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.)

2022 COMMONWEALTH GAMES / A SMASHING SILVER FOR SABLE IN STEEPLECHASE

Avinash Sable. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the athlete and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

India’s Avinash Sable showed the lion-heart he is, nearly snatching the gold medal from Kenya’s Abraham Kibiwot’s reach, as he crossed the line for a well-deserved silver in a tightly contested men’s 3000m steeplechase at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK.

Kibiwot’s victory was hard earned and by the narrowest of margins; he clocked eight minutes, 11.15 seconds. Sable (8:11.20) finished right next to him, bettering his own national record in the process. Amos Serem of Kenya (8:16.83) secured the bronze.

The race started with much expected from the Kenyans. In their ranks was defending champion Conseslus Kipruto. He had won in the discipline at the 2018 CWG in Gold Coast, Australia with timing of 8:10.08. He was also world champion at the World Athletics Championships held in Doha in 2019 and bronze medallist at the recently concluded World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, USA.

Shortly after the commencement of the race in Birmingham, Sable moved into the lead. The trio of Kenyans kept him company. But soon, the Kenyans took over; they set a fast pace (at one point hinting at a potential finish in less than eight minutes as per race commentary) and opened up a sizable gap with the rest of the field, barring Sable, who hung around in fourth position. Sable never let the Kenyans get far from him. Just doing so, was a new high in Indian athletics for the attitude it personified.

As the final lap approached, Sable began working his way up and by the time he took the bell had carved himself a slot in second position. He maintained it right through the water jump and the last hurdle, chasing Kibiwot down to the line forcing a verdict decided by a wafer-thin margin. It was as good a scare as the Kenyans, traditional kings of the steeplechase, could get.

Kipruto finished in sixth place; he timed 8:34.96. Abraham Kibiwot was silver medallist at the 2018 CWG; he has a PB of 8:09.25 set in 2016 (source: Wikipedia). Amos Serem was gold medallist at the 2021 World U20 Championships held in Nairobi, Kenya.

At the world championships in Oregon, Sable had finished eleventh in the steeplechase final with timing of 8:31.75. An icon in Indian athletics and someone with no close competitor in the country in his chosen discipline, Sable has improved his national record several times in the past few years. In June 2022, at an international meet in Rabat, Morocco, he had clocked 8:12.48. It stands improved in Birmingham to 8:11.20. Besides steeplechase, Sable also holds the national record in the half marathon – one hour, 30 seconds (1:00:30).     

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

A RACE TO REMEMBER

Kuanju Lin (Photo: courtesy Kuanju)

Kuanju Lin of Chinese Taipei was the gold medallist in the women’s category at the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Bengaluru. It was her first time representing her country.

“ I don’t know what attracts me to running. But I feel happy, free and meaningful when I run,” Kuanju Lin said.

We were faces at the two ends of a video chat; she in Taiwan (Chinese Taipei); I in Mumbai, India. It was July 2022, sometime in the month’s third week. Earlier, over July 2-3, Kuanju had essayed a superb run at the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru. The venue was the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium and the participants had to run laps on the synthetic track for the assigned period of time. Kuanju, 35, covered 216.877km in 24 hours to place first among women.  

Kuanju lives in Banqiao, a district in New Taipei City. A special municipality, New Taipei City is Taiwan’s most populous city. Located in northern Taiwan, it encloses the city of Taipei, which is the country’s capital. On the map, the main island of Taiwan (where Taipei and New Taipei City are located) is distinctly hilly to the east. The vast majority of the country’s population resides in the plains to the west. Taiwan has a high density of population. According to Wikipedia, one third of Taiwanese citizens live in the Taipei-Keelung metropolitan area to which the cities of Taipei, New Taipei City and Keelung belong. Banqiao has the third highest population density in Taiwan. “ Its flat,’’ Kuanju said when asked about the topography of the place she lives in.     

During her school years, Kuanju disliked exercising. She studied design, craft, painting, singing and music. She took up running after she commenced working. “ A friend invited me to run. That’s how I got into running,” she said. Initially, she focussed on the marathon. The many marathons she ran included two World Marathon Majors – Tokyo Marathon in 2018 and Boston Marathon in 2019 – and the New Taipei City Wan Jin Shi Marathon. Along the way, she achieved a personal best of 3:09 in the discipline at the 2021 Taipei Marathon. However, in due course, she moved to ultra-marathons. “ In the past I focussed entirely on the marathon. In 2015, I challenged myself to attempt a 100 km race,” she said. It was the Wulu Gorge Ultramarathon, held on Taiwan’s east coast. She covered 100 km in nine hours and 38 minutes. It fuelled her curiosity further; she wanted to know more about what attracted other runners to court hard challenges. Eager to find out how long she could run, she opted for a 24-hour run.

Her first 24-hour ultra-running event was as recent as in February 2022. She covered a distance of 180 km. “ I felt good about my mileage but my ankles hurt and swelled up,” she said. The event helped Kuanju to understand the dynamics of a 24-hour run and train accordingly. For the championships in Bengaluru, Kuanju focussed on strength training and long-distance running. “ I did two ultra-long training runs – one of 135 km and another of 95 km. In Bengaluru, I focussed on nutrition and hydration. I prepared some fruit, energy bar with nuts, electrolyte liquid and chocolate – I kept consuming that during my run,” she said.

Kuanju Lin (Photo: courtesy Kuanju)

Unlike a marathon, where elite runners run the length of the whole course, ultra-running events like the 24 hour-race typically involve a mix of running and fast walking. The prevailing weather plays a big role in how extended runs of this sort, play out. In a post-race article available on runnerstribe.com, Australian athlete Cassie Cohen (she was a participant in the Bengaluru event) highlighted the part weather plays: “ while on paper, my PB (204.92 km) was among the strongest in the field, I knew that didn’t tell the full story. The Indian and Chinese Taipei athletes had got their results in hot and humid conditions as we would experience on race day. I got mine in Canberra in near perfect cool conditions. PBs meant nothing once the flag was raised to start the race.’’  

New Taipei City has a climate that is characterized as ` humid subtropical.’ It features hot and humid summers and cool to mild winters. Bengaluru has a ` tropical savanna climate’ but it’s elevation (3020 feet) gifts it a generally moderate climate. In early July 2022, the city was getting showers and the weather was fairly pleasant by Indian standards. But humidity was high and this impacted the runners doing laps at Kanteerava Stadium, including some of Kuanju’s teammates who had to use ice to see themselves through the heat of the Indian afternoon. The Australians too suffered. In her detailed article, Cassie estimates that conditions touched 29 degrees and 70 per cent humidity.

For Kuanju, things appear to have played out tad differently. She was largely unfazed by Bengaluru’s humid weather. “ I felt comfortable most of the time though it was a bit warm. I am used to sunny weather,’’ she said. The first 12 hours went by pleasantly for her. “ I enjoyed the sun, the music and the cheering from the spectators. During the night hours, I walked because my right foot was aching. I wore earphones to listen to music. I resorted to singing along with my music. Encouragement from other runners also helped me to keep going,” she said. In retrospect, the main concern seems to have been the foot, to tackle which, she had to avail a brief intervention by the physiotherapist.

Those who watched the race in Bengaluru would likely recall two things. First, Kuanju had a near consistent pace. It was suitably slow for ultrarunning and steady. She kept going round and round with clockwork efficiency. Initially, her small size and light build may have inspired a different image, one of potential fragility. But as the day (July 2) progressed, it was increasingly clear that appearances can be deceptive; Kuanju’s steady pace was logging significant mileage. Second, her attire intrigued. Most of the runners sweated it out in shorts and vests. Kuanju wore a fluffy pink skirt over her leggings. While others were a picture of hard work and strain, she seemed to float along. Kuanju says she is fond of dressing up well for her races. “ When I started running, I used to get nervous. I relaxed myself by wearing accessories such as bows and cute things. Once, I wore a fluffy skirt for a race. There were many photographers and they kept clicking my photo. Also, runners and onlookers kept cheering me. That really helped improve my mood and reminded me to run enthusiastically and with a smile. Thereafter I used these accessories during runs,” she said. The fluffy skirt, according to her, is not just a cute accessory but something that lends positive energy.

On the morning of July 3 with only hours to go before the 24-hour mark, Kuanju was among few runners in the stadium still smiling and looking upbeat. In the final hours of the gruelling competition, top honours among women ended up a contest between Kuanju and Cassie Cohen. At 8 AM on May 3, when the race concluded, it was Kuanju securing gold; the Australian runner with 214.990 km logged was short by 1.9 km. Kuanju’s performance was a new national record for Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). Coming into the race in Bengaluru, Kuanju had not expected to win. Cassie took the silver while her compatriot Allicia-Grace Heron (211.442 km) bagged the bronze. At the team level, Chinese Taipei secured bronze in both men’s and women’s categories. The strain of the race was visible on all the teams; more than one runner had to be helped to get on to the podium.

