2023 TMM / MUSINGS

Chavi Yadav (Photo: courtesy Chavi)

Won a marathon but first love stays steeplechase

On the eve of the 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Chavi Yadav was a runner in the shadow of better-known names in the Indian women’s elite category. She had never run the marathon before. The race in Mumbai was to be her first. Hours later, she rewrote expectations. TMM had a new winner in the category of Indian elite women and it was Chavi.   

The Railways athlete was not new to racing. Chavi, 30, has been running since her senior school days, participating over the years in 800 metres, 1500 metres, 3000 metre steeplechase and 5K and 10K events. Her specialization is in the steeplechase. She has also been active in cross country races. Ahead of TMM, she had won in the 10-kilometre category at the National Cross Country Championships held at Kaziranga, Assam, over January 7 and 8, 2023. She covered the distance in 35:05 minutes. A week later she was at the start line of the Mumbai Marathon along with other Indian elite runners. “ My coach Sandeep Pundir asked me to train for the marathon. There was no targeted time to finish in,” she said. Chavi surprised everybody with a fine victory, covering the distance of 42.2 km in two hours, 50 minutes and35 seconds. Notwithstanding her win at TMM, her commitment to the steeplechase remains unwavering. “ At the moment I do not have any plan to train and run marathons. I want to focus on steeplechase and try to qualify for the Asian Games,” she said. She indicated that she may get back to the marathon after the 2024 Olympics. “ Right now, I don’t want to mess up my training for the steeplechase. Marathon entails a much longer time to recovery,” she said. Coming up is a trip to Bathurst, Australia, the venue of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships 2023, where Chavi will be representing India in the 10 km discipline. The event is slated to be held on February 19, 2023.

Man Singh (right), Gopi T (centre), Kalidas Hirave (left). This photo was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Tata Mumbai Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

A debut to remember

For Man Singh, it was the first marathon he was participating in. Hailing from Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand, until the 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) he had been a regular in the 5000m, 10,000m and the half marathon. In the half marathon, he had been podium finisher before at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and at a couple of editions of TMM. At the 2016 ADHM, he had completed the half marathon in 1:04:40. Attached to the Army Sports Institute in Pune, some months before the 2023 TMM, his coach M. D. Yunus suggested that he try his hands at the marathon with a view to eventually attempt qualifying for the upcoming Asian Games. Accordingly, two to three months before the event in Mumbai, Man Singh commenced his training for the marathon in Ooty. The hill station in Tamil Nadu (it is also a well-known military base) is a popular training ground for the country’s elite distance runners. Man Singh knew that he would be heading for warm, sultry weather in Mumbai, an aspect often cited about the Mumbai marathon besides it’s not so easy course. But a surprise was in the making. The cold wave that hit north India in January 2023 along with its impact on Mumbai, rendered local weather conditions quite hospitable for running in the otherwise warm and humid coastal metropolis. On race day in Maharashtra’s capital, Man Singh found the weather very supportive. “ On the whole I felt good,’’ he said about his first marathon. He admitted to finding the second half of the race, which took him to domain beyond the half marathon that he was used to, challenging. But he hung on as best as he could behind the race leader among Indian elites, Gopi. T. He completed the race 17 seconds behind fellow army runner Gopi, to place second among Indian elite athletes in the men’s category with a timing of 2:16:58. An outing five days later – this time a half marathon in Dhaka in Bangladesh – would prove tad disappointing for Man Singh who was yet to recover fully from his 42K-run at Mumbai. But that hasn’t dimmed his desire to try qualifying for the Asian Games. “ I hope to participate in the New Delhi Marathon in February,’’ Man Singh said.      

Kalidas Hirave (Photo: courtesy Kalidas)

A bit short of his PB but good enough for third place

Pune-based Kalidas Hirave is a recent entrant to the marathon. He started as a middle-distance runner and then progressed to the 10,000 metres, half marathon and the marathon. “ The 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon was my third marathon,” he said. In February 2022, he ran his debut marathon at the New Delhi Marathon and finished with a timing of 2:18:12, a personal best to date. In the same year, he ran the Pune International Marathon to finish with a timing of 2:22:21. Kalidas, an employee of Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), said his training in the run up to the Tata Mumbai Marathon had been quite good with a fair combination of mileage training and core workout. “ I trained with a target of two hours, 15 minutes as time to finish. On race day, I ran well until the 30th kilometre and stayed within the Indian elite group. After that I started to suffer cramps and had to slow down. The last 12 kilometres were quite tough and I managed to cover them by jogging,” he said. Kalidas finished in third position among Indian elite men, with a timing of 2:19:54. He now plans to run the New Delhi Marathon, scheduled for February 26, 2023, in an attempt to qualify for the Asian Games. “ I plan to resume my training from next week,” he said on January 22, a week after the 2023 TMM. Unlike the typical lot of Indian elite runners, hailing from the defence forces with careers focused on the sport and training in groups of competent runners, Kalidas trains independently under his coach.

Nihal Ahamad Baig (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

A second place with a new personal best for Nihal Baig

Pune-based Nihal Ahamad Baig had to decide whether he wanted to train properly and attempt the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon scheduled for February 26, 2023 or go ahead and take a chance at the 2023 edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), which was returning after a gap of two years. A winner at the 2022 Goa Ironman held in mid-November, Nihal was in recovery phase for the rest of November. “ I decided to go ahead and do TMM as a training run. Also, the atmosphere is so great in Mumbai,’’ he said. At the time he decided on running the TMM he had four weeks left to train. “ I trained with Manoj Yadav. I had a target of two hours, 35 minutes to finish in,” he said. On race day, he felt good and went along with Manoj, steadily overtaking many runners along the way. “ At 17-18 kilometres, we caught up with Nanjundappa who was in second place at that time. The three of us ran together until the 35th kilometre. Just ahead of the Peddar Road stretch, which is an uphill, I picked up pace. Nanjundappa followed me but Manoj started to lag behind. During the climb I could feel the tightness in my legs and had to slow down my pace,’’ Nihal said. At this point Nanjundappa overtook him and went ahead. Nihal continued to keep his pace down during the downhill stretch of Peddar Road too. But soon after that he started to push again. “ I could see Nanjundappa ahead of me but I was not able to get to him. Also, towards the last 2-3 kilometres the large number of 10K runners forced me to dodge through the lot, to get to the finish line. I may have lost at least 30-40 seconds doing that,’’ Nihal said. Nanjundappa went on to win the amateur men’s category of the marathon. Nihal finished second with a timing of 2:28:17, a personal best by three minutes. Manoj Yadav finished third. “ I am quite satisfied with my performance,’’ Nihal said adding that the pleasant weather helped him maintain a comfortable pace. “ Thankfully, the hamstring tightness and knee pain which I felt during the race eased after a couple of recovery runs post TMM,’’ he said. Nihal now has his eye on the New Delhi Marathon, which has a flat course and usually sports pleasant weather.

The team from Run Meghalaya (Photo: courtesy the team)

Meghalaya runners dedicate their participation at TMM to the memory of Daphika Pakyntein

For several years now, Run Meghalaya has sent a team to participate in the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). This year was no different. Fourteen runners arrived; half of them earned podium finishes, including Darishisha Iangjuh who placed third overall among women marathon runners in the open category and first in her age group. Others with podium finishes in the marathon included Marvin Kharkongor (third in 25-29 years, male), Tlanding Wahlang (first in 40-44 years, male), Jomsingstar Ramsiej (second in 35-39 years, male), Bandasharai Marwein (third in 25-29 years, female), Snora Lyngkhoi (third in 50-54 years, female) and Kmoin Wahlang (first in 70 years and above, female). According to Darishisha and Shaikupar Kharshing, who spoke to this blog, much of the training they did in the months of pandemic was on trails. By way of events in the run up to 2023 TMM, all they had to participate in, were a half marathon and a 10K towards the end of 2022. Both these events were held in Meghalaya. Notwithstanding such limitations, almost all the members of the team showed improved performance at Sunday’s TMM. Compared to their previous outings at TMM, the time they took to cover the course had shrunk. On behalf of the whole team, Darishisha and Shaikupar expressed their gratitude to Dr Kyrshan Lynrah who had consistently supported the team’s participation at the event in Mumbai. The Run Meghalaya team has dedicated their participation at 2023 TMM to the memory of their late team member Daphika Pakyntein. January 15, the day of the 2023 Mumbai marathon, marked the first anniversary of her demise.

Savio D’ Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A day of reward after more than two years of momentum and motivation, sustained

For coach Savio D’Souza, the 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) was a good experience. Notwithstanding COVID-19 impacting the preceding years, his group had done its best to stay connected to running. “ Aside from a few months lost to lockdown, we had continued our regular training,’’ he said. As the pandemic swept through Mumbai, runners from the group, including Savio, were not spared. The important thing for those affected so, was to return to running gradually. “ We were confident that we would be able to resume running. We were also cautious in our approach,’’ he said underscoring the gradual progress to form that was resorted to. For two years – 2021 and 2022 – TMM wasn’t held citing COVID-19. To keep his runners motivated, Savio’s group held competitions exclusive to group members. There were friendly competitions spanning 10K, 15K, the half marathon and the marathon. In 2021 and 2022, around the usual date of TMM, the group held races to mark the occasion, Savio said. When TMM finally returned, it did so with an unexpected bonus. The weather on race day, January 15, 2023, was superb. It was cool for most of the hours of the race. “ It was the best weather the event has had to date,’’ Savio said. Coupled with these weather conditions, the efforts made by the group to sustain their motivation and interest in running during the years lost to pandemic, appears to have paid off. “ Our runners fared well. Many of them registered their personal best at 2023 TMM,’’ Savio said, adding that the team of runners from Ladakh he had been associated with for long, also did well.    

Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ladakh’s running team: Jigmet Dolma places fourth among elite Indian women; Disket Dolma, Tashi Ladol, Stanzin Chondol get age category podium places

“ Between the fifteenth kilometre and the twenty first, I became slow. I tried to regain my pace thereafter but couldn’t,’’ Jigmet Dolma said. A familiar face among top Indian women runners at the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) she had finished third in the elite category for Indian women in 2019. On January 15, at the 2023 edition of the event, she placed fourth (TMM wasn’t held in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID-19). Her result sheet reinforces her assessment. Of the four splits for which time was provided, the first was the fastest. After that, there was a slowing with average pace in the final two splits staying steady. In comparison, Chavi Yadav who won the race for Indian elite women, showed a near steady pace all through. But what the splits told seemed only one half of Jigmet’s run on Sunday. She completed the marathon in 3:03:31, which was faster than her timing at some of the previous editions of TMM (in 2019, when she placed third, she had clocked 3:10:43; in 2016, when she finished third in the open category her timing was 3:27:50) and not very far from her personal best of 3:01, set at the New Delhi Marathon in 2019.  In 2020, when she ended up fifth among elite Indian women at TMM, her timing was 3:05:09 . For the 2023 TMM, Jigmet’s journey to Mumbai had followed the regular path taken by the team of runners Ladakh sends annually to competitions in the plains. After the 2020 TMM, running had tapered globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By then a special police officer in Ladakh, Jigmet, after a few months of work, was allowed to devote time for her training in long distance running (fellow Ladakhi runner and another familiar face at TMM, Tsetan Dolkar was also now a special police officer). According to Jigmet, she kept her running alive during the pandemic months. Return to competitions commenced with the 2022 edition of the Ladakh Marathon. “ My timing wasn’t good but I finished first all the same,’’ she said. A week later, she ran a 10K at an event in Kargil. Then with the running team from Ladakh, she embarked on the annual journey to events in the plains; their first halt was the 2022 Vedanta Half Marathon, where she finished second in the open category for women. Next stop was the Tata Steel 25K in Kolkata. Compared to previous years at these events, Jigmet showed improved performance. Her participation at the 2023 TMM followed this. In 2023, the Ladakh team in Mumbai was made up of 11 runners and their coach. Of the 11, three runners secured podium finishes in their age category. They were Disket Dolma (3:23:34), who finished first in the 18-24 years age category for women; Tashi Ladol (1:25:22), who finished second in the half marathon in the 18-24 years age category for women and Stanzin Chondol (1:26:14), who finished third in the half marathon in the 18-24 years age category for women. Tsetan Dolkar (3:10:25) placed sixth in the elite category for Indian women.

The team of runners from Ladakh who were in Mumbai for the 2023 TMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

From Mumbai, the team will proceed to Delhi for the 2023 New Delhi Marathon. Although running may still be a young sport in Ladakh, the concept of a running team pioneered by Rimo Expeditions and its annual pilgrimage to events in the plains, has opened up possibilities and new ideas. One such case was that of Namgyal Lhamo. A friend of Jigmet from their school days and inspired by the latter, Namgyal ran her first marathon in 2014 in Ladakh. According to the team’s coach and manager, Tsering Stobgias, a few kilometers from the finish, Namgyal suffered an injury. She stomached the pain, held herself together and finished in second place. The injury later turned out to be a fracture. She rested for seven to eight months, healed and returned to running. “ The thing about Namgyal was that she always completed the marathon but wasn’t one of the fastest. Jigmet and Tsetan would be first and second and usually separated by a modest margin. Namgyal would come in after them but the gap from the leaders to her, was sizeable. Her strength was endurance,’’ Stobgias said. This has prompted an experiment in the team – Namgyal has been slowly foraying into the world of ultramarathons. In 2022, she was the winner among women at the year’s Khardung La Challenge, the popular ultramarathon in Ladakh. She covered the 72 kilometre-distance in eight hours, 27 minutes and 39 seconds. A marathon runner finishing first among women in the Khardung La Challenge was not new. Tsetan Dolkar had done so earlier but she elected to stick with the marathon. Namgyal on the other hand, wished to try more of the ultramarathon. Traveling with the team to the events of the plains, she then participated in a 50K trail ultramarathon at the Jumping Gorilla Mountain Trail Run Championship in Pune in January 2023 and placed second. Trail running was a new experience for her and it left her challenged. Although she admitted to finding greater comfort in running on roads, Namgyal returns to Ladakh with both the ultramarathon and trail running on her mind. She wants to see how well she can train for the ultramarathon and also adapt to the demands of trail running. Meanwhile, support for Ladakh’s running team has shifted from Rimo Expeditions (they organize the annual Ladakh Marathon and the Khardung La Challenge) to the Ladakh administration. “ We supported the team for almost ten years. Now the union territory administration takes care of it. The current sports secretary, Ravinder Kumar, has been very supportive. The athletes are hoping that the arrangement continues,’’ Chewang Motup, who owns Rimo Expeditions, said.      

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For Sabhajeet Yadav, chilly Mumbai adds joy to yet another win

For many years now Sabhajeet Yadav, a farmer from Dabhiya village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, has been running marathons across the country and earning podium finish. The prize money that he earned from these races helped him to augment his family’s income mostly coming from agriculture. In some of the earlier editions of the Mumbai Marathon, Sabhajeet had slept the night before the event at CSMT, the city’s main railway station, so as not to be late for the marathon, which commenced nearby. It was an approach and attitude that stunned many, particularly because he almost always bagged a podium finish. But all that has now changed. Bhasker Desai, a runner friend, started supporting him in signing up for races and purchasing running shoes. Bhasker continues to support him. Meanwhile, Sabhajeet’s second son, Rohit Yadav, who was in those years of Sabhajeet’s struggle an upcoming athlete in the javelin throw, has since excelled at his sport and come to represent India at international championships. He trains with the Sports Authority of India. Rohit Yadav now works with the Railways. None of that has however dimmed the inspiration Sabhajeet offers as an individual. This year, New Vasantashram Hotel, a boarding hotel near CSMT, decided to host Sabhajeet. At the 2023 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon, Sabhajeet was the winner in his age category of 65-69 years with a timing of 3:23:29. After the race, a beaming Sabhajeet pointed out that the unexpected cool weather was a major factor in his performance. He was all praise for that quirk of nature, which brought winter back to a city that has seen its share of cool weather diminish steadily over the years. “ I really enjoyed this year’s TMM,’’ Sabhajeet said.

K. C. Kothandapani (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Back to setting the pace; cautiously

For a long time now, the Mumbai’s annual city marathon has signified the finale of a year of training and running for Bengaluru-based PaceMakers. The group anchored by coach K. C. Kothandapani typically moves through a variety of events, the progression culminating in TMM. They had a fine outing at this year’s Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) with Nanjundappa. M emerging winner in the open category for men, covering the distance in two hours, 27 minutes and 41 seconds. Additionally, there were improvements in timing reported by others and quite a few debutants in the marathon doing well, Kothandapani said. This was his eleventh appearance at the event and the weather was among the finest he had experienced in Mumbai. A couple of years earlier in the world of running, things had been much different, Kothandapani recalled. In the wake of pandemic and lockdown, events around running came to a standstill. “ The more committed among our runners kept their running alive in whatever fashion they could,’’ the coach said. Later, when lockdown eased and the fight against the pandemic continued without resort to lockdown, PaceMakers and a couple of outfits it was close to, organized runs spanning 10K, 21K and 42K at places adequately away from Bengaluru city. It was a cautious return to running. Asked how athletes’ brush with COVID-19 had affected their performance, Kothandapani said that it appeared to vary from person to person. While many bounced back, there are a few still struggling. Sometimes it has also been a case of infection not formally diagnosed but sensed as tiredness, recovered from with rest and later suspected to be COVID-19 because there is a struggle to reach earlier levels of running. The pandemic added a new dimension to Kothandapani’s coaching. During lockdown, training via Zoom sessions set in as a practice. These sessions were devoted to strength training using body weight. Although humanity has since learnt to cope with COVID-19, the online training sessions – including those by Kothandapani – continue. Amidst this, the situation with regard to events changed in 2022. “ There were many events that year,’’ Kothandapani said. In some cases, multiple editions of the same event occurred in 2022 as means to compensate for editions lost to pandemic. Notwithstanding the sudden explosion of events, the approach in his group has been to return to the sport and to one’s earlier form, cautiously, Kothandapani said.

