COMING UP: INEOS 1:59 CHALLENGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOPI CLOCKS 2:15:57 IN DOHA

T. Gopi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Indian marathoner T. Gopi finished his race at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in two hours, 15 minutes, 57 seconds (2:15:57) to place twenty first in a field of 55 finishers.

The marathon was won by Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, who crossed the finish line in 2:10:40, a season’s best (SB). His fellow countryman Mosinet Geremew (2:10:44) placed second while Kenya’s Amos Kipruto (2:10:51) ended third. Callum Hawkins of Great Britain (2:10:57) finished fourth.

The best finisher from USA was Ahmed Osman (2:16:22) who placed 23rd. The top Japanese finisher was Hiroki Yamagishi (2:16:43). Yuki Kawauchi of Japan, winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon placed 29th with a finish time of 2:17:59.

The men’s marathon, like the women’s earlier, was held at night to escape the daytime temperature of Qatar. According to IAAF’s race summary, the temperature was around 29 degrees Celsius and the humidity, 48 per cent, for the men’s marathon. “ It was hot, but I prepared perfectly for this race,” Lelisa Desisa, who is also winner of the 2018 New York City Marathon, was quoted as saying in the report.

As per information on the IAAF website, 18 runners did not finish (DNF) the race in the men’s marathon.

Prior to the marathon, the list of runners starting the race, featured 73 athletes.

Only the top six finishers have turned in timings better than the qualifying mark assigned for men’s marathon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – 2:11:30. Among runners from Asian countries, El Hassan El Abbassi representing Bahrain (he is a Moroccan born runner who competes internationally for Bahrain) had the fastest time – 2:11:44; he finished seventh. Shaohui Yang of China (2:15:17) who placed twentieth had the second fastest time, followed immediately by Gopi. There was one new personal best (PB) and nine season’s best (SB) reported from the race. The sole PB and four of the SBs were at timings slower than Gopi’s. The SBs that ranked higher belonged to runners from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Italy.

Gopi qualified for the 2019 world championships with the timing of 2:13:39 he registered at the 2019 Seoul Marathon. That is also his personal best. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he had finished 25th with a timing of 2:15:25.

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

SIFAN HASSAN CREATES HISTORY

Sifan Hassan (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2019 IAAF Athletics World Championships and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Sifan Hassan of Netherlands created history on day 9 of the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, winning the 1500m for women and becoming the first person to win both the 1500m and 10,000m at the world championships or the Olympics.

At the event in Doha, Qatar, Hassan took gold in 3:51.95 minutes, a championship record. Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon – she was the defending champion – placed second in 3:54.22, a new national record. Kipyegon was returning to a major race after a long break. She is also the current Olympic champion. Gudaf Tsegay of Ethiopia took the bronze in 3:54.38, a new personal best.

The pace in the 1500m final was blistering and the victory margin, significant.  Featuring 12 athletes, the race yielded one championship record, two national records, one area record, two season’s best and three personal best timings. Earlier on day 2 of the championships, Hassan had won the 10,000m for women, covering the distance in 30:17.62 minutes.

According to Wikipedia, as of October 2019, Hassan was being mentored by coach, Alberto Salazar. The latter, who is head coach of the Nike Oregon Project in the US, is serving a four year ban for doping offences. Salazar has denied any wrongdoing. The commentators for the 1500m final mentioned Hassan’s training in the US. In an article soon after the 1500m final in Doha, The Guardian reported that Laura Muir of Great Britain who finished fifth in the race, felt that Hassan’s performance was suspect. Hassan told the paper that she hasn’t done anything wrong and that the accusations of the past few days had inspired her to turn in a strong performance. “ I couldn’t talk to anyone. I just ran it all out,” BBC quoted her as saying in its report on the 1500m final and the sentiments it provoked.

Born in Adama in Ethiopia, Hassan left the country as a refugee and reached the Netherlands in 2008, aged 15. She began running while studying to be a nurse. As per information on Wikipedia, she got Dutch citizenship in November 2013 and started appearing at sport events for her adopted country, soon thereafter. At the 2017 World Athletics Championships held in London, Hassan had placed fifth in the women’s 1500m and secured a bronze medal in the 5000m. In July 2019, she had broken the longstanding women’s world record for the mile, covering the distance in 4:12.33.

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

2019 BERLIN MARATHON / TALKING TO SOME OF THOSE WHO PARTICIPATED

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Berlin Marathon is well-known for its fast course. For that reason it attracts a huge number of runners from all over the world. In the 2019 edition of the marathon, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele won the race in the second fastest time yet in the history of the marathon – two hours, one minute and forty one seconds (2:01:41). It was just two seconds short of the world record set by Kenya’s Eluid Kipchoge on the same course in 2018. The women’s race was won by Ashete Bekere of Ethiopia. She finished in 2:20:14. Across the races for men and women, Ethiopian runners took five of the six podium positions on offer. We spoke to some of the Indian runners who participated in Berlin Marathon 2019. Excerpts:

Anjali Saraogi

Kolkata-based runner Anjali Saraogi signed up for Berlin Marathon and then had to suspend her training towards the end of June 2019 following some health issues.

“ I could not train at all for Berlin. I tried to defer my entry but that was not possible. I then decided that I would attempt it mainly as a fun run,’’ Anjali said.

On September 1, 2019, she resumed her training after a gap of two months. On September 29, 2019, she was at the start line of the Berlin Marathon mainly aiming to do an easy run. “ I started 16 minutes after my assigned time to ensure that I run slowly,” she said. She finished the run in three hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds.

Though it wasn’t her personal best, she was pleasantly surprised to turn in a performance way better than her expectations. “ Given my medical issues and what I have been through, this is super time for me. This timing means much more to me than my sub-3:15 finish at Boston Marathon earlier this year,’’ she said.

Anjali was the fastest among women runners from India at Berlin Marathon 2019.

She will be representing India at the IAU 100 kilometer Asia Oceania Championships to be held on November 23, 2019 at Aqaba, Jordan. “ I am now totally fit and hope to do well in Jordan,’’ she said.

Brojen Singh Nongmaithem (Photo: courtesy Brojen Singh)

Brojen Singh Nongmaithem

Brojen Singh Nongmaithem’s foray into physical activity commenced with running in 2011 as means to combat depression caused by a personal crisis he was facing then.

“ I started walking and jogging and found it interesting. In time I enrolled for a 5 kilometer-race,’’ Brojen, who hails from Manipur but lives in Bengaluru, said. He joined Nike Run Club, which had its training sessions at Kanteerava Stadium.

In 2012, he ran his first full marathon. To train for this marathon, he downloaded a program from Runners’ World. He then got introduced to Pacemakers, a training group under Coach K.C. Kothandapani.

Though, he got a slot to participate in the Berlin Marathon through the lottery system, he was unsure of going because his daughter was yet very small, just nine months old. He trained well for a period of 14-15 weeks but ended up with throat infection during the tapering period. Nevertheless, a week before Berlin Marathon, he ran a half marathon at the Spirit of Wipro in Bengaluru.

“ At Berlin, I was worried about the cold weather. But after I landed there I did a couple of short runs and felt good running in the cool weather,’’ he said.

During the race, he ran strongly until the 22nd kilometer but slowed down a bit thereafter because of the rain. He ended with a personal best of 3:19:15. “ Although my goal was to get to a 3:10, I am happy with my performance in Berlin,’’ he said adding that he would like to attempt achieving this target over the next two years.

Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan)

Muthukrishnan Jayaraman

For Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist at the Army Hospital in Delhi, the Berlin Marathon was an opportunity to improve his timing of 3:17 hours, set at the Tata Mumbai Marathon earlier this year. For Berlin, he had set a target of 3:15.

His training had turned out quite well. But after a long run on September 15, he felt strain in his calf muscles prompting him to go slow on the training and attend physiotherapy sessions alongside. “ I could not cancel my trip. I decided to go anyway and run easy,’’ he said.

Halfway through the course, he started to feel the strain again and had to take it easy.

“ Weather was great but the course was quite crowded. Also, many runners don’t go by corals. As a result, you end up overtaking many runners during the course,’’ he said. As Muthukrishnan had decided to not race, this aspect did not worry him too much.

He finished the run in 3:43:07 hours.

Berlin Marathon is seen as one of the fastest courses and prompts runners from across the world to participate in it. “ Runners from over 150 countries participated this time,’’ Muthukrishnan said.

According to him, the Berlin Marathon organizers’ attempt to introduce reusable cups for hydration did not go down well as many runners ended up throwing these along the route. This meant that for a while after every hydration point, runners had to be careful to avoid the discarded hard plastic cups.

“ Berlin Marathon is worth doing if you want to improve your timing,’’ he said but added that there are many turns along the route.

Muthukrishnan’s focus will now shift to training for Boston Marathon 2020. In the run up to that, he will be running Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2019, Tata Steel Kolkata 25k and Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020.

Pravin Gaikwad (Photo: courtesy Pravin)

Pravin Gaikwad

Standing at the start line of the 2019 Berlin Marathon, Dr Pravin Gaikwad, Navi-Mumbai-based paediatrician, runner and coach, decided to go by “ feel.’’ Take it as it comes based on how he responded to the run as it unfolded.

“ I managed to maintain my average pace of 5.12 from 17 to 40.5 kilometers. After that, my pace slipped by one second to 5.13 till finish,’’ Pravin said.

He tried to run along the “ blue line” for most part of the course but had to deviate from it at the hydration points. Pravin finished the run in 3:43:35 hours.

“ I am extremely happy with the run as I did not have any injuries or cramps at the end of the race,’’ Pravin said.

According to him, crowd support all along the route was quite good with lots of music. Due to the large number of participants, there is always a bunch of runners until the end of the race.

“ It is a bit difficult to pass the big runners from Europe but on the positive side, you can draft behind a runner of similar pace,’’ he said.

“ Some of the organization aspects of the Berlin Marathon should be adopted by Tata Mumbai Marathon, especially the blue line,’’ he said. The blue line is the racing line for elite marathoners and marks the shortest route between the start and the finish.

Kumar Rao in Berlin; all the World Marathon Majors done (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

Kumar Rao

For Kumar Rao, Berlin Marathon was the last of the six World Marathon Majors that he had set out to complete.

He had registered twice earlier but could not run the marathon because of injury. “ I traveled to Berlin both times but did not run. Therefore, I am quite familiar with Berlin,’’ he said.

In the run up to the 2019 edition, he trained well but sometime in July he faced a bit of injury and had to stop running. “ I think, I did too many races,’’ he said. Earlier this year, he had run the Boston Marathon where he ended up with a personal best of 3:59:33.

Berlin Marathon was a chance to improve that timing to around 3:50.

“ I got back to running just four weeks before Berlin Marathon. On race day, for the first 23 kilometers I faced no problems. After that, I started to feel the IT (Iliotibial) band ache and also experienced peroneal pain. I had to slow down. Besides, I wanted to enjoy the run,’’ Kumar, 70, said. He finished strong with a timing of 4:05:22.

Having completed all the six World Marathon Majors, he rates Boston Marathon as the best for running because of the quality of participants. London was the best in terms of crowd support but narrow paths along the course posed a drawback.

“ The course at New York City Marathon is fantastic but tough and it’s a great feeling to finish at Central Park,’’ Kumar said. Berlin is a well-organized marathon and the route passes through some iconic places. Chicago is not visually appealing. “ I found Tokyo Marathon too regimented though it was a very well organized event,’’ he said.

Piyush Bhomia (Photo: courtesy Piyush)

Piyush Bhomia

Piyush Bhomia, runner from Mumbai, had applied for Berlin Marathon and Chicago Marathon through the lottery system. He ended up getting slots in both.

Until the Berlin Marathon, Piyush had run all of three full marathons – three editions of the Mumbai Marathon. He had to quickly decide how to handle two full marathons with just two weeks between them. Berlin Marathon was held on September 29, 2019. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 13, 2019.

“ I decided to race one and take the other, easy,’’ he said.

At Berlin, he targeted to finish the marathon in 3:30. His best timing for a marathon was 3:45:30, achieved during the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon.

“ The rain and strong headwinds hit me hard in Berlin and I started cramping after 35kilometers. I had to take breaks,’’ he said. Nevertheless, he finished with a new personal best timing of 3:40:05.

He found Berlin Marathon very well organized with a large number of volunteers and spectators all along the route. “ Another amazing aspect is that most runners are mindful of negative split so they run strongly until the last kilometer,” he said.

Piyush started running in 2010 after he shifted to Mumbai on work. Having played badminton and table tennis during his schooling years in Nagpur, he found sporting facilities few in Mumbai. Running was the only viable option left. His first registered run was in 2014, a 10k. Thereafter, he shifted to the half marathon distance. In 2017, he made a foray into the full marathon running the distance at what was then the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon and finishing in 3:52:52.

He will be leaving for Chicago on October 10 to attempt his second World Marathon Major.

Asif Ahmed (Photo: courtesy Asif)

Asif Ahmed

Asif Ahmed, 33, commenced his journey as a recreational runner about eight years ago after he shifted to Bengaluru on work. He wasn’t exactly new to running. At Shillong in Meghalaya, where he hails from, running was part of life. He also played football and cricket.

In Bengaluru, Asif took to running and started participating in events of various distances.

Berlin Marathon was his first international event. He trained well and was targeting a finish below three hours and ten minutes. His previous best for a marathon was 3:22:17, set at the 2018 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon.

“ Berlin is a fast course but weather conditions were not good. Because of rains and the subsequent fall in temperatures, I started to get cramps around the 28th kilometer and had to slow down a bit,’’ Asif said. He completed the race in in 3.16.09, tad short of his target but a personal best, nevertheless.

Having done his first World Marathon Major, he feels the whole concept is needlessly over-hyped. But among the six World Marathon Majors, he would like to try getting a slot for the London Marathon.

He is now slated to run the 80 kilometer category of Malnad Ultra, due to be held on November 2, 2019. “ I did Khardung La Challenge in 2017. I enjoy running ultras. If you want to enjoy running, ultras are the best bet,’’ he said.

Vandana Arora (Photo: courtesy Vandana)

Vandana Arora

A Bengaluru resident, Vandana Arora started running recently. Distraught with weight issues, asthma and depression, she earnestly pursued a friend’s suggestion to take up running.

“ I took to running seriously from 2017 onwards,’’ she said. She trains with Pacemakers under Coach K.C. Kothandapani. In 2018, she ran the New York City Marathon and finished the race in 4:11:15.

Her training for Berlin Marathon went off very well. “ I was happy with my training and my coach Pani Sir (Kothandapani) guided me well, especially considering my asthma problem,’’ she said.

At the New York City Marathon, she had got a bad attack of asthma.

“ At Berlin, I maintained my pace for the first half of the race. But when it started raining and it got colder I was worried if I would get an asthma attack. I slowed down my pace,’’ she said.

She completed the marathon in 4:00:15, missing a sub-four by just 15 seconds. She hopes to get her target of sub-four-hour marathon in her next race.

Pervin (left) with Ayesha Broacha, Nimisha Vora and Chintan Vora (Photo: courtesy: Pervin)

Pervin Batliwala

The 2019 Berlin Marathon was Pervin Batliwala’s fourth World Marathon Major. In the weeks ahead of the marathon, she had executed her training to perfection. She was also completely injury free.

“ My run went off very well. I could not improve my best timing for the marathon but I am very happy with my performance,’’ said Pervin, 64, a regular face on Mumbai’s running circuit.

Up until 30 kilometers, her run went off very well. “ It started raining and got quite cold. There were puddles along the route. My feet were quite cold. I decided to slow down a bit,’’ said Pervin. She finished in 4:18:51.

Berlin Marathon, she said, was organized quite well but post-run arrangements did not match up to those at New York City Marathon and Boston Marathon.

She is due to attempt Tokyo Marathon, her fifth World Marathon Major. In the interim, she will be running Goa River Marathon and a half marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020.

Suresh Seshadri (Photo: courtesy Suresh)

Suresh Seshadri

Suresh Seshadri, a journalist, commenced running sometime in 2006. These were mostly short runs. Suresh was yet to get into serious running then.

In 2007, he moved to Bengaluru. His office was located at The Lalit Ashok, a luxury hotel. After a colleague pointed out to him that the hotel’s fitness center could be availed free of cost, he started running on the treadmill and soon found his weight declining. Over time, he got introduced to the various aspects of running.

In 2010, he participated for the first time in a running event – a 10 kilometer run at Auroville. From there he worked his way up to full marathons; doing six of them in a period of one year. Then prudence got the better of him and he decided to restrict the number of full marathons to two every year from 2013 onward.

In 2015, he ran his first World Marathon Major – the Chicago Marathon. The following year, he completed New York City Marathon.

The 2019 Berlin Marathon was his third World Marathon Major. “ I had tried for Berlin three times earlier but got through this only for this edition,’’ he said.

His training for Berlin Marathon was not as good as he would have liked it to be. A runner using minimalist footwear, Suresh decided to attempt Berlin barefoot. “ I have mostly run in Vibram Five Fingers footwear. Most of my barefoot running has been while training and on the track, not on the roads,’’ he said.

Berlin, according to him, was a good choice to attempt going barefoot because of the quality of roads. But during the last 5-6 miles of the race he could not feel his feet because of the rain and cold weather.

“ I commenced the race quite well and right up to mile 12, I was on track for a sub-3.30 finish,’’ he said. But he lost the momentum when he took a couple of hydration and bio-breaks. He finished the marathon in 3:42:31.

He will be working towards completing the other World Marathon Majors – London, Boston and Tokyo. “ If I do Boston, I would definitely like to qualify for it and not go through the charity route,’’ he said.

Nimisha Vora (Photo: courtesy Nimisha)

Nimisha Vora

Nimisha Vora was a track and field athlete during her schooling years. Years later, she took to long-distance running. “ I have been running for the last ten years,’’ she said.

Running the World Marathon Majors was not on her agenda. “ Thanks to Pervin (Batliwala), I got captivated by the idea,’’ she said.

In 2014, she ran her first full marathon – the Mumbai Marathon. In 2016, she ran the Amsterdam Marathon. Two years later, she applied for New York City Marathon and got through.

“ My training for Berlin Marathon went off very well, despite a few breaks that I had to endure because of my travel. My daughter plays golf and I travel with her,’’ Nimisha said. She trains with Savio D’Souza, one of Mumbai’s well-known coaches.

According to her, the race at Berlin went off well. “ The rain was spoilsport. It did not stop raining at all. There were so many puddles on the road and every time you step into a puddle it was like stepping into ice water,’’ she said. Nevertheless, Nimisha finished with a personal best timing of 4:19:26.

“ I really enjoy running. I have so many good friends among runners. And for me the reward is the process. Though timing is important, I am not focused so much on it. Running instils a sense of self-awareness and discipline,’’ she said.

Nimisha will be heading to the Japanese capital early next year for the annual Tokyo Marathon.

Chintan Vora (Photo: courtesy Chintan)

Chintan Vora

Chintan Vora has been running for several years yet calls himself a “ reluctant runner.’’ “ I run mostly run for health reasons,’’ he said.

In 2016, he and his wife Nimisha Vora ran the Amsterdam Marathon – she did the full marathon and he opted for the half marathon. He enjoyed this run thoroughly.

In 2018, he accompanied Nimisha to New York City Marathon. “ When I went there I realized that this race was something one must try,’’ he said.

Up until the 2019 Berlin Marathon, Chintan had not only not run a full marathon but also not attempted a distance beyond 30 kilometers.

He took to slow running and finished Berlin Marathon in 6:08:38. The weather, according to him, made it tough. “ It was raining and windy and my hands were cold,’’ he said. Finishing the run at Berlin was a satisfying experience. He is normally prone to walking towards the end of the race but at Berlin he ran the last 800 meters to finish on a “high”.

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

AVINASH SABLE IMPROVES NATIONAL RECORD YET AGAIN

Avinash Sable (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Athletics Federaion of India [AFI]. It has been cropped for use here. No copyright infringement intended)

Avinash Sable has set yet another national record in the men’s 3000m steeplechase.

Running in the final of the discipline at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, he placed thirteenth in a field of 15 finishers but completed the race in 8:21:37 minutes, an improvement over the 8:25:23 he registered in the heat, just a few days ago.

With this timing, Sable has also qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As per information on Wikipedia, the qualifying time for the men’s 3000m steeplechase at the 2020 Olympics, is 8:22:00.

The fast paced final in Doha featured a hard fought, tight finish. Conseslus Kipruto of Kenya took gold in 8:01:35. Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia placed second in 8:01:36, while Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco finished third in 8:03:76.

Sable’s passage to the final was not a smooth one. In the third heat (it was held three days before the final), he had faced setbacks on the steeplechase course for no fault of his. Takele Nigate of Ethiopia fell twice in that race; in the first incident Sable was among those he brought down, in the second, Sable’s progress was blocked by the stumbling Nigate. The incidents were successfully appealed by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) paving the way for Sable’s eventual inclusion in the final.

