Mumbai: On Sunday, just after quarter past nine, as countless amateur runners trudged towards the finish line at the Tata Mumbai Marathon, a huge cheer went up from the spectators as India's top marathoners Gopi Thonakal and Nitendra Singh Rawat thundered into the home stretch.
The two rival army men, who had jostled with each other throughout the race even as the other Indian challengers got left behind, knew that an explosive acceleration in the final hundred metres would grant them victory. With the finishing line in sight, Gopi picked up the pace but Nitendra, the winner in 2016, could barely match up to his fellow Rio Olympian.
In a race of small margins, Gopi held on to his pace and finished ahead of the man he had been a pacer to in 2016. Even as Nitendra slumped to the ground to remove his shoes so that the blisters on his feet could be treated, Gopi sauntered to the side to put on a pair of blue goggles rivalling the red that Nitendra had on while running.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Gopi finally emerged from Nitendra's shadow, in the process establishing himself as one of India's premier marathon runners.
Nitendra, however, has made a strong case for him to be included in the national camp from which he has been left out since his performance in Rio, where he finished 84th with a timing of 2:24:52, a long way away from his personal best. On being asked about the same, the 31-year-old said that it was up to the selection committee to decide whether to include him or not.
"My job was to run and perform well and I think I have done that. Now it's in the hands of the selection committee."
For Nitendra, the Mumbai Marathon was his first full marathon since returning from the injury he sustained during the Rio Olympics which hampered his performance. The Uttarakhand runner was coming into the race after setting the course record for Indian runners at the Delhi Half Marathon in November. Gopi, on the other hand, finished 25th overall at the 2017 IAAF World Championships and was the favourite to win his first Mumbai Marathon.
A day before the race, both the athletes had set themselves a target 2:13:00 and in the process, break the course record for Indian male runners. With the Athletics Federation of India setting the qualifying mark for the Commonwealth Games at 2:12:50, the pressure was on the duo.
Aiding them in their challenge was the Romanian Marius Ionescu, who was the pacemaker for the Indian men.
For the first 21 kilometres, the debutant from Andhra Pradesh, Srinu Bugatha, was right on the heels of Gopi and Nitendra. However, by the 27-kilometre mark, Gopi and Nitendra had opened up a gap of more than a minute with Srinu. Such was the dominance of the Rio Olympians, that Srinu, who finished third, was seven minutes behind Gopi and Nitendra's final time.
Even so, Gopi and Nitendra could not meet their target time and failed to break the Indian course record. Speaking after the race, Gopi put their failure down to slowing up after Ionescu had dropped off and to a rise in temperature in the final leg of the race.
"Ionescu kept a good pace for the first 27 kilometres but he started losing pace after that and subsequently we lost pace too. The heat also played its part in slowing us down," said Gopi after the race.
As the duo entered the final leg of the race, it was apparent to them that breaking the course record, let alone finishing under 2:13:00, would be impossible. It was then that the aim changed to finishing first and pocketing the Rs 5,00,000 winner's cheque.
"I was going for the course record, but I realised that I wasn't going to make it. So I aimed to finish first and thankfully I was able to do it," Gopi said.
Quizzed on their failure to break the course record, both the runners were of the opinion that given the change in the weather conditions towards the end of the race, the timings they achieved were good if not great.
After the race, Nitendra admitted: "If you see our timings, we ran very well for the first hour and were on time. But as the heat increased, we began losing pace. I believe if the race had started an hour before, we would post better timings. I'd go as far as saying that we might just post the world record in Mumbai if the race starts at six instead of seven."
With the New Delhi full marathon on 25 February being the last chance for either of them to achieve AFI's qualification mark for the Commonwealth Games, the stage is set for the rivalry between Gopi and Nitendra to progress to the next level.
Updated Date: Jan 21, 2018 19:29 PM