Vaijayanti Ingawale (Photo: courtesy Vaijayanti)

Ankle injury does not deter Vaijayanti Ingawale

A paediatrician, Vaijayanti Ingawale stopped running during the lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her fitness routine was restricted to workouts at home. She commenced her practice runs sometime in 2021 when things began to ease on the COVID-19 front. “ I enrolled for a 12-hour run at the Mumbai stadium run held in August 2021. I did very little running and mostly walked through the 12 hours,” she said. Later that year, she signed up for full marathon at the Goa River Marathon and completed it in 4:48:15. But thereafter, she ended up with an ankle and foot injury and had to go slow on training. Attempting a 60 km-race at the Ooty Ultra in March 2022, Vaijayanti aggravated her injury. “ I went to a doctor who advised me to go off running for three months,” she said. In August 2022, she signed up for a half marathon at Silvassa but decided to complete it with a combination of run and walk. Vaijayanti took the decision to sign up for the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) quite late; only just before the registrations closed. “ I had one month to train properly for the run,” she said. Her husband Deepak and son Ameya, a Thane-based ophthalmologist, also signed up for TMM 2023. “ We decided to take it easy. We started the run well and up until the 30th kilometre, I was comfortable. After that, I started to feel the ankle pain. For the last eight kilometres or so, I had to go slow,” she said. Vaijayanti finished in 5:24:50 hours to win in her age group of 65-69 years. “ My recovery has been good after the marathon,” she said adding that the unexpectedly chilly weather contributed to some very good performances all around.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)   

A MEMORABLE WIN FOR GOPI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2023 TMM / ETHIOPIA’S LEMI AND HAYMANOT SET NEW COURSE RECORDS

Hayle Lemi (Photo: Saurabh Bhattacharyya)

Gopi and Chavi are top finishers among Indians

Ethiopian runners took top honors at the 2023 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) held on Sunday, January 15.

The men’s elite category was won by Hayle Lemi of Ethiopia, who finished in a new course record of two hours, seven minutes and 32 seconds. His compatriot Anchialem Haymanot finished first among elite women, covering the distance in 2:24:15, another new course record.

Lemi was followed to the finish line by Philemon Rono (2:08:44) and Hailu Zewdu (2:10:23). In the women’s category, Rahma Tusa (2:24:22) finished second and Letebrhan Haylay (2:24:52) finished third.

Among elite Indian men, Gopi T (2:16:41) finished first followed by Man Singh (2:16:58) and Kalidas Hirave (2:19:54). In the elite Indian women’s category, Chavi Yadav (2:50:35) placed first; Arati Patil (3:00:44) placed second and Renu Singh (3:01:11), third.

Lemi, the overall winner of 2023 TMM, had won the 2016 edition of the Boston Marathon.

Anchialem Haymanot (this image was downloaded from the Twitter handle of TMM and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

The event in Mumbai was being held after a gap of two years owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to news reports ahead of the event, over 50,000 people were due to participate across categories ranging from elite and amateur marathons to the half marathon, the 10K and the dream run.

In the open category, the overall winners in the men’s marathon were Nanjundappa M (2:27:41), Nihal Baig (2:28:17) and Manoj Kumar Yadav (2:29:02). Overall winners in the women’s category were Sarswati Rai (3:14:26), Manisha Joshi (3:18:39) and Darishisha Iangjuh (3:22:29).

In the half marathon, the top three finishers among men were Murli Gavit (1:05:16), Ankit Deshwal (1:05:45) and Dipak Kumbhar (1:05:48). Among women, the winners were Parul Chaudhary (1:15:03), Nandini Gupta (1:24:09) and Poonam Sonune (1:24:56).

The 2023 edition of TMM will be remembered for its supportive weather conditions. For the major portion of the race, the weather was quite cool. Thanks to infrastructure projects commenced years ago yet to be completed in the city, the route of the half marathon was altered. This time the half marathon began in Mahim, proceeded towards Bandra and the Sea Link and then mostly followed the route of the previous years.  

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

DRAWN TO THE 24 HOUR-TT AND HOPING IT HAPPENS IN INDIA

Kabir Rachure; at the 2022 Borrego Springs WTTC (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

“ I got interested in the event mainly because of its name,’’ Kabir Rachure said.

He was talking of the annual Borrego Springs WTTC (World Time Trial Championships) held in the settlement of Borrego Springs in San Diego County, California. Both “ world’’ in the name and the fact that the event is a time trial, attracted. ` World’ had a ring of quality and things to learn from. As for time trial – it is all about speed, an attribute associated more with the shorter sprint disciplines in cycling and not, ultra-cycling.

A two-time finisher in Race Across America (RAAM) and a regular podium finisher at ultra-cycling events in India, Kabir’s forte is endurance. Ultra-cyclists are not usually associated with speed. But speed does play a role in ultra-cycling for both finishing races within stipulated cut-off time and the higher ground of emerging a podium finisher, demand speed from ultra-cyclist. It isn’t the same speed as showcased by sprint cyclist in a velodrome; it is the stuff of higher average speed maintained for long, which is still the stuff of speed. “ It is like comparing Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge. Bolt may be the fastest. But Kipchoge is not only running fast; he is also doing that for 42 kilometres,’’ Kabir said, outlining the paradigm, which drew him to Borrego Springs in early November 2022 for the annual WTTC. Or to cite an example from within the world of ultra-cycling, think of the Austrian great, Christoph Strasser, winner of RAAM multiple times and current record holder for the fastest completion of the 4800 kilometre-race – seven days, 15 hours, and 56 minutes, set in 2014. That’s speed; sustained.

Kabir with his support team – his sister Sapana and Rutvik – at the 2022 Borrego Springs WTTC (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

Closer to ultra-cyclist’s interests, the WTTC at Borrego Springs tests endurance because its categories span six, 12 and 24 hours of cycling in the time trial format. Such long hours of pedalling fast represent a sweet spot, showcasing both speed and endurance. Not surprisingly, the WTTC Borrego Springs also serves as a RAAM-qualifier. “ If you cover 400 miles in 24 hours, you get a certificate that lets you participate in RAAM,’’ Kabir said. The Navi Mumbai-based cyclist reached Borrego Springs registered for the 24 hour-time trial competition and nursing a goal of covering 720-750 kilometres in the assigned time. Kabir knew what he would be up against. “ I didn’t want to fight anyone leading the race. Some of the racers had done more than 800 kilometres at such competitions before,’’ he said. His intention was more in line with discovering his capabilities and finding out where he stood in a competitive field.

The event was held on a loop of 29 kilometres. It had one stop sign and no traffic signals. Notwithstanding the lone stop sign, cyclists participating in the WTTC were given priority by the authorities so that they could go about accumulating loops. In fact, the whole town appeared supportive of the event. Kabir recalled traffic making room for the cyclists and accommodating them on the road. The weather was helpful; prevailing temperatures were not high. And unlike in RAAM, where the scale of the course is huge and cyclists are often separated from each other by considerable distance, in Borrego Springs, the loop of 29 kilometres kept the sense of community compact and permitted social interaction among the participating cyclists.

Kabir reached California a week in advance to ensure he recovered well from the jet lag of a long trip. He had a small support team, his sister Sapana and Rutvik; and two bicycles to tackle the time trial – a proper TT bike (the Spiegel Diablo) and a road bike (the Spiegel San Marino). Once in Borrego Springs, he cycled on the 29 kilometre-loop multiple times to get used to the surface, get an idea of the gradients, and understand which segments demanded effort and where it would be possible to save energy. Knowing the course was critical because the road’s texture included sand and scree. There was the need to try out both bikes, different pieces of equipment and figure out the optimum configurations. Given the race was scheduled to start at 5PM and continue for 24 hours, cyclist would be required to manage his passage through changing weather conditions. The right attire and how layering should be managed – these had to be worked out. He essayed five rides on the course to find out the combinations that would work well for him. From a few days prior to the race, he started to consume only safe and familiar foods to minimize the chances of any health disorders.

On race day, the TT went off largely alright for Kabir. He used the TT bike for the first 12 hours and the road bike for the remaining period. It made sense because although the TT bike is designed for speed, the riding posture on it is aggressive and therefore tough to sustain for extended durations. To the credit of both bicycles and their maintenance, Kabir faced no mechanical problems during the TT. “ There was not even a flat tyre,’’ he said. Towards the later stages of the TT, Kabir developed some knee pain. But he felt that 700 kilometres was within reach. Past 22 hours, the riders were shifted to a shorter loop built for speed with no gradients. Given the knee pain, Kabir decided not to push aggressively and play conservatively instead. Eventually, Kabir covered 428.4 miles (689.44 kilometres) at an average speed of 18 miles per hour (28.9 kilometres per hour). in the 24-hour category, Kabir finished twelfth out of 90 participants overall. Within the solo male category, he placed eighth in a field of 52. In his age group of 30-39 years, he placed fourth. “ I wasn’t happy with the mileage achieved because I felt that more than 700 kilometres was possible,’’ he said. The overall winner of the competition was Philipp Kaider of Austria; he covered 531.6 miles (855.53 kilometres) at an average speed of 22.5 miles per hour (36.21 kilometres per hour). Kabir is currently weighing the options of repeating RAAM in 2023. While there is always the challenge of improving his performance at RAAM, his body has been craving for rest. “ I may elect to take a break,’’ he said about his plans for RAAM. But he confirmed that a return to Borrego Springs attracts.

Kabir Rachure; in Borrego Springs (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

Kabir was not aware of a time trial similar to that of Borrego Springs – one that combines long hours, speed and endurance on a loop – in India. Asked if such an event would be helpful for the growing community of endurance cyclists in the country, Kabir said it would be. The big challenge according to him, is the Indian environment. There is heavy traffic and rising pollution. Borrego Springs appeared a community that appreciated the cycling in its midst. For the WTTC, the road used was a normal one (which authorities repaired and spruced up ahead of the annual race) and traffic was not suspended. What was noteworthy was how traffic accommodated the cyclists and gave them the space to cycle as part of the WTTC. In other words, these are vignettes from lands where the active lifestyle is not an exception to the rule but is part of everyday life or the very stuff of life. It is how people define existence. It is paradigms of this sort and imagination therein, which then dream up races and contests including RAAM and the Borrego Springs WTTC.

Ultrarunning in India has its share of races held in stadiums. Encouraged so, Indian ultrarunners and teams of ultrarunners have since done well in continental championships in the 24 hour-category. For a six-hour, 12-hour or 24 hour-TT of the Borrego Springs sort to be held in India, cycling needs a loop at the intersection of acceptable surface quality and supportive weather. “ In July 2021, when Christoph Strasser became the first person to ride more than 1000 kilometres in 24 hours, he did that on a course at an air force base in Austria,’’ Kabir said. In India, there are racetracks used for motoring that aren’t optimally used. They could be freed up for a few days for an annual TT event provided the loop is not so small that it enables drafting (tucking in behind a competitor to escape wind resistance) by cyclists. At events like Borrego Springs, drafting is not allowed. Those are however finer details. The fundamental question is – do we want such races?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The results quoted from the Borrego Springs WTTC are as published on the event’s website.)

FROM SECOND TO FIRST WITH A PB TO BOOT

Nihal Ahamad Baig; at the finish line of the 2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Nihal Ahamad Baig was overall winner of the 2022 edition of the Ironman 70.3 held in Goa. He completed the triathlon in a personal best (PB) of four hours, 29 minutes and 45 seconds to place first.

In terms of break-up in performance across the triathlon’s three disciplines, Nihal finished eighteenth in swimming, ninth in cycling and first in running.

Second place overall went to Bishworjit Saikhom (4:37:21). Pankaj Dhiman (4:40:41) finished third.

The Ironman in Goa falls in the category of a Half Ironman aka Ironman 70.3 (70.3 miles or 113 km overall consisting of 1.9 km-swim, 90 km-bike ride and 21.1 km-run). In the previous edition of the race in 2019, Bishworjit (4:42:44) had placed first and Nihal (4:47:47), second.

Nihal who has been featured before on this blog, spoke to Latha Venkatraman, a few days after the competition in Goa in mid-November. The following is a description of Nihal’s passage to the event in 2022 and his experience on race day, narrated from the athlete’s point of view:

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / Back on land after the swim segment in the sea (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Towards the latter part of 2021, my focus was on running with a little bit of cycling as well in the mix. Swimming was completely off as due to the pandemic swimming pools were shut.

Around the end of 2021, I started swimming in a lake as I was set to participate in the 70.3 Bergman Triathlon at Kolhapur in January 2022. That race went well (Nihal won this race). Thereafter, I was focused on the Berlin Marathon. I had registered for the race in Germany. Until early September my focus was on running. I cycled mainly for cross-training and I still wasn’t doing much swimming.

