Mumbai Marathon 2017: Meet Hugh Jones, long-distance legend and race director

There will be quite a few people in Mumbai hitting the gyms as well as thronging places such as Bandra's Bandstand, or the famous Marine Drive. Yes, quite a few of them would be ones doing so to fulfill their 'New Year Resolution'. A handful of others, would perhaps be preparing for the Mumbai Marathon on the third Sunday of January.

The event is considered the largest mass participation event in Asia as well as its richest, with a prize money of $377,000 attracting leading athletes from various countries as well as people from all walks of life. Organising an event of this scale, therefore, obviously brings about a set of challenges.

There are few people more qualified to describe what goes behind this massive event than race director and marathon legend Hugh Jones. Winner of the 1982 London Marathon, and the only Londoner to win the event among either men or women, Jones has been the organising the event in the city since its inception, and serves in a similar capacity in the Delhi half-marathon, as well as the events in Kolkata and Bengaluru.

In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Jones talks about the challenges that accompany his role as the race director, the state of long-distance running in the country, as well as his favourite memories from a golden career that spanned two decades. Following are excerpts from the conversation:

 Mumbai Marathon 2017: Meet Hugh Jones, long-distance legend and race director

File photo of Mumbai Marathon race director and marathon legend Hugh Jones. AFP

Firstpost (FP): How challenging your role as race director of events organised in India, compared to ones abroad?

Hugh Jones (HJ): At first it was really difficult, simply because of the differences. I came along with all these conceptions that may have been appropriate in UK. It did take a few years to get used to the way the different viewpoints play out. But I feel we have come a very long way in the last 12-13 years, and every year we manage to learn from past experiences, and once you build a team on that basis, it is much easier to tackle the difficulties that arise.

Probably, the biggest thing that is different is the dissimilarity of construction. Its just a different thing, and I'm quite happy to accommodate that. The cultural thing is a bit intangible, but they definitely exist. The most gratifying thing of all is to build an event through building a team that works together very well and understands the situation, and make them do make allowances.


FP: How do you perceive the growth of long-distance running competitions in India?

HJ: I certainly see them growing. I think in Procam (the organisers) events, there is not so much scope for growth because we're close to the limits. If you keep increasing the number of people that you're pushing down the road, then it is going to become a more uncomfortable experience, and we don't want that.

We want to provide a good running experience for those people who we accept as entries. It's got to be clear that there will be limits, in terms of each individual event. What there is no real limit to is the number of events that will multiply, and that's what we are seeing now in India, there's more and more events coming up every weekend.

FP: Is Procam planning to take marathons to Tier-II Indian cities?

HJ: For one organisation, it's a big ask. We find it difficult to move from Delhi to Calcutta within a month. Each event demands a certain build-up time, so the launch is several months (before the race). In fact, the launch for the Mumbai Marathon is sometime in August. You've got these inter-trajectories locking, and you can't pay sufficient attention to an event if you've got too many of those things going on, especially road events that take a lot of negotiations in terms of permits that you have to seek.

FP: Are other organisations active in this endeavour then?

HJ: That's what is happening. Whether Procam like it or not, it is an open market. In fact Procam are satisfied with what they have put out there, and a lot of events being put on now do aspire to what we've done, which is fine. I think it is going to improve to service runners all around.

FP: What is the process of organising an event of the scale of the Mumbai Marathon like?

HJ: The planning is year-round. We need to know what's going to be happening next year so we keep an eye on that so that we can adjust the course, or the start and finish arrangements if necessary. That's what happens in London, Berlin and all these places. There's always an ongoing monitoring operation year-round to feed into what's going to be happening in the next event.

Although I'm flattered by the title 'race director', it's really (dealing) more with the technical side of things. There is a lot of stuff that I just don't have to deal with because of the extensive team that we have and the specialisms that they pursue.

FP: There are some who say that you know the city roads better than quite a few locals...