Kuanju Lin; from the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Bengaluru (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The event in Bengaluru was the first time Kuanju represented her country. Back in New Taipei City, she works as a coach for boxing, cardio workout, fitness, spinning and TRX training. Her personal training for the ultramarathon is a combination of speed workout, progressive pace workout and long and easy runs with a day for rest during the week. “ Time management is a challenge. I need to calculate time for training, my job and the occasional break. Usually, I run over 400 km per month but if I am training for an ultramarathon, I need to run almost 600 km,” she said.

Although she topped the women’s race in Bengaluru cementing her position as an ultrarunner, she does not want to stop running marathons. “ I want to focus on marathon as well as ultramarathon running events,” she said when asked which distance she prefers. However, she is not chasing the World Marathon Majors. “ I don’t have the time or the money to pursue the Marathon Majors,” she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Edited by Shyam G Menon.)

2022 CWG / GOLD FOR VICTOR KIPLANGAT IN MEN’S MARATHON

Liam Adams of Australia leading in the initial stages of the 2022 CWG men’s marathon. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Nitendra Singh Rawat finishes twelfth

Uganda’s Victor Kiplangat took gold in the men’s marathon at the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) being held at Birmingham, UK.

The first Ugandan to win the CWG marathon, he covered the distance in two hours, 10 minutes and 55 seconds, a report on world-track.org said. Silver went to Alphonce Felix Simbu (2:12:29) of Tanzania and the bronze to Kenya’s Michael Mugo Githae (2:13:16).

India’s Nitendra Singh Rawat finished in twelfth position. He covered the distance in 2:19:22.

Despite Kenya participating, there was no Eliud Kipchoge (he holds the world record – 2:01:39) or anyone in that league, at Birmingham. Defending CWG champion, Michael Shelley of Australia (PB – 2:11:15) was also absent given he retired in 2019. He was CWG champion in 2014 (Glasgow) and 2018 (Gold Coast). It was therefore a modestly sized field – 19 runners – on Saturday (July 30) with equally modest personal bests. But it was a competitive field with athletes having PBs not significantly spaced from each other, promising thus a good contest.

Within minutes of the race starting, Liam Adams of Australia shot off into the lead with a group of about half a dozen in pursuit. Coming into the race, Adams had a PB from March 2020, of 2:10:48 according to data available on the website of World Athletics. As the first half hour went by, the chasing group split into two with two Tanzanian runners including Simbu (PB – 2:06:20), ahead of the remaining three, which included Kiplangat (PB – 2:05:09) and Kenya’s Jonathan Kipleting Korir (PB – 2:04:32).

The 15K mark went by with Adams still in the lead; he covered it in 46:03, which if sustained, pointed to a potential sub-2:10 finish. According to Wikipedia, the CWG record in the men’s marathon was set in 1974 at Christchurch, New Zealand, by Ian Thompson of England; he had a timing of 2:09:12, which was also a PB.  It makes the unbroken CWG record four years older than the unbroken Indian national record in the men’s marathon set by Shivnath Singh in 1978; he covered the distance in 2:12:00.

Past the 15K-mark at Birmingham, Nitendra Singh Rawat was in fifteenth place. As per updates on the website of Sportstar, he moved up to twelfth spot after 30 kilometres in the race. Liam Adams, race leader in the initial phase, finished a creditable fourth with timing of 2:13:23. Korir wrapped up the top five, covering the distance in 2:14:06, world-track.org said. According to the website, past 30 kilometres, Kiplangat and Simbu were evenly matched but the Ugandan runner managed to increase his pace and open up a lead. It was a lead that was sufficiently big for him to correct a wrong path he took late in the race without compromising his position in the final results.

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

“ I FEEL I HAVE UNLOCKED MYSELF IN SOME WAY’’

Kabir Rachure, 2022 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

July 2022. It’s a couple of weeks after the year’s RAAM. There was a change in the tenor of Kabir’s talk. Two successful finishes later, there was now mention of competing to win.

Riders from India would fare better at Race Across America (RAAM) if they acquire familiarity with the challenges posed, become better supported and progressively hit from the front foot instead of the backfoot as they normally do, Kabir Rachure, among India’s leading ultra-cyclists and a two time-finisher of RAAM, said.