At the end of August 2022, I felt burnt-out from the training. I stopped training. I decided not to go for the Berlin Marathon, which was slated for end of September 2022. I was not enjoying my workouts. I thought it was prudent to stop training. But the burn-out did not disappear fast. For a week I stopped training completely. Yet I did not feel better. Then, I started swimming and began feeling okay. I was able to focus on my swimming. From the middle of September till the end of the month I swam regularly. After that I went home to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh for three weeks. I took my bicycle with me. I could not swim there because there is no pool. I did some strength training and cycling. I was there till October 25.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the cycling segment (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When I returned, I had just 20 days left for the Ironman 70.3 in Goa. There wasn’t much time. I started running, cycling and swimming. I also did a few key workouts. I was not specifically training for Ironman. I had been training throughout the pandemic doing one or the other of the disciplines constituting the triathlon. I was fit. I decided to attempt the triathlon in Goa on the strength of my fitness, which I had developed over the earlier months.

In terms of weather, it was hotter this time and humid. Last time in Goa, because of the continuous showers in the run-up to the race it was much cooler. But sea conditions were rough last time compared to this time when the sea was much calmer. In 2022, there were no currents. The conditions for swimming were better. I did the swim segment in much better timing compared to the last time.

However, weather conditions for cycling and running were harsher. The overall temperature was higher. This time there was significant change in the cycling route. There was a lot of rolling hills and some elevation to tackle. Most of the route was through highways, which made progress faster. That was offset by the elevation, which made things tough. Because of lack of adequate training, I could not push much in the cycling segment. At the same time, I did not lose much ground here. Pablo Erat from Switzerland was strong in the bike segment. He had a 15-minute lead on the bike. He was there in the 2019 edition of the race and had done well in the swim and the bike segments.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the run (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

By the time I started running it was quite hot. The race started at 7:40 AM. I got to the running portion at 10:45 AM. The sun was out. Last time, it was overcast and slightly windy and that had helped. I knew that if I pushed too hard while running, I may hit a wall. I started at a conservative pace. When I started running, I was in seventh position overall. I was sure I would cover this gap. Pablo was ahead of me but with time he started to slow down. After the first loop, Bishworjit Saikhom, the previous edition’s winner, was ahead of me. During the second loop I was able to overtake Bishworjit at the eighth kilometre-mark. After overtaking Bishworjit, I was still second. Pablo was about 8-10 minutes ahead of me. I pushed slightly to see how well I would be able to cover the gap. When I was at around 10 kilometres, I saw Pablo slowing down considerably. At that point I knew that I would be able to take the lead soon. It happened at around 12.5 kilometres. At this point I knew that if I could hold my pace, I would win the race. I slowed down in the third lap due to a sensation of cramps around my inner thighs but by then I knew my pace was considerably better than others and so I won’t get passed.

Ironman 70.3 Goa is a tough event. I have done Bahrain Ironman, which boasts the fastest course in the world. In 2019 I did Colombo Ironman, which was as challenging as Goa though the bike route was pretty much flat. I am mentally in a good space now. I think I should start my training again. I want to focus on marathons and triathlons. I plan to train for both simultaneously. I haven’t done a full Ironman yet. I might do one soon but I haven’t decided when and which race to attempt.

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

2022 GGR / FINNISH SAILOR RESCUED FOLLOWING MISHAP IN THE INDIAN OCEAN

Finnish sailor, Tapio Lehtinen (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Tapio Lehtinen Sailing and is being used here for representation purpose, No copyright infringement intended)

The 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR) saw a rescue operation at sea get underway over November 18-19.

Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen was the participant rescued; the location was in the southern Indian Ocean. Tapio’s vessel – the Asteria – flooded suddenly and sank. He had to shift to his life raft.

According to the first report of November 18 (available on GGR’s website), Tapio communicated distress at 0645 UTC that morning following which, the race organizers started coordinating with French and South African authorities. “ At 0852 UTC, Tapio also activated his life raft’s PLB indicating that he may have abandoned ship. The life raft also has a VHF radio and GPS packed inside. MRCC Cape Town contacted nearby commercial vessels to divert to his position, with the closest ship 250 miles away,’’ the report said. PLB stands for Personal Locator Beacon.

The GGR entrants nearest to Tapio were India’s Abhilash Tomy (sailing in the Bayanat) and South Africa’s Kirsten Neuschafer (sailing in the Minnehaha). They were 170 miles and 105 miles south-southwest of Tapio, respectively. Both sailors were informed of Tapio’s location. Abhilash, who was the first to receive the message diverted his course accordingly. Tapio’s communication indicated that he was “ able” and had the emergency grab bag containing food, water, and critical equipment with him. The report said, Tapio informed GGR officials that his yacht had flooded from the stern with water up to deck level in five minutes. He was in his survival suit and had boarded the life raft but with no glasses was struggling to write or read text messages.

Same day, with Kirsten successfully contacted and she being the participant closest to Tapio’s position, Abhilash was released from the rescue effort. However, he continued to sail close by and asked to be updated on the progress of the rescue operation. Meanwhile, South African authorities established communication with Captain Naveen Kumar Mehrotra of the Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier MV Darya Gayatri, to divert and render help. The ship was 250 nautical miles northwest of Tapio’s location.

As per the second report of November 19, Kirsten reached Tapio’s location at 0510 UTC that morning and picked up the Finnish sailor from his life raft. “ Tapio had an early visual on Kirsten’s yacht, but she could not see the life raft in the swell. Kirsten would hear him on the VHF but Tapio could not hear her voice. The GGR Crisis Management Team homed her onto Tapio’s position until they were close enough to see and hear each other to plan for recovery. Kirsten called the GGR Management team at 0805 UTC to confirm that she had retrieved Tapio from the life raft onto Minnehaha with a retrieving line,’’ the report said.

According to it, Tapio has since been shifted to the bulk carrier MV Darya Gayatri. As explained in the report of November 19: “ Kirsten called the GGR Management team at 0805 UTC to confirm that she had retrieved Tapio from the life raft onto Minnehaha with a retrieving line. After sharing a good glass of rum, they then proceeded to put Tapio back in the raft, pulled it towards the carrier, which he then successfully boarded via a rescue ladder.’’

GGR involves a circumnavigation of the planet. The 2022 edition of the race started from France on September 4.

Back in 2018, during the last edition of GGR, Tapio had been among the finishers. This time however, his race has ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As of November 20, GGR’s website said on Tapio’s page (every skipper has a write-up introducing him / her), of the incident causing his exit from the 2022 race, “ Asteria sank in 5 minutes with a strong unidentified water intake from astern. ‘’ A Facebook post by Tapio’s team (its English translation has been made available on the GGR Facebook page) said that the Finnish sailor woke up at around 8.30 AM on Friday (November 18) to a loud bang. At that point, the water was knee-deep in the boat’s saloon. More water flooded the engine compartment at the rear. The situation was dire. “ The most critical moment was when the pull knot of the life raft came loose. Fortunately, the weather was almost calm. I took a long leap into the water, grabbed the board and jumped in,’’ the post quoted Tapio as saying. He watched his yacht slowly sink, “ At the last moment, I stood up shakily in the life raft and put my hand in the cap as a last salute to my friend,’’ he said.

