic protocols. For those pursing the sport as well as the triathlon, the closure of pools would have left a bank of energy to be addressed – namely divert it into other activities that were still possible. Nihal, restricted to the confines of his apartment, found his refuge in cycling. “ I am not generally a fan of intense training sessions. But in the first few months of lockdown when we all had to stay indoors, I did a lot of intense cycling on my trainer,’’ he said mid-March 2021, some ten days after NDM. Cycling is recognized cross-training for running. The hours spent on the home trainer, besides working the relevant muscle groups, contributed to improving cardio-vascular fitness. He also worked out at home to stay physically fit. Additionally, as the frenzied urban lifestyle slowed down with pandemic and Work from Home (WFH) took hold, there was both greater ownership of time, an improved sense of personal ecosystem and therein, the inadvertent use of such existence for general recovery by minds and bodies traditionally addicted to relentless activity. Downtime, rest, mindfulness – these things matter. Running is an impact sport. Cycling, pounds the joints less than running. The reduced impact of cycling suited Nihal who was recovering from shin injury. Slowly, the injury began to heal. Around end May-early June, he commenced regular jogging on a loop of roughly 1.5 kilometers, within the premises of his housing society in Powai, Mumbai. Thereafter it was a gradual drift back to the training of old albeit with no events on the horizon for focus.

Nihal Baig; cycling in Pune (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

“ Between swimming, cycling and running, I have always found running to be the most satisfying,’’ Nihal said. Given his last marathon had been in January 2019, he was keen to get back to running long distance. To satisfy the urge, he ran the virtual Boston Marathon in September 2020. He did this during a visit to Hyderabad, his hometown. Then he did something that fundamentally altered his training ecosystem. According to Nihal, he had all along been training alone in Mumbai. He wasn’t particularly attached to any group of runners or triathletes in the city. At the same time, he was aware of the need for a dose of intense training to improve his act and the deficit he experienced in this regard. Training with others can be helpful. The question was – how can he create an ambience offering better motivation; where would he find it? Nihal had noticed that intensity / commitment levels were more in Pune, Maharashtra’s second biggest city, approximately 150 kilometers away from Mumbai. With WFH rendering one’s location irrelevant when it came to office responsibilities, Nihal took advantage of the new trend to shift to Pune in October. There, training in the company of committed amateur athletes, his running and cycling gathered momentum. Two other things also influenced the decision. Thanks to its location at higher elevation (1840 feet / source: Wikipedia), Pune’s weather includes a winter. The place is generally less humid than Mumbai. Plus, its terrain is more varied than that of India’s financial capital; Nihal found himself cycling outdoors more often in Pune than he used to in Mumbai. “ Currently I have intense training sessions four days a week and long training sessions twice a week. I also do easy sessions in the evening. The training sessions are evenly divided between running and cycling,’’ Nihal said.

By late 2020-early 2021, as the first flush of pandemic subsided and lockdown rules relaxed, a trickle of sporting events reappeared in India and elsewhere in the world. Partial to running, Nihal itched to participate in a running event. He registered for the district cross-country championships in Pune; the race spanned 10 kilometers. Nihal secured third position, qualifying for the state championships (race length: 11km) in the process. At the latter, he failed to qualify for the nationals. But the timing from the district championships told him something – he covered the distance in 33 minutes, 29 seconds while his previous PB for the same distance was 35:30. “ I had the feeling that if I were to attempt a full marathon, I may be able to chop off eight to ten minutes from my PB. But it is difficult to extrapolate expectations for a marathon based on performance in a 10k. The marathon is four times longer, anything can happen,’’ he said. The cross-country experience of January 2021, encouraged Nihal to register for 2021 NDM. With an event to look forward to, he trained with greater focus from five to six weeks ahead of the competition. “ About 18 days before NDM I did a time trial over 25 kilometers. The timing I got in it was an hour and 28 minutes. I then felt that if all went well, aiming for 2:35 at NDM wouldn’t be unreasonable,’’ Nihal said.

Nihal Baig; on the podium after topping the amateur category at 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

On race day in New Delhi, he kept a conservative pace for the first six kilometers and then went slightly faster. “ I could catch the leaders around the 10k mark and then we started pushing each other till 30k before they began slowing down. I stuck with the same pace till 37k but then I got a bad cramp which forced me to stop. I had to stretch and walk for about 30-40 seconds before I could recommence running,” he said. He was able to hold on to his pace and finish ahead of others in the amateur category. The timing – 2:31:33 was an improvement in PB by 16 minutes; it also fetched a position on the podium.

When the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand was cancelled due to COVID-19, Nihal had opted for the event’s 2021 edition scheduled in Utah, USA. At that time, a year had seemed adequate for humanity to counter the virus. Early 2021; in hindsight, that smacked of over-optimism. With the world still in the clutches of the pandemic and international travel yet to become normal, Nihal is unsure whether he would be able to attend the event in Utah. Races closer to home appear more practical. “ I hope to participate in the 2021 TMM in May, if it is held as planned,’’ Nihal said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Nihal Baig, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/05/a-fine-bit-of-cycling-at-ironman-goa-and-a-podium-finish-to-remember-it-by/)

NEW NATIONAL BESTS AT STADIUM RUN IN CHANDIGARH

Amar Singh Devanda

Amar Singh Devanda, Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in 100km

Top four male finishers break existing 100km national best

Binay Sah, Deepti Chaudhary win 24-hour race

Amar Singh Devanda and Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in the men’s and women’s 100 kilometre-race respectively at the Tuffman 24 Hour Stadium Run held on March 13 and 14, 2021 in Chandigarh.