In June 2022, Kabir successfully completed RAAM for a second time (11 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes); he also placed third in his age category. He plans to return to RAAM in 2024 and when that happens, he would like to cycle faster and approach the race with a view to win. The Navi Mumbai-based cyclist explained his reasons for the changed perspective.

To begin with, he had come off the experience of 2019 – when he finished RAAM in 11 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes – resolved to attempt it again. He felt there was ample scope to improve. In 2019, he didn’t have well developed strategies for nutrition and rest. “ I didn’t follow a proper sleep pattern,’’ he said. Early on in the race, the heat of Arizona took its toll. Despite training for the event, he had found himself progressively exhausted, experiencing a hazy view of the proceedings and unable to recall in detail, sections of the 3000 mile-route, he pedaled through. Further, in a race wherein rider tackles challenges in partnership with the support crew, there were some deficiencies in the latter. “ We took it lightly. Everyone wasn’t at 100 per cent. The correct balance wasn’t there. In 2019, although we completed the race, I wasn’t satisfied with our performance,’’ Kabir said. The team was determined that their next outing at RAAM should be with the required improvements, addressed.

Once you have been a finisher at RAAM, cyclist is lifetime-qualified to participate in the race. Kabir has this privilege, courtesy 2019. His idea was to go back to RAAM in 2020 but that year the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team would have gone back in 2021 but there were too many variables in the air, ranging from vaccination to quarantine conditions; not to mention – all preparations going for a toss should infection strike just before or during the race. For cyclist from India, each attempt entails a sizable financial investment. Given such uncertainty, Kabir and his team decided not to participate. There was also another reason. Kabir wished for a decently strong field; he wanted RAAM to be an instance of competing with the best and competing with many. In 2021, with the world only beginning to emerge from the shadow of pandemic, strong line-ups were hard to come by in races. The goal therefore was, 2022.

Photo: courtesy Kabir

In 2021, there was a virtual RAAM, which riders could participate in from anywhere in the world as long as they had Wi-Fi and trainers capable of hosting apps for competing digitally. Kabir didn’t take part in this. He felt, RAAM’s digital version wouldn’t be a complete substitute for the actual experience of the race. In the real world, cycling at RAAM includes challenges like mountain sections, the heat of Arizona, the weather conditions of Kansas, the punishing hours on the saddle, the sleep deprivation and the support crew actively working with rider to keep the journey going. The digital version, in comparison, featured limited sections of RAAM repeated like a loop. All of it executed from a room where support was easily accessed. “ The main challenge in virtual RAAM concerns being on a trainer – it restricts the natural variety of body movements possible in real world cycling. This lack of variety in movement, is tough on the body. It can be hard on your knees,’’ Kabir said.

For 2022 RAAM, Kabir dipped into his 2019 experience and trained differently. There was a time when he thought – like many did and continue to – that success in ultra-cycling events requires hours and hours of training piled on in the preparatory phase. With RAAM done in 2019 and an idea of what to improve had, Kabir structured his training for 2022 around quality, not quantity. “ This time around for RAAM, I trained 8-12 hours per week,’’ he said. He did the bulk of that indoors. He avoided some of the popular temptations in Indian cycling. “ I won’t say that if you do K2K (Kashmir to Kanyakumari) or the Golden Quadrilateral, you can complete RAAM. After the initial portion of K2K, the route is mostly flat. The only thing that is tough in K2K, is the traffic,’’ he said. RAAM in contrast, features varying topography and weather patterns. It doesn’t let you settle into one paradigm. “ RAAM is a different beast,’’ Kabir said.

Among the changes effected in training for 2022, the most significant one was that weekly total of 8-12 hours. “ Somewhere along the way, I have crushed the myth that you must train 25-30 hours per week,’’ he said, highlighting the importance of balancing training and recovery. However, Kabir admitted that he could shift more towards quality because he had the quantity already in place (thanks to many ultra-races and training for it, done) with one outing at RAAM to boot. For those new to ultra-cycling, he said, he would want long rides done because they help the rider know his / her body better. But the mileage must be ramped up carefully; slowly and steadily. “ I don’t want anyone hurting themselves,’’ Kabir said. In his case, years of cycling has ensured a litany of long rides done and with an idea of how his body behaves now in place, he could afford to trade quantity for quality in the run up to 2022 RAAM.

