Keeping the fire burning for four years

The Indian category winner, Ram Singh Yadav (middle) with Elam Singh (left) and Rajesh T. A.-SHASHI ASHIWAL The Indian category winner, Ram Singh Yadav (middle) with Elam Singh (left) and Rajesh T. A.

Even now, the confirmation of an Olympic berth has not doused the fire in Ram Singh Yadav's heart. “I run for my family alone,” he roared, thanking the Army Sports Institute for support in the dark days between the 2008 Olympics non-participation and the 2012 Olympics qualification. Over to Nandakumar Marar.

Ram Singh Yadav raged against the media after clearing the IAAF ‘B' qualifying standard of two hours, 18 minutes in men's marathon for the 2012 Olympic Games. He ran down the clock for a career best 2:16:59 at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) 2012 and can now focus on preparations to make the dream of Olympic representation come true.

Nine years into the event, SCMM put one Indian on line for a career breakthrough. “Qualifying for the Olympics is not my only aim. I want to better Shivnath Singh's record for the best by an Indian (2:12:00), there is a lot of work to be done.”

India's previous entry in the Olympic marathon happened at the 1980 Moscow Games and the best ever placing was 11th by the late Shivnath at Montreal in 1976.

Yadav is still a long way off from catching up with the legendary distance runner. Shivnath's Montreal time (2:16:22) is quicker than the 2:16:59 clocked by the Indian Army athlete in Mumbai. Trying to keep pace with world-class runners on the Olympic course may help Yadav take his personal best closer to 2:12, in contrast to his tactics at the Mumbai event.

He ran with the lead pack of African elite marathoners for the first two kilometres at SCMM 2012, then felt he could run out of steam at that pace. A Russian elite runner was arranged as pacemaker by Ian Ladbrokes (elite athletes co-ordinator) to help the locals clear 2:18 if possible. It is learnt the offer was not taken up and the Indians ran on their own.

“I ran with the Kenyans initially, then realised the pace was too fast and I would be left with little energy later,” the fastest Indian finisher reasoned. So while the Kenyans and the Ethiopians in front used their pacemaker, Simon Kasmili of Kenya, to set the momentum, Yadav was on his own. He ran a race within a race, running down the clock from his place behind the lead pack. He finished in 12th position overall, with a strong effort about 200m from the tape past a Kenyan, Joseph Mbithi.

In his hour of triumph, the Indian Army runner directed his anger at the assembled media. He questioned the media's eagerness to know more about his courageous run in SCMM 2012, pointing out their reluctance to speak up for him four years ago in Mumbai when he had missed the Olympic qualifying mark by 23 seconds at SCMM 2008 (2:18:23). “2:18 remains the same. I was short of qualifying for a marathon by seconds but none of you bothered to raise the issue. No one asked the officials why I was denied a second chance after coming so close. Now that I qualified on my own steam, let us see what they (administrators) have in store for me.”

Koren Yai, who triumphed in the women's event.-VIVEK BENDRE

Four years is a long time to nurse a grudge. Getting to know the circumstances which raised hopes in the runner's heart about competing in the Olympics makes it simpler to understand the reason for his emotions boiling over on return to the same event, facing similar questions from familiar faces in the media. In the euphoria surrounding Yadav's bold run in 2008 and 10th place overrall, Suresh Kalmadi (IAAF Council Member and Indian Olympics Association president then) made a grand announcement promising support to get the Indian on the Beijing Games squad. Once the 23-second deficit became known, the marathoner was left hanging only by a thread of hope.

Yadav returned in 2009 and bettered his time to 2:18:03. By then the Beijing Olympics was over and old wounds started to bleed again for the Uttar Pradesh runner. He took time off from athletics to complete an army course and arrived in Mumbai seething with anger and determined not to let slip another chance in the Olympics year. “Aware of his frustration, we kept Ram Singh away from the spotlight till the event was over. Winning the Indians' category again and clearing the qualifying time for the London Olympics is such an emotional moment that he could not control himself,” said Army athletics coach K. S. Mathews about Yadav's outburst.

Even now, the confirmation of an Olympic berth has not doused the fire in Yadav's heart. “I run for my family alone,” he roared, thanking the Army Sports Institute for support in the dark days between the 2008 Olympics non-participation and the 2012 Olympics qualification. In these four years, the outlook has changed. So has the level of co-ordination between various organisations responsible for Olympic preparations.

Mathews explained: “Marathoners have time till April 15 to aim for qualification as per IAAF standards. Five top Indian long distance runners are assured of entry in at least one foreign marathon boasting a top-class field.” Yadav was on that shortlist. After clearing the hurdle in Mumbai, the anxiety is over and he can focus on London preparations. The Olympic hopeful will head for the hills for high altitude training in Coonoor after two weeks of “active rest,” as the coach put it.

Further, as part of a long-term plan drawn up in consultation with coaches and the Athletