With punishing rain and plummeting temperatures, Govindam Lakshmanan must have cursed his luck. He also would have reasoned fate to not be on his side; while destiny was playing with him.
Twenty one athletes lined up for the qualifying Heat 1 of the 5000m. In that field, Lakshmanan was simply another athlete trying to make a mark. Winning or reaching the top five in such an elite gathering is better than a fantasy. Indian athletes are taught to be realistic. “Don’t think out of the arc,” most coaches advise. Walking into the Olympic Park, for his first World Championship would have been a special moment. And in the mix was his shining idol Mo Farah.
After Lakshmanan won the 5000 and 10,000 in Bhubaneswar at the Asian Athletic Championships, the man from Tamil Nadu had said, “It will be wonderful to meet him and run along with him.” That wish had already been fulfilled. Farah was in Lakshmanan’s Heat 1. Just the announcement of Farah’s name brings the entire stadium to its feet. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Lakshmanan applaud Mo Farah before the race had begun.
Apart from Olympic and World Champion, Farah, there was Muktar Edris, the former world U-20 champion and the fastest 5000m runner of 2017 with a best of 12:55.23. Into that mix were some of the biggest middle distance names: Tanzania’s Emmanuel Gisamoda, Australia’s Morgan McDonald, Kenya’s Davis Kiplangat and Azerbaijan’s Hale Ibrahimov and Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo. You could have forgiven Lakshmanan for delaying the race to click a few well-framed selfies.
From the outside, Lakshmanan was a calm force. On the stadium’s big screen, he flashed for almost a second before the camera panned onto another competitor whose timing probably made him more important. In that split-second appearance, Lakshmanan was staring straight ahead, with steel in his eyes, waiting for the race to begun. The Olympic Park is a cauldron, a magnificent structure where older champions reinforce their faith while the newer ones come to terms, either with a failed tactic or joyous celebration of a qualifying mark achieved by the hundredth of a second. For Lakshmanan, the idea was to remain alive in the race, stick to the middle and not get caught while overtaking or falling back; conserve energy.
Meanwhile, the fans roared even as Farah stood at the starting line. Five days ago, they had seen him win a blistering 10,000. They needed a similar qualifying race. For the runners, running in trying conditions with only the top five qualifying, there was no margin for error. Spain Illia Fifa, the European Champion hit the front. Farah was at the back; in the middle, Lakshmanan. The Indian knew he had to be in the middle pack. Too ahead would mean pushing one’s untested limits against runners whose lungs could stretch beyond imagination. Stuck at the back would ensure a bad time and a worse finish.
12.5 laps sometimes flash past and before you realise it, the race is over. For the moment, Lakshmanan had the right tactics. He was on the inside and not letting go of that space. Ahead in the race, the top guns exchanged the lead. With six laps gone, Farah started powering from the back. Such is the quality in the 3-time 5000m World Champion that he makes over-taking look as effortless as a warm-up race. The lead was being exchanged between Tanzania’s Emmanuel Gisamoda, Australia’s Morgan McDonald, Kenya’s Davis Kiplangat and Azerbaijan’s Hale Ibrahimov. They looked strong and an energetic and robust finish looked imminent.
Lakshmanan was still in the middle, around 14-16th spot. Now he was permanently on the inside. If he tried to move forward, there were too many bodies ahead. Going from the outside would have killed him, that would be an extra 4-6 metres and the effort would throw him right back. By now the tactics of the Indian was clear. He needed a good timing; an effort that would see him create a Personal Best.
Meanwhile, things were happening at the front. Kiplangat, the 2015 IAAF U-18 silver medalist had hit the lead with only 800M left. Farah moved and the rest hung onto him. Kejelcha eased into the lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Lakshmanan was running his own race in the middle, still on the inside. There was a gap with a thousand metres left but he didn’t pick up the bait. You needed lungs, legs and a will power that could sustain you in the most killing part of the race. In the rain and bone-chilling cold, Lakshmanan's body was already screaming. He would say later, “Legs tight ho gaya tha.” (The legs were packing up).
It’s a feat for most runners to focus, concentrate and also keep an eye on the clock so that the pace is consistent in breaking records or creating personal bests. But somewhere from the corner of his eye, Lakshmanan knew he was on track. The pace, if not killing, was moving him with the rest of the pack in the middle. Up front, where a different race was being run, the fans had started egging them onto the finish line. Kejelcha crossed the line in 13:30.07 Farah stopped the clock at 13:30.18 as did Edris, who was just 4/100ths behind.
And the surprise, Canada’s Justyn Knight popped out from nowhere to take fourth, ahead of Kifle. In such a race, big names also got eliminated - Kiplimo, Kiplangat and Bahrain’s Albert Rop were the notable ones. Five ticks later, Lakshmanan crossed the line. Exactly five ticks behind Mo Farah and Kejelcha – that was the difference between them and Lakshmanan; a difference that would take a couple of years of high quality racing to bridge; season upon season of such races as everyone witnessed in a 5000m qualifying; year after year of running against such opposition where the pace keeps increasing and the roar of the crowd feels distant as your muscles scream in agony, while the gush in your head almost wills you to stop. For Lakshmanan, all this was new territory. He barely had time to look at the Champions. But when the timings and positions flashed on the scoreboard, he would have been elated – he had broken his own Personal Best with 13:35.69.
In fact, the 2nd 5000m qualifying had produced a fast 13: 21.50 winning time from Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega, the IAAF U-20 Champion. Pushed into that group, it’s tempting to think that Lakshmanan could have gone faster; probably another 5-6 ticks. Coming off the track, Lakshmanan had a smile. He had survived and won a personal battle. In Bhubaneswar, he had promised to do better than his best timing and that been accomplished. “It was a good race and only in the last lap, I felt my legs tighten,” said Lakshmanan, unable to keep the smile off his face. “While I was warming up, I knew the race would be good.” And then Lakshmanan said something that didn’t go with the usual scripts doled out by Indian runners who come to big championships with ready excuses. “I think the weather was good and I could break my personal best,” he said.
Lakshmanan spoke about tactics and how his coach Surender Singh had asked him to focus on the time and not the race. “I did that,” he said. But the biggest smile was when he said: “I ran with Mo Farah. It is his last championship and I will always remember that.”
Food, usually an issue with most Indian athletes, was the least of Lakshmanan’s problems. “Last night, I had boiled rice with Tomato sauce,” he said. Well, that seems to be the new go-to diet for middle and long distance runners wanting to break their personal bests.
As the other runners filed past, Lakshmanan spoke about the 2018 season and how important it is for him to carry on the good work into the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. The evening also left one with the impression of where Lakshmanan could reach if he had such a race with the same intensity and quality at least 8 times a year, spread across Europe and the rest of the world. Given the same conditions and quality runners, Lakshmanan could aim to hit the front pack. Then it’s a matter of time before he could have a shot at a podium finish. Undoubtedly, on a tough night in a group with some of the world’s best, this Tamil Nadu runner showed that along with talent he had the guts to slug it out.
These are traits, most athletes in this Indian squad could learn from.
Published Date: Aug 10, 2017 14:08 PM | Updated Date: Aug 10, 2017 22:50 PM