Roughly two months before RAAM, in April 2022, Kabir shifted to the high-altitude environment of Ladakh. From April 20 to May 20, he trained there. He cycled some 1200-1500 kilometres there including a dash up to Khardung La from Leh in less than three hours (two hours and 40 minutes according to him). Then, returning to Mumbai he flew out to the US on June 1 with about a fortnight left for the year’s RAAM to start. The benefits of training at altitude are well-known. Although many people believe that the rub-off effects of altitude, stay with the individual only for a few weeks, Kabir says that in his experience, right nutrition (essentially iron in one’s diet) can help prolong the benefits. The learnings from 2019 RAAM combined with a modified training regimen ensured that Kabir commenced 2022 RAAM in a strong frame of body and mind.

Kabir Rachure, 2022 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

A notable absentee at 2022 RAAM was Christof Strasser. For years, the Austrian ultra-cyclist with multiple wins at RAAM to his credit, had been a regular participant. “ RAAM without Strasser does not feel the same,’’ Kabir said. Endurance cyclists like Christof Strasser and Marko Baloh (Kabir now has Marko’s signature preserved on his bike) have the capability to go into an attack mode compared to the defensive mindset of Indian riders. Kabir traces this attitude found overseas, to a state of being well supported and having nothing to lose. To illustrate it in simple terms, he quoted the example of Formula One. If someone participated with a car they bought with their own money, would they drive as aggressively as a Lewis Hamilton backed by Mercedes and enjoying a supply of cars from the company? When you have someone backing you and you are told to focus on your performance, you will perform better than if you were on our own, Kabir said. As luck would have it, for his 2022 RAAM attempt, two sponsors came aboard – Spiegel Bikes and Ultrahuman. He could therefore afford to imagine a bit differently. Face RAAM with a semblance of nothing-to-lose. Still the race threw up challenges.

Kabir brought with him to the US, four bikes for use in RAAM. He kept a time trial bike with aggressive geometry to cycle through Arizona. Although Arizona felt less warm than in 2019, there was no escaping the buckets of sweat the heat triggered. Kabir developed a terrible saddle-sore following which, the fast TT bike had to be given up. Any more time on it would have seriously endangered his prospects in the race. He ended up using a Spiegel San Merino for around 2700 kilometres and two models of Lapierre (including a Pulsium, which is a comfortable endurance bike) for 1600-1800 kilometres. If reworking the bicycle mix was an early challenge, then the wind in Kansas posed its own set of hardships later. A powerful headwind made cycling through Kansas difficult. At other times, crosswinds kept the bicycle constantly at a tilt and difficult to steer with one hand. It rendered periodic engagements with the support car (while still pedaling) for hydration and nutrition, tough to handle. One nasty fall and Kabir could end up retired from the race. But aside from these challenges, the race went off smoothly. He experienced little of the abject exhaustion he had felt in 2019. He finished RAAM in better time and better shape than in 2019; he also got a podium position in his age category. Upon examining the videos of others who finished ahead of him in 2022 and seeing the state they were in; Kabir feels he can push harder. He thinks he can match those performances. They are within achievable distance. In 2022 there was much energy he held in reserve. In retrospect, it was good; it helped him finish comfortably. But it would be a shame not to explore tapping that reserve. Maybe there is room to push further and discover another reserve beyond? A new perspective has taken root.

Kabir will return to RAAM next in 2024. In the immediate aftermath of 2022 RAAM, he thinks a bit of rest is in order as his body is craving for it. The purse also takes some time to recuperate. As he put it, expensive multi-day races like RAAM resemble sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane needs a lot of water and once the water in the well has been used up, it takes time for it to replenish before another season of cultivation is possible. Same holds true for RAAM, rider and money. Until the purse is replenished, aspirations must stay modest. In November 2022, he will participate in the 24 hour-time trial slated to take place in Borrego Springs, Arizona. If all goes well, he will do a six hour-time trial as well. In 2023, he plans to try Race Around Austria. And in 2024, when RAAM looms afresh on his calendar, the best weapon in his armoury may lay in this observation post-2022 RAAM: “ I feel I have unlocked myself in some way.’’ According to him, it is like having battled some monster and suffered a great deal but also gained a lot.

Photo: courtesy Kabir

His sister, Sapana who oversees Kabir’s support crew is also not resting on the better performance of the team at 2022 RAAM. With Kabir now talking of winning, she is aware of what lay ahead.  According to her, Kabir currently has a pool of around 12 people to pick and choose from, for each competition he goes into. They are known well to him and given the number of races they have attended with him, are aware of Kabir’s requirements. Together, they cover a spectrum of support services ranging from driving the crew car to navigation to nutrition to physiotherapy and bicycle maintenance. Some are good for short races; some for longer ones. “ This time at RAAM, we were all on the same page,’’ Sapana said. Had it not been for the wind in Kansas, the time taken to complete would have been less. Sapana knows that in ultra-cycling competitions like RAAM, wherein rider and support crew must pull together, every additional effort Kabir puts in to improve must be matched on the crew side too. “ We plan to use the same people for the rides ahead. The two years to 2024 is good enough time to improve further,’’ she said.