The national record Sable set in the heat was an improvement on the national record of 8:28:94 he had set earlier in March 2019 at the Federation Cup in Patiala. The new record from the final improves upon the time set in the heat.

Hailing from Mandwa in Beed district, Maharashtra, Sable is the first steeplechaser from India to qualify for the IAAF World Athletics Championships after Dina Ram in 1991. His qualification for Doha happened at the March 2019 Federation Cup in Patiala.

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

THE ASH EFFECT

Ashok Nath (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ashok Nath has positioned himself as a mentor for runners. He brings to his mentoring, years of corporate experience, an attribute often associated with goal and focus. Yet he also says, “ there is no finite precise goal.” What he seeks is mindful running. 

In 2015, Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman enrolled for a workshop on running.

He had been struggling to improve his running. For the next several months he kept the learnings from the workshop in mind and trained accordingly. At the 2016 Mumbai Marathon he lopped off 14 minutes from his previous year’s timing. That was significant. A month later, in February 2016, he decided to formally join the training program offered by Ashok Nath, who had conducted the 2015 workshop.

Ashok Nath, or Ash as he is popularly known, has been a recreational runner for most of his adult life. Long ago in Delhi, he would wake up at 5AM, read and then go for a run lasting about an hour. To him, it was an exercise to stay fit, nothing more, nothing less. “I never thought of myself as a runner,’’ he said. Years later, the marketing professional is into “mentoring’’ runners but there is a difference. He hasn’t scaled up his mentoring service; instead he has kept it small, premium and cast as “community’’. That brew is tad unusual in the Indian coaching scene, where the general trend is to scale up.  “ I call it the Run with Ash community,’’ Ashok, 56, said.

The youngest of three siblings, Ashok grew up in India, Bangladesh and Canada. His father was in the Indian Foreign Service. Although initially a student of science, Ashok commenced his career in market research. He then took his MBA in international marketing following which, he proceeded to work at a handful of well-known advertising agencies, among them – JWT, MAA Bozell, Rediffusion, Enterprise and O&M. “ My work has been mostly in advertising, public relations and consulting,’’ he said.

From one of the editions of the Mumbai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

In the early years of his career, Ashok was based in Delhi. He used to run regularly, typically loops at the Hauz Khas Rose Garden near the city’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Occasionally, elite athletes who trained at the National Stadium close to city center would come to the park as part of their long run.  They saw him running in the park. They also got around to talking. It was window to a world of running beyond deer park and early morning runs. Those days major marathons in India were mainly two – there was the Rath Marathon in Delhi and the Pune International Marathon. The Rath Marathon used to pass by Ashok’s house. For two years he watched the race go by. Then notwithstanding the fact that he hadn’t formally participated in any such event before or trained for it, he registered for an edition of Rath. It was straight dive into the full marathon. “ It happened in 1984-85 and I finished the race in approximately three and a half hours. Then I went back home and slept the whole day,’’ Ashok said. By the standards of amateur runners in India, that is a decent timing, particularly for debut. Still, nothing changed in Ashok’s life. He continued to maintain the same schedules.  The following year, he again completed Rath in near similar time. For the next two years, he kept his connection with events alive, running half marathons.

By now the perspective in urban India was changing firmly. The economy had been opened up and thanks to industries like IT, the workforce was more mobile. People were spending years overseas on assignments, picking up active lifestyles there, returning to India and wanting to continue the same. In 2004, the Mumbai Marathon made its debut. Slowly but steadily it kick-started a running movement in India’s financial capital. More marathons started to come up in India. It triggered alongside an interest in running across the country.  Meanwhile, Ashok’s work took him from Delhi to the Middle East and eventually to Bengaluru. The southern city would bring him closer to running. In 2005, on a dare by an office colleague he enlisted for what was then called the Lipton Marathon. He ran the half marathon at the event in Bengaluru. Six months later, another half marathon happened. He went for that too, and clocked 1:18. In 2008, he registered for the Times Bangalore Marathon and commenced for the first time in his life, structured training with a race in view. He was originally enlisted to do the half marathon; on a week’s notice, he changed that to the full. On race day, he ran strong, staying within the top ten runners till the half way mark. At 25 kilometers, his legs felt as though laden with lead. He decided to walk the next five kilometers. Then he recommenced his running and finished like everyone else. It was a sobering experience.

Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath

Around this time, Ashok was among a small group of runners who regularly interacted with Runners for Life (RFL).  He was slowly but surely getting increasingly attracted to the world around running. “ By 2010 I was thinking: enough is enough. I wanted to leave the corporate world,’’ he said. The advertising profession is famous for extended hours put in at office and much socializing within that ecosystem and immediately related ones. According to Ashok, even as an employee, he wasn’t the sort sticking past office hours at the companies he worked for. “ I give you eight hours of quality work. After that, I need my time,’’ he said. Happening regularly in those hours reserved for self, was his running. Notwithstanding the 2008 experience at the marathon in Bengaluru, Ashok continued to run and emerge a podium finisher in his age category at major Indian marathons like the Mumbai Marathon and ADHM.

For life ahead, he contemplated a mix of writing and running, doing something for the welfare of stray dogs and becoming guest faculty somewhere or being on the lecture circuit. It didn’t work out the way he wanted. The writing proved to be financially unrewarding. It entailed effort – sometimes you sat and wrote for a couple of days – but the payment was downright little. The guest faculty idea failed to gather traction because as Ashok found out, the general expectation in such opportunities was inputs leading to a job for listener. That is boring; it lacked dream. What remained was running. With a couple of friends he set up a company called Running Buddy Sports. Ashok was full time director. There was strong response from some senior fellow runners who were ready to invest in the venture. Running Buddy was meant to offer coaching for running, have a physiology lab and represent Runners World in India. They signed a MoU with Furman Institute of Running and Training (FIRST) to bring their program – Run Less, Run Fast – to India. They also explored tours around the marathon. A proper business study was done for and Running Buddy embarked on a pilot project. Then he pulled out. “ I realized this was going to be a 12 hour plus job. For most clients the convenient time would be early morning or evening. It meant my day would end up crazy. I didn’t leave my corporate job to do this,’’ Ashok said.  The venture shut shop before formal launch. It was back to square one.

Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath

Then Boston Marathon happened. “ Fellow runners would mention of this iconic race and how they aspired someday to participate. So I thought: why not?” Ashok said. He enrolled for the 2010 Boston Marathon but could not proceed beyond Frankfurt due to cancellation of flights, courtesy volcanic eruptions in Iceland. That year the eruptions at Eyjafjallajokull caused massive disruption of air traffic and several thousand runners were stranded. The Boston organizers took note and he was invited to run the marathon’s 2011 edition. In 2011, he ran and finished the marathon in three hours, eight minutes and 27 seconds. He qualified and registered for Boston Marathon ten times and ran it eight times. This includes his run at the event in 2013 – the year of the infamous bombing incident – when Ashok, at that time past 50 years of age, covered the distance in under three hours. According to him, at one point in time he even contemplated training to win the Boston marathon in his age group but realized that there was a serious downside. “ You can’t train and put in the serious hours of mentoring others. I would have had to take a break from work with no safety net. It didn’t make sense,” he said.

Ashok went on to participate in the other five World Major Marathons – Berlin Marathon, Chicago Marathon, London Marathon, New York City Marathon and Tokyo Marathon. He has also completed Comrades Marathon, an ultramarathon of 87-89 kilometers in South Africa, run between the cities of Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 1955 feet. On his first attempt, Ashok slashed the then existing Indian record for the Comrades by an hour. He has finished within nine hours, earning the Bill Rowan Medal at the Comrades Marathon, four times. He is thinking of running Comrades at age 60. It is a thought. “ Will decide later,’’ he said.

Somewhere in the time between shutting down Running Buddy and the marathons he accumulated, Ashok decided to try starting an enterprise in running that entailed just him. “ Why should I throw away my three decades of corporate experience?’’ he asked. In 2012 he studied the market for running again and decided to focus on running technique. “ It’s a small pie. I didn’t want to eat into others’ business. And no one was thinking technique, it was just training and training,” he said. He decided to do workshops. “ I see myself in the knowledge space. I am not an operational person, I am not a coach but a mentor,’’ he said.

Ashok with some of his mentees at Mumbai’s Marine Drive (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

This was the space Ashok worked in at the time this blog spoke to him. What appears remarkable is his positioning within that domain. The runners he assists are spread around India – Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, NCR, Pune, Surat and Vadodara, and abroad. Many of them are doctors. The numbers are intentionally modest, which is a departure from the usual coaching model found in India. Ashok has positioned himself as a premium service provider. “ There is a certain level of affluence and discipline required to afford me,’’ he said.