HJ: I wouldn't say that. I mean, I do know certain roads, the road that the course goes down. It's the same in London. I know London pretty well, but I particularly know those roads that the course goes down, because you have to know the lamp-post numbers, you have to know where the drains are, whether there is any obstruction, potholes, etc which is not necessary for normal living. So I wouldn't say that I know Mumbai any better at all. I know it in a very sketchy way, and it is specific to the needs of the job.

FP: Which do you feel is the best-organised marathon in India?

HJ: Delhi is a much easier event to organise than the Mumbai Marathon. Because for a start, it's only half the distance (chuckles). The roads in Delhi, once you've secured, they're super smooth, super flat, wide and it's all very straightforward. The finish is much more close. Here (in Mumbai) it's a big challenge, because we're right in front of CST, a busy junction. You've got to get all that stuff onto the road in the last four hours before the race starts, which is a huge challenge. In Delhi, we have a fairly leisurely build-up, it's more contained. There's less of those unknown factors flying about.

Kolkata was still on a fairly sharp learning curve. What's really nice about Kolkata is how the city, the police and the federation have all seen what has happened elsewhere, and they're keen to get there, and they're keen to do the same sort of style events. They're very cooperative, and we have a very good inter-relationship.

FP: Do you think events of such stature help bring local civic issues to light?

HJ: Whether I like it or not, that is the sort of thing that happens because as I say, the marathon takes place out on the street. If there are general problems like that, then it is a way to bring things out, whether we like it or not. What marathon does everywhere really is help project the place in which it takes place. If there are things that are being projected in a place that aren't very flattering, then I'm sure it will be attended to.

FP: Going back to the Indian context of long-distance running, what is your take on the current state of it's affairs?

HJ: It's not surprising (the poor state of the sport in India). The climactic conditions in India don't really favour distance running. However, what has changed throughout the world is that there is less emphasis on the performance aspect, the high-level competition, and there is more emphasis on fitness, mass participation and general satisfaction you get from running distance. And that's something that looks like it's set to grow in India quite strongly.

But above all, it is the social circumstances (that also matter). I grew up in the 1960s running to school. That's what I did. It wasn't that far, but I did run. I was too impatient to walk. If you grow up from the age of five, running several miles over soft ground to school and back as they do in East Africa, then that's bound to set you up. It's a fantastic springboard for elite training and elite competitions.

People these days are frightened to allow their kids to run to school and back, because they think they might get run over or there might be somebody lurking in the shadows ready to grab them.

Hugh Jones receives the John Disley lifetime achievement award during the winners' presentations for the London Marathon 2016. AFP

Hugh Jones receives the John Disley lifetime achievement award during the winners' presentations for the London Marathon 2016. AFP

FP: Talking about your golden career now. London 1982. Los Angeles 1984. Or Stockholm 1983 and 1992? Which one would you pick as your most memorable event?

HJ: (Eyes light up) It's got to be London. I mean, that's my hometown. Moreover, the finish was on the Westminster Bridge. That's (next to) Big Ben, and everybody in the whole world knows the Big Ben. And it's there as if it's the finish clock. It's a big thing. I grew up there. I became a runner there. We were never given the freedom of the street until pretty much that moment when suddenly you're out there on roads instead on footpaths or in the hills.

I was also the first outright winner, because in the previous year, they (the winners) went over the line together. However, the one thing that I always boast about is the fact that I'm still the only Londoner ever to have won the London Marathon. Male or female.

FP: Any words of advice for preparation for aspiring athletes and amateur marathoners, especially ones who are participating just for hobby's sake?

HJ: The preparation for running is running. It's as simple as that. I don't think anything substitutes for getting there out there and doing it. But it's the strategic approach to it that's most important. It does depend on pacing your development.

The other thing is that you shouldn't be looking at immediate rewards, and particularly you shouldn't be going out and doing a training run, timing it and expecting to beat that time three-four days later. You've got to accept the ups with the downs, and the downs with the ups. The whole idea behind training is that you push your physical limits, but you do that one day and then you step back and you recover.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 23:26:11 IST