As regards training ground for ultra-cycling, Kabir thinks that India is a fantastic place to train given the range of topography it has, including the Himalaya. Some states and union territories have a better mix in this regard – Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Ladakh; and in terms of cities sporting such variety – Bengaluru, Pune, Nashik and Navi Mumbai. But as ever in India, in all these places there is a killjoy snapping at cycling’s heels – the explosive growth of automobile traffic.      

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is mostly based on a conversation with Kabir at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai in July 2022.)      

2022 WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIP / ANDERSON PETERS DOMINATES JAVELIN FINAL, SECURES GOLD

Neeraj Chopra. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the athlete and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Neeraj Chopra gets silver; Rohit Yadav finishes tenth

Defending champion Anderson Peters of Grenada, dominated the javelin throw final at the 2022 World Athletics Championship, securing the gold medal with a tremendous display that saw three of his throws land in 90m-territory.

His best throw from the final measured 90.54m.

Olympic gold medallist, Neeraj Chopra, settled for silver with a best throw of 88.13m. Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic won the bronze medal; his best throw measured 88.09m.  As per the competition commentary, Neeraj had come into the world championship yet to reach his best form but happy that he was beginning to find his groove. News reports following the final in Eugene, Oregon, USA, quoted the Indian athlete saying that he would try to do better at the next world championship due in Budapest in 2023.

Indian athlete, Rohit Yadav, who too had qualified for the javelin throw final finished in tenth place with a best throw of 78.72m. Media reports said, many of the Indian athletes who participated in the world championship will now move to UK for the 2022 Commonwealth Games scheduled to take place in Birmingham over July 28-August 8. A sizable Indian team is expected there.

In an excellent article (dated July 24, 2022) that summarizes the ascent of Anderson Peters and also offers insight into his rivalry with Neeraj Chopra, Nihal Koshie of Indian Express writes, “   The 2016 Under-20 World Championships in Poland is where Neeraj Chopra and Grenada’s Anderson Peters had their first big showdown. This was two years before Peters, who has studied in the United States since 2017, threw 81.95 metres to break the Mississippi State’s freshman record. At the Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak Stadium, Chopra became the junior world champion and an overnight star. His 86.48 metres was a world junior record. Johan Grobler (80.59m) of South Africa was second and third, almost unnoticed in the frenzy in India, was Peters (79.65m). Peters had set a national under-20 mark but back then Chopra was anointed as the future star.’’

According to the piece, what makes Anderson Peters a force to reckon with is his ability to produce a big throw towards the end of a competition. Neeraj in contrast, is known for his big throws in the initial phase. At the final in Eugene too, although the Grenadian athlete was strong throughout, with three throws in excess of 90m, it was his last one – 90.54m – that turned out to be the best. To read the Indian Express article in full, please click on this link:  https://indianexpress.com/article/sports/sport-others/cricket-loving-fast-bowler-anderson-peters-beats-neeraj-chopra-to-take-javelin-gold-8048404/

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

2022 WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIP / ROHIT YADAV QUALIFIES FOR JAVELIN THROW FINAL

Rohit Yadav. This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. No copyright infringement intended.

India’s Rohit Yadav has made it to the final of the javelin throw competition at the 2022 World Athletics Championship in Eugene, Oregon, USA. In the Group B qualification round, he achieved a distance of 80.42m, sufficient to place eleventh in the list of 12 athletes from Groups A and B, eligible for the final.

In Group A, Neeraj Chopra, the country’s strongest athlete in the discipline, qualified for the final with an impressive throw of 88.39m. He placed second on the list of finalists headed by Anderson Peters of Grenada who managed 89.91m. As per media reports, the qualifying mark was 83.50m; in results published, four out of the 12 athletes making it to the final, had throws exceeding the qualifying mark. The best 12 throws in the qualifying round ranged from 80.03m to 89.91m.

Rohit, 21 (age as per data on the website of World Athletics), is the son of Sabhajeet Yadav, well-known amateur runner. A farmer from Dabhiya village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, Sabhajeet has several podium-finishes at city marathons to his credit. “ We are so happy that Rohit has made it to the final. He will get a chance to compete with leading athletes,” Sabhajeet said when contacted.

