New Delhi: Distance runs are dreary. Devoid of flamboyance, bereft of blood-rush, and absent of adrenaline, they make for an unattractive athletic endeavour for most, much less an exciting rival to sprints and middle-distance cousins. Try telling that to Nitendra Singh Rawat and Gopi Thonakal, and the humble men would invariably nod in agreement. It’s a life they have chosen; one that tests their endurance and will and teases their physical and psychological limits each day. The two men will carry India’s hopes on a nippy Sunday morning here as Airtel Delhi Half Marathon enters its 14th edition.
The occasion, albeit worthy of a celebration if one is an event organiser, has failed to intimidate them. They have been here, done that. And they have no qualms in admitting that their larger focus is the full marathon and the Delhi run will be an engine to bring them back in competition mode.
“My goal is to prepare well for the Mumbai Marathon next year, and I think doing well here will give my preparations a big boost. I will use this race as a means to get back in the groove. The focus remains the full marathon,” says Gopi, who is also eyeing a productive international season that has Asian and World Championships on its roster.
Sunday’s half-marathon will be Rawat and Gopi’s first competitive event since February, and the lack of events means that despite winning the Mumbai and Delhi marathons in consecutive months earlier this year, Gopi is not sure of starting a favourite on Sunday.
“The last half marathon I ran was in 2015 in Delhi, and I had finished second then. I would definitely like to better that, but since I have had no competitions since February, I would say I will certainly look for a top 10 finish and aim to better my personal best,” the Kerala runner, who won the Asian marathon gold last year, says.
The reason for this eight-month layoff, Nitendra and Gopi insist, is lack of quality competitions.
“There are not many road races in India, and the ones that exist are not very competitive. We need to have a group of good distance runners to raise our level,” says Gopi.
Athletes survive on challenges. Putting them in cold storage and expecting them to be in sizzling form when sporadic competitions come about is unfair, yet the Indian officialdom is not unknown to turn logic on its head. Nitendra’s rise and free-fall are a case in point.
In January 2016, Nitendra won the Mumbai Marathon with a course-record time of 2:15.48, and also secured his berth for Rio Olympics. Things, however, didn’t go as planned in Rio as Nitendra, running with a pair of pulled hamstrings, could manage only an 84th-place finish.
“I pulled both my hamstrings a week before the race. The ground in Rio was wet, and I pulled the muscle while training. I decided to compete nevertheless,” he says.
The result also meant that the armyman was dropped from the national squad, and he continues to remain out of favour. He currently trains in Ranikhet, and the level of competition is far from challenging.
“We used to have a group of 10-12 distance runners in the national camp. Running alongside Gopi, Kheta Ram, Mohammed Yunus, and Govindan Lakshmanan meant there was no dearth of motivation. Now, I train in Ranikhet, Gopi trains in Bengaluru, Kheta Ram is in Pune… so it’s naturally tough to maintain the motivation levels,” he says.
“I train with army’s fresh cross country runners, and they are not even of my level. There’s no challenge, so there are greater risks of slacking off. All motivation has to come from within, there’s no one to push you.”
Post Rio, the 32-year-old also suffered from, what he calls, a botched recovery. “I was told to do a lot of strengthening exercises for my legs. It reached a stage where I couldn’t walk,” he says.
In February 2017, Nitendra made his way to one Dr Yash Pandey in Bengaluru, who, after a 20-day regimen, got him to running condition. Around the same time, the national camp was on in the Karnataka capital, and Nitendra stayed in a rented room outside the camp to train with his peers.
“I was dropped from the national squad after Rio and hence was not part of the camp. So I decided to train with the group while staying outside the camp,” he says.
Since February 2017, Nitendra has competed in Bangalore Half Marathon in October 2017 (second place), BSF Half Marathon in October 2017 (third place), Delhi Half Marathon in November 2017 (first place with course record), Mumbai Marathon in January 2018 (second place), and Delhi Marathon in February 2018 (second place).
Nitendra though is not particularly amused with his consistent top-three finishes, and craves for stiffer competitions. “Training with fresh recruits in Ranikhet, I hardly get a proper calibration of my skills. It’s tough to keep pushing yourself without proper competition,” he reiterates.
As a defending champion — he won the Delhi Half Marathon last year in a photo finish, edging past Lakshmanan — Nitendra is expected to get tough competition from Gopi, his one-time pace-setter.
Post Rio, Gopi, who shifted from 10,000 metres to marathons only in 2016, has emerged as country’s leading distance runner. His recent clutch of top-place finishes puts him in direct competition with Nitendra, and when the two armymen set off for 21 gruelling kilometres in Delhi’s pre-winter nip, they will have more than the clock and each other to beat.
Updated Date: Oct 20, 2018 15:20 PM