Amar Singh finished the distance in seven hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds, a new national best. The previous national best of 7:56:22 was held by Sandeep Kumar; set at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run at Bengaluru in January 2021. At the Chandigarh Stadium Run, the top four male finishers from the 100 km-race broke this national best.

Gorkha Ram

Finishing behind Amar Singh was Gorkha Ram with a timing of 7:40:55, followed by Sunil Sharma (7:47:19) and Suman Kumar Mishra (7:51:57). It was only last week that Amar Singh, who works with the Indian Air Force (IAF), had won the half marathon race at the 2021 Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon.

Amar Singh took up running at the age of 18, during his training days at IAF. However, he is a recent entrant to the discipline of ultra-running. A corporal in IAF, he started out tackling the 10 km-distance before commencing training for the marathon. The 24-year-old participated in a number of races organised by the Services. Closer to the present, he ran the 60 km ultra-race at Shivalik Ultra and the 100 km category at Border 100 2020, where he ended up winner with timing of 10:47:21. He also participated in the 100 km race at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held in Bengaluru in January 2021. “ I ran at marathon pace and burnt out. I finished the distance in 8:26 hours,” he said.

His coach from IAF, Thakur Singh Bajetha, advised him to reduce his pace for the Chandigarh run. “ Here, my target was to achieve a sub 8:10-finish. I reduced my pace and was able to run without any break till the end,” he said. This time around, his training, race strategy and nutrition were in properly place and it helped.

Darishisha Iangjuh and Gunjan Khurana

A week earlier, he had won the half marathon race at the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon 2021. Next on the cards for Amar Singh is the IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run to be held on March 21, 2021. He is part of the Indian team for this virtual run.

For Gorkha Ram, who finished second in the men’s 100 km race, the Chandigarh run was his first competition outside of events conducted by the Services. A sergeant in the IAF, Gorkha Ram commenced running in 2015 but stayed focussed on events within the armed forces. At Chandigarh, the 36-year-old runner ran alongside his compatriot Amar Singh.

In the women’s 100km-race in Chandigarh, Gunjan Khurana covered the distance in 9:08:18, an improvement on the previous national best of 9:22:03 set by Anjali Saraogi at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, in November 2019. Gunjan was also part of the team representing India at the event Jordan. The women’s team had secured silver at the championships. In second position behind Gunjan at Chandigarh, was Nutan with timing of 9:22:49. Darishisha Iangjuh finished third; her timing was 9:41:13. Darishisha’s previous best in the 100k was 10:19:28, also set in Jordan. 

Deepti Chaudhary (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A year of intensive training helped Gunjan achieve her new personal best (now also the national best). “ I was able to train well through the year. However, I had a setback in December when I contracted COVID-19. My entire family came down with the virus. After I recovered, I could not immediately resume intensive training,” Gunjan, a resident of Surat, said.

She did several training-runs of 30 and 40km coupled with strength workout. In terms of a really long run, she was able to do just one as she lost all of December to recuperating from the infection. “ At the Chandigarh race, I ran strong for the first 60-70km. Also, the weather was perfectly suited to push for better timing,” Gunjan said. Her previous best in 100 km was 9:57:42, set at the earlier mentioned championships in Jordan in 2019.

In Chandigarh, the 100 km-race commenced at 5PM on March 13. Weather was mostly pleasant but participants in the 24-hour race had to cope with warm weather during the day. In the 24-hour category for men, Binay Kumar Sah was the winner with distance of 236.919km covered. Saurav Ranjan finished second; he covered a distance of 225.14km while Rakesh Kashyap secured third position with 203.85km to his credit. Among women, Deepti Chaudhary covered a distance of 178.935km in the assigned 24 hours. Kalpana Saha finished second with a distance of 173.95km to her name while Shashi Mehta finished third, covering 172.59km.

Binay Kumar Sah (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A week before the 24-hour run in Chandigarh, Binay Sah ran the full marathon at the 2021 New Delhi Marathon (NDM); he finished with timing of 2:49:18. “ Much of my training was focussed on the 24-hour run. But after I did a long training run of 84 km on February 14, I switched to speed training for my marathon event at NDM. I reduced my weekly mileage, which was around 150-180km, to around 100 km, for the marathon,” he said. At the 24-hour run, his strategy was to run strong for the first 12 hours. “ My race started at 4PM. Until 8AM, I ran continuously as the weather was pleasant. Post 9AM and up to 1PM, I slowed down as it was quite warm. I took a short break and then picked up pace. During the last three hours, I resorted to fast paced running,” he said. According to him, in the last three hours, he covered a distance of 35 km.

Binay, 39, trains on almost all days. He employs a combination of running on track, road and mud. He couples this with yoga and gym training. An employee of Adidas, at the time of writing, he was working from office three days a week and working from home the remaining two days. “ Once I am back from work, I run for nearly two hours at a park or a stadium near my house. In the afternoons, I do yoga if I am at home and if I am at the office, I work out in my office gym,” he said.

In the 12-hour category in Chandigarh, the winner in the men’s segment was Ajay Yadav; he covered a distance of 114.12km. In second position was Abhishake Gupta (109.14km). Sushant (108.45km) placed third. In the women’s segment, Anshu Saini won covering a distance of 100.43km. Anjali (91.15km) finished second while Mamta Sharma (88.81km) placed third.
 

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Photos by arrangement, where credits haven’t been mentioned.)