In the 2018 GGR, Abhilash Tomy had suffered accident and injury in the southern Indian Ocean following which, he was rescued in an operation involving Indian, Australian, and French authorities.

As of November 20, 2022, GGR’s live tracker showed Simon Curwen of the UK in the lead. He was followed by Abhilash in second place and Kirsten in third.

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

“ THE SATISFACTION IS BEYOND MEASURE”

Geeno Antony (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geeno Antony (Photo: courtesy Geeno)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:01:09, 30 SECONDS, 37 YEARS OLD

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

The numbers bewitch: 2:01:09, 30 seconds lopped off and the man does it at 37 years of age.

Olympic champion and world marathon record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, rewrote his marathon world record at the 2022 edition of the Berlin Marathon held on September 25, 2022. The 37 year-old Kenyan great covered the 42.2 kilometres-distance in two hours, one minute and nine seconds, chopping off 30 seconds from his previous world record of 2:01:39 set in Berlin in 2018.

Kipchoge ran the first half of the race in 59 minutes and 51 seconds and the second half in 61 minutes and 18 seconds. His first half pace raised hopes of the legend doing a sub-two-hour marathon but after that pace started to drop in the second half, the possibility of a sub-two was ruled out. For the moment, it leaves the unofficial sub-two he ran in October 2019 (1:59:40.2 at the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Austria), as an instance of human performance achieved under circumstances very different from that of a regular race.

In the women’s segment at Berlin, Ethiopia’s Tigist Assefa smashed the course record by more than two minutes with a 2:15:37 finish. In the process, she became the third fastest woman marathon runner in the world. Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei holds the women’s world record of 2:14:14 set in Chicago in 2019. Paula Radcliffe, the earlier world record holder (2:15:25) is the second fastest after Kosgei. Going into the race, Assefa was not among those fancied to win; she had run only one major marathon before – the 2022 Riyadh Marathon, where she registered a timing of 2:34:00. In Berlin on Sunday, she produced a faster pace for the second half of the race.   

Tigist Assefa (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Berlin Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

In the men’s race, Kenyan runner Mark Korir finished in 2:05:58, almost five minutes behind Kipchoge. In third place was Tadu Abate of Ethiopia (2:06:28). In the women’s race, Rosemary Wanjiru of Kenya finished second in 2:18 and Tigist Abayechew of Ethiopia finished third with a timing of 2:18:03.

In its report, Runner’s World pointed out that Sunday’s world record breaking performance was Kipchoge’s 17th win from 19 marathon starts. Two of the 19 starts were demo races that were ineligible for records. At the 2013 Berlin Marathon, he had finished second and in 2020, he had placed eighth in the year’s London Marathon. Kipchoge has run four of the five fastest times in the marathon so far.

The course of the Berlin Marathon is flat; it has played host to many record-breaking performances in the discipline. Besides 2022, Kipchoge won in Berlin in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In its report, NBC Sports noted, “The last eight instances the men’s marathon world record has been broken, it has come on the pancake-flat roads of Berlin. It began in 2003, when Kenyan Paul Tergat became the first man to break 2:05.’’ According to it, Kipchoge’s focus now is to be a three-time Olympic champion (he has been crowned twice – 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo; the next Olympic Games is in Paris in 2024) and also win the six World Marathon Majors (he is yet to run the city marathons of Boston and New York).

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

2022 COMRADES MARATHON / GITANJALI LENKA, KARTIK JOSHI FASTEST FINISHERS AMONG INDIAN PARTICIPANTS

Gitanjali finishes fourth in her age category

Gitanjali Lenka (Photo: courtesy Gitanjali)

The 2022 edition of Comrades Marathon was held in August.

The ultramarathon, held annually in South Africa, was happening after a gap of two years lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participation of Indian long-distance runners in the event, has been increasing over the past few years. This year’s race was downhill starting from Pietermaritzburg and ending at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. The ultramarathon, measuring approximately 90 kilometres, usually alternates between uphill and downhill routes. This year’s downhill route measured 89.895 km.

Thane-based Gitanjali Lenka was the fastest finisher from among Indian women runners in 2022. Kartik Joshi from Indore was the fastest male finisher from India.

Gitanjali,50, finished the race in eight hours, 52 minutes and 58 seconds. This makes her the second fastest finisher among Indian women in the years since Indians began appearing at this ultramarathon. In June 2017, Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had completed the ultramarathon in 8:38:23, the fastest time yet by an Indian woman.

Among Indian men, Kartik Joshi was the fastest finisher this year with a timing of 7:51:56. He is the third fastest finisher among Indian male runners so far. Sandeep Kumar of Surat is the fastest finisher yet, having covered the course in 7:30:17 in the 2018 edition. Deepak Bandbe, the second fastest finisher, completed the race in 7:43:34 in 2019.

Besides the time she clocked, Gitanjali was also the fourth finisher in her age category of 50 to 59 years. She missed her age category-podium by a small margin. This was Gitanjali’s second outing at the Comrades Marathon. In 2019, she finished in 11:36:16 hours. The nearly three-hour improvement in her timing comes after a rigorous training schedule set for her by her coach, Ashok Nath.

Gitanjali attributed the improvement in her timing to her coach Ashok Nath’s training and nutrition methods. “ I followed my coach’s plan very meticulously. I could sense the difference between 2019 and this year, when I stood at the start line of Comrades. Back then, I was clearly nervous,” she said.

There were days when she would step out for a training run in the bright sunshine and growing heat of mid-morning as she had to complete her responsibilities at home. Through the lockdown of pandemic when many runners took a break from running, Gitanjali continued her training relentlessly.

She enrolled with Ashok Nath in February 2019, a few months before her first attempt at Comrades. A gritty runner, the main focus in Gitanjali’s training was to get her fit, Ashok said. “ For an ultramarathon, the reason for running such long distance is critical to keep going when the body says: stop. Getting Gitanjali to understand her purpose or reason was a focal point in the training,” he said.

“ Cardio is over-rated in an ultra and most err on the side of overdoing it. It is equally sheer fitness and mental strength that are crucial,” Ashok explained. In the three years of Gitanjali’s training – the intervening years between her first and second outing at Comrades – these two elements, fitness and purpose, were incorporated well, he added.

Gitanjali’s journey in running commenced in 2016 when she signed up for Hiranandani Thane Half Marathon. The run is held annually at the Hiranandani residential colony where Gitanjali resides. “ A couple of my friends would go for this run every year. I decided to sign up for the 2016 edition, choosing the 10 km distance. I had no clue about running or its attire,” she said. Gitanjali finished the run in 1:19:11. At the end of the run she realized that she finished easily without any strain despite the absence of any training while many others were “ huffing and puffing at the finish line”. Two months later, she signed up for another 10 km race, finished within one hour and landed on the podium.

She has found herself on the podium quite a few times since.

Prior to 2016, barring the occasional sports day outing while at school and college in Cuttack, Odisha, Gitanjali had not been involved in sports formally. But she was always focused on fitness through the years of her college life, marriage and later as a mother of two children.

Once she took to running seriously, she signed up with coach Haridasan Nair for training. During the many running events she attended thereafter, Gitanjali began familiarizing herself with details of the sport. Among other things she heard of Boston Marathon and the stringent qualifying timing required for the race.

Gitanjali had started running ultramarathons without actually running a marathon in a formal sense. Her running is marked by many podium finishes but along the way she was dogged by injury forcing her to pause her running for some time until she recovered from it.

Her training for Comrades 2022 commenced in April. “ I would wake up at 3:30 AM and get out at 4:30 for the training run. Initially, I stuck to a one-kilometre loop until daylight appeared and then stretched the loop as per my plan for the day,” she said. Her training included two days of strength workout. Her weekly mileage during the months of May, June and July was in the range of 150-160 km. “ In August, the focus was on speed running,” she said.

Comrades done; she is slated to go for the 2022 Berlin Marathon later in September. As for the Boston Marathon, having qualified for it, she is scheduled to participate in the 2023 edition of the race in April next year.  “ I would love to focus on ultra-running as ultras are my preferred distance,” she said adding that she, would however like to complete her pursuit of the World Marathon Majors.

Kartik Joshi (Photo: courtesy Kartik)

For Kartik Joshi, the 2022 Comrades was his first international running event. He had a comfortable run for much of the 89.895 km-long course in South Africa. “ I found the last 10 km quite tough. The wind was quite strong,” he said. He had a tough time on the nutrition front as he is vegetarian. “ Going forward I will have to figure out my nutrition if I am going to be running international events,” he said.

Twenty-year-old Kartik started running during his senior school days. “ During my school days I would often see the personnel at the Rustamji Armed Police Training College in Indore. I was inspired, seeing them run,” he said.

Seeing the police personnel run, Kartik was prompted to attempt running himself. “ On the first day I ran about 500 metres and spent the rest of the hour watching runners. A few of them were running slow but they kept going for a long time,” he said adding that he eventually chose to run long distances.

Kartik took up running in a serious fashion at the age of 15 and over the past five years have participated in a number of half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons. The ultramarathons that Kartik participated include Hennur Bamboo Ultra 250 km, 12-hour and 24-hour stadium runs, Backyard Ultra and Malnad Ultra.

He lost a year at school after his father Om Prakaesh Joshi went into coma due to health problems. Further in 2021, Kartik had to take up a job midway through his college education after his father suffered a heart attack. At 20, he is in the process of completing his degree and attempting an entry into the armed forces.

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

2022 100K WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS / VIPUL KUMAR, JYOTI GAWATE SET NEW NATIONAL BEST

Jyoti Gawate (this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAU)

Haruki Okayama, Floriane Hot are 2022 world champions

India’s Vipul Kumar and Jyoti Gawate rewrote the national best in the 100K run by a sizable margin, in the men’s and women’s categories respectively, at the 32nd IAU 100km World Championships in Bernau-Berlin on August 27, 2022.

Covering 100 km in seven hours, four minutes and 52 seconds, Vipul was the 38th male runner to cross the finish line. He improved the previous national best of 7:32:43 – set by Amar Singh Devanda in March 2021 – by a handsome margin.

Vipul Kumar

Same was the case with Jyoti. A regular podium finisher at major marathons, who recently added the ultramarathon to her portfolio, she covered the 100 km in Berlin in 8:20:07, improving upon the previous national best of 8:44:27 set by Nupur Singh in April-May 2022.

Jyoti finished 41st among women. “ I am very happy for her. She has been trying to break the national record for marathon distance. This is a very good achievement,” Jyoti’s coach Ravi Raskatla said when contacted by this blog. Hailing from Parbhani in Maharashtra, Jyoti has been part of the national team in the marathon. The race in Berlin was the first time she represented India in an ultramarathon.

The top three finishers in the men’s category at Berlin (this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAU)

At the 100K World Championships the places on the podium for men was dominated by Japan and that for women, by France.

Haruki Okayama of Japan finished first among men and first overall, covering the distance of 100 km in six hours, 12 minutes and 10 seconds. His compatriot Jumpei Yamaguchi took silver in 6:17:20. Piet Wiersma of the Netherlands won the bronze medal with timing of 6:18:47.

In the women’s category in Berlin, gold went to Floriane Hot of France; she covered the distance in 7:04:03. Camille Chaigneau, also of France, placed second in 7:06:32. The bronze medal went to Caitriona Jennings of Ireland (7:07:17).

The top three finishers in the women’s category at Berlin (this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAU)

Among Indian women runners at the race, following Jyoti, Nupur Singh finished with a timing of 8:52:18 to place 57th among women. Gunjan Khurana with a timing of 9:17:15 placed 71st among women runners in the race.

On the men’s side, Om Prakash Saran finished in 7:25:44 (53rd finisher among men). His timing too an improvement on the previous national best. Contacted after the race, Om Prakash said that the weather was quite favourable and he was very happy with the nutrition and hydration support.

As per provisional data, in the team category for men, the top three teams were Japan, France and South Africa (in that order). The same for women was – USA, France and Japan. The Indian women’s team was placed 13th in its gender category.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: race data usually takes some time to settle. If there is any change to timings and team positions, it will be corrected suitably.)