Mumbai Marathon 2019: Between ‘heartbreak hill’ and Marine Drive’s ‘optical illusion’, runners chase victory

  • 'Heartbreak Hill' is the stretch of the Mumbai Marathon course near Jaslok Hospital, which runners have to navigate twice.

  • It was at 'Heartbreak Hill' that the careers of India’s two current top runners ― Nitendra Singh Rawat, who still holds the course record here, and Gopi T ― took off three years ago.

  • The real made-for-television drama, though, comes at the Marine Drive stretch when the race is about to end.

Officially, it has no nickname. But the small hill near Jaslok Hospital which tests runners (twice!) during the Mumbai Marathon is fast gaining popularity as ‘heartbreak hill’, named after the hillock which runners have to navigate at the historic Boston Marathon.

Making its first appearance at the 10km mark, and then again at the 37km mark, the small hill between Peddar Road and Haji Ali is crucially placed; it’s here (while returning) that runners thinking of going for victory essentially make their move.

“It serves as a spanner in the works,” says Tim Hutchings, an Olympian at the 1984 edition who has been a commentator for the Mumbai race since its inception 16 years ago. “When you run it the first time in the course of a race, it’s a much gentler incline. It’s still steep. But when you return, it’s much steeper. And the runners are already suffering by this stage. So it just separates the wheat from the chaff. It’s a logical place to make an attack if you’re feeling strong,” he adds before predicting, “it will lead to heartbreak for somebody.”

Hutchings, who also commentated at the Berlin Marathon a few months ago when Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record with searing pace, setting a time of 2:01:39, believes the hill adds a couple of minutes to the runners’ times. “This seems like a 2:06 course. And then you add the weather conditions which are very kind to the athletes.”

In the Indian context, it was at this hill, that the careers of India’s two current top runners ― Nitendra Singh Rawat, who still holds the course record, and Gopi T ― took off three years ago.

In that race, Rawat was an unheralded army man who had found himself leading the race at the 29km mark. Gopi, on the other hand, was supposed to be the pace-setter at that race, expected to drop off by the 30km mark.

“By the 29km stage that year, only Gopi T, who was a pace-setter at that edition, was running alongside me. And we had been told that he would drop out between 25-30km. I realised that my body was still feeling good enough to go at full steam. It was also at that stage that Gopi T decided to go for the kill, realising that there was no one in the chasing pack that was close, which meant there was a realistic chance for him to stand atop the podium,” says Rawat. “The hill isn’t as steep while we run on it the first time. But while coming back, given how tired we are from having run for 30-odd kilometres, we feel it.”

Just like Hutchings, Race Director Hugh Jones has been associated with the Mumbai Marathon for all its 16 years. From his unique vantage point, he’s seen it all. Mad breaks, athletes cementing their careers, heartbreaks.

The one memory that sticks out for him was of the diminutive Seboka Mulu, who has won the race thrice.

“I remember one race where Seboka Mulu, this crazy girl, would go tearing off the front. And the pacemaker at that race would have to constantly keep telling her to slow down. She would slow down, but then make a move again!” he says.

“Around the 35km mark, people might put in a little bit of effort there to test the others.

“That stretch is maybe decisive, but it doesn't really show. Whoever is able to deal with it most effectively and copes with it the easiest, will be likely to make the break when it matters. When that is, is often a tactical decision,” adds Jones.

The optical illusion

The real made-for-television drama, though, comes at the Marine Drive stretch when the race is about to end.

“Once you end that hilly stretch and cross Girgaum Chowpatty to hit Marine Drive, that’s when most people go on the attack. Although, I have to say that the Marine Drive is an optical illusion. You keep thinking you can see the Trident, so you must be nearing the end. But it never gets any closer,” says Hutchings.

This stretch gets made even more difficult due to the fact that the 9.00 am sun bears down upon exhausted runners, with the humidity adding to their woes.

On Sunday, runners will dodge the crowds, ascend ‘heartbreak hill’, power through the heat and the humidity and make a break for victory amidst the illusion of Marine Drive.

Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 19:13:00 IST