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ We woke up at 4 AM to watch the event on television. All of us, my wife, my two other sons and several boys from the village have been here since morning. We are quite thrilled,” he said, adding Rohit’s trip to Oregon for the world championship will be a valuable experience. Rohit is scheduled to participate in the 2022 Commonwealth Games as well.

The world of amateur running has played a role in Rohit’s ascent. Given income from farming is rarely steady and adequate, Sabhajeet participated in amateur marathons to augment his family’s resources. He won consistently in his age category and the prize money helped. During the annual Mumbai Marathon, he acquired a reputation for reaching the city by train, sleeping at the railway station, waking up in the morning, competing in the marathon and going back to his village, a place on the podium earned. The tough farmer was soon noticed by other amateur runners who rallied to his support. Foremost among them, was businessman, Bhasker Desai.

Rohan Yadav (Photo: courtesy Bhasker Desai)

Bhasker learnt of Rohit’s interest in the javelin throw, the promise he showed in the discipline and his training in Sabhajeet’s village with a home-made javelin. As Rohit moved up in performance and ranking, Bhasker funded the purchase of a top-notch, imported javelin for the young athlete to train with. “ This is a major high for me,’’ Bhasker said when asked of the athlete he supported reaching the world championship final. While he may have helped purchase a new javelin, Bhasker maintained that the credit for Rohit’s ascent should go to the athlete and his father. According to him, Sabhajeet has never wavered in his belief that Rohit would one day be at the Olympics. Equally important, Bhasker said, has been the role played by Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra. Rohit looks up to Neeraj as his mentor and the senior athlete’s presence has helped Rohit endure the competitive ambiance at major championships like the one currently on at Oregon, Bhasker said. In an audio message to Bhasker from the US after he qualified for the final, Rohit has said that notwithstanding the newness of figuring in such a big final, he will give his best.

What should interest, is that Rohit’s entry to the world championship final may be just the start of a longer story from Dabhiya. Rohit’s younger brother, Rohan, 16, has also taken to the javelin and, according to Bhasker, already touches distances beyond 72m. Spotted by the army as a promising talent, Rohan currently trains at their sports facility, Bhasker said.

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

2022 WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIP / GOLD FOR GOTYTOM GEBRESLASE IN WOMEN’S MARATHON

Gotytom Gebreslase. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of World Athletics and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Gotytom Gebreslase of Ethiopia won the women’s marathon at the 2022 World Athletics Championship, finishing the race in a new championship record of two hours, 18 minutes and 11 seconds.

Judith Jeptum Korir (2:18:20) of Kenya took silver and Lonah Chemtai Salpeter of Israel (2:20:18), the bronze.

It was an engaging race with a lead pack built around defending champion Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, emerging not long after the start. However, Chepngetich was forced to withdraw from the competition between kilometres 18 and 19, due to stomach issues (as per race commentary). When Chepengetich stepped off the course, the others in the pack wasted no time in accelerating, ostensibly to make it difficult for her to catch up. From this churn, a new lead quartet was born featuring Korir, Angela Tanui of Kenya, Gebreslase and Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia. It appeared a case of two Kenyans and two Ethiopians set to battle it out for the medals. The rest of the field was behind by a visible margin although the racers were still short of the half-way mark.

Past the half-way mark, the quartet progressively split into two distinct groups with Korir and Gebreslase emerging as potential contenders for the top two positions. The two groups were separated by a sizable margin. For some time Tanui and Yeshaneh seemed to vie for the bronze before Yeshaneh moved ahead only to be overtaken in turn by Lonah Chemtai Salpeter of Israel and Nazret Weldu of Eritrea. The latter two had steadily reduced the gap between them and Tanui, and then, Yeshaneh. Despite figuring in the lead pack (and later, the duo trailing the leaders) for a good portion of the race, Ababel Yeshaneh eventually dropped off; she was seen clutching her side periodically in the build up to DNF. Roughly two kilometres from the finish line, Gebreslase who had been hovering close at the shoulders of Korir, sometimes to the latter’s discomfort, strode out in front. She increased the gap consistently and went on to finish with a new championship record to her credit.

It was a race with remarkable performances – there was the measured way in which Gebreslase ran; the display of quiet determination by Salpeter, working her way up to pass Tanui and Yeshaneh and stay ahead of Weldu for the bronze medal, and Sarah Hall of the US who too came from behind to finish fifth ahead of Tanui.  There was no dramatic sprint-finish or any such flourish for the race. What lingered instead as aftertaste was the fruits of determined running.

Gebreslase, 27, made her debut in the women’s marathon at the 2021 Berlin Marathon, which she won in 2:20:09.  Later, at the 2022 Tokyo Marathon she finished third with a timing of 2:18:18.  Korir, who took silver, had in April 2022, won in the women’s category at the Paris Marathon with timing of 2:19:48. Born in Kenya and now running for Israel, Salpeter has a personal best of 2:17:45 achieved at the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, where she placed first among women. Yeshaneh is a former world record holder in the women’s half marathon (1:04:31). Prior to that she had finished second (2:20:51) at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. Tanui had earlier placed fourth (2:18:42) at the 2022 Tokyo Marathon and before that in October 2021, won at the TCS Amsterdam Marathon (2:17:57). Weldu was winner (2:21:56) among women at the Daegu International Marathon held in April 2022 in Korea. In November 2020, she had finished seventh among women in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon.

According to Runner’s World, besides Sarah Hall, two other American athletes – Emma Bates and Keira D’Amato – finished in the top ten of the women’s marathon at the 2022 world championship in Eugene, making it the best performance by a US marathon squad, male or female, to date at the event. In terms of nationality, the top ten finishers also included two athletes from Kenya and one each from Ethiopia, Israel, Eritrea, Japan and Mexico.

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

2022 WORLD ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIP / GOLD FOR TAMIRAT TOLA IN MEN’S MARATHON

Tamirat Tola. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2022 World Athletics Championship and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia won the men’s marathon at the 2022 World Athletics Championship, covering the distance in a new championship record of two hours, five minutes and 36 seconds.

His compatriot Mosinet Geremew (2:06:44), who took silver, completed the Ethiopian domination of the podium. The bronze went to Bashir Abdi (2: 06: 48) of Belgium.

In its report, Runner’s World attributed Tola’s performance to “ blasting the stretch between 30K and 40K in 28:27.’’ The move helped him put a significant gap between himself and the rest of the lead pack. The previous championship record (2:06:54) was held by Abel Kirui of Kenya; it was set in Berlin in 2009.

Following the race at the 2022 world championship, World Athletics reported on its website that it had been a dream come true for Tola. “ I learned from my mistake in 2017 (World Championships) and I made sure it did not happen again. ” On that occasion, Tola’s attempted run for home 10km from the end was thwarted as Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui overtook him to win gold. This time there was no faltering on the 30-year-old Ethiopian’s part,” the report said.

It added, “ By the 34km marker his lead was seven seconds. At 35km it was 12 seconds, at 36km it was 17 seconds and at 37km it was 26 seconds. With 5km to go, the gold was gone and the drama of the race resided in which of the chasing group of four – Abdi, Geremew, Levins and Kamworor – would share the podium.’’

In the past, Tola had finished second in the men’s marathon at the 2017 world championships held in London. In March 2022, he had placed third in the annual Tokyo Marathon and prior to that, won the 2021 TCS Amsterdam Marathon. Geremew owns the third fastest time yet in the marathon; 2:02:55, set at the 2019 London Marathon. No stranger to India, he was twice winner – in 2014 and 2015 – of the TCS World 10K held every year in Bengaluru.  Abdi, who is originally from Somalia, had earlier won the bronze medal in the men’s marathon, at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Finishing just after Basher Abdi at the 2022 world championship in Eugene, was Cameron Levins of Canada. He earned a new national record of 2:07:09. At the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021, he had finished 72nd in the men’s marathon. The highest ranked Kenyan athlete in the men’s marathon in Eugene was Geoffrey Kamworor. He covered the distance in 2:07:14 to place fifth. Among American runners in the men’s marathon at Eugene, Galen Rupp was the first one home in 2:09:37. He placed nineteenth. A highly ranked runner in the US, Rupp had earlier won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and subsequently finished eighth at the Olympic Games in Tokyo (the marathon was held in Sapporo).

As per results available on the website of World Athletics, the top ten finishers in the men’s marathon at Eugene included three athletes from Ethiopia and one each from Canada, Kenya, Tanzania, Brazil, Bahrain and Zimbabwe. A notable DNF was well known Ethiopian long-distance runner, Lelisa Desisa (a past winner of the annual marathons in Boston and New York, in 2011, he was winner of the Delhi Half Marathon).

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)