The workshops he held helped to find people interested in improving their running. That is the intake point, along with word-of-mouth referrals. Preliminary assessment of an individual includes submission of comprehensive paperwork that asks for body composition tests, blood tests, time trials, lifestyle, goals etc.  Ashok does not market a training program or model of mentoring that fits all. He uses his knowledge of running and experience in the sport as palate to dip into for a more customized approach. Roughly 70 per cent of the knowledge he shares is common for all mentees. The rest is customized to each one’s need and ability. The periodic assessments sent to mentees are also specific to individual. He admitted that while running may seem a freewheeling form of physical recreation, he is partial to the corporate approach which sees things as a sequence of input, processing and measurable output. Goals are defined to keep things measurable. He keeps the flock together with a community-touch including get-togethers and group runs. “ I am not looking at big numbers. My approach is low volume, high value.  If your training is made for you, you will enjoy it and if you enjoy, you will persist. Most of my mentees stick around for three years. Some have been around for six years,’’ Ashok said.

From one of the editions of the Kaveri Trail Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Anuradha Chari is a Bengaluru-based amateur triathlete, runner and banker. She is also one of Ashok’s new mentees. “ His style of mentoring is different. Instead of offering a tailor-made plan, he takes the effort to understand your goals and customizes the training plan,’’ she said. Anuradha has been into triathlons since 2016. Running is her weak discipline. She attended Ashok’s workshop in May 2019 and decided to enroll.  “Ashok emphasizes learning, a lot. He inculcates not just nutrition and exercise but also compassion and such other aspects. They slowly become a practice,’’ she said.

Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman started running in 2010. He heard of Ashok Nath and met him a couple of times at running events. In 2015, he enrolled for his workshop. “ I was not finding any improvement in my performance. That’s when I decided to enroll for his workshop,’’ the army doctor said. “Ashok himself is a very good runner. He has a knack of identifying areas that need improvement. A major improvement in my performance was visible after I did his workshop,’’ the officer, an endocrinologist working at Army Hospital in Delhi, said. His marathon timing improved by 14 minutes to 3:43 hours at the 2016 edition of the Mumbai Marathon compared to how he fared at the previous edition. In February 2016, he enrolled with Ashok for long-term training. His timing kept improving and by the 2019 edition of the same event, he had bettered his timing to 3:17, his best for a marathon so far and a Boston Qualifier for 2020“ Ashok’s approach is technical. He keeps upgrading and updating the training plan introducing the concept of sports psychology and nutrition among other things, to us,’’ the colonel said.

Pune-based Tanmaya Karmarkar said she is more confident and stronger after signing up with Ashok. “ It is a seven-day program incorporating core, gym and running workout apart from mentoring sessions on nutrition and psychology. He also gives us books to help with overall development,’’ she said. She qualified for Boston in six months and will be running her second Boston Marathon in 2020.

From Comrades (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

At the Mumbai airport café where this blog met him a couple of times over August-September 2019, Ashok’s confidence as mentor, took time buying into. The typical coach is a mix of former elite athlete (at least some formal background in sports) and matching certification. Ashok hasn’t been an elite athlete before. He has neither been coached nor is he a certified coach; he is not a doctor who is an expert on human physiology. What he has is structured corporate thinking; years of experience as a regular recreational runner, years of listening to his body, an attentive mind and the appetite to keep abreast of developments in the field. According to him, he reads a lot. He has been steady performer as recreational runner, has the experience of marathons here and overseas, assimilates ideas and has kept his own injuries to the minimum. “ I can count on the fingers of my one hand the number of times I have been to a physiotherapist in all these years,’’ he said. Injuries stem from multiple causes, not all of them physical. Mental well-being also matters. Needless to say, there are moments in his engagement with clients when Ashok’s mentoring would appear closer to life-coaching than coaching for a physical activity called running. And, he seems to have packaged it all successfully into a well-positioned product.

Despite leaning towards the corporate attitude of being focused, Ashok also says there is “ no finite precise goal.’’ He acknowledges that everything evolves with experience; what he may have said five years ago, needn’t be what he says now. “What I want to see at the end of the day is a mindful runner,’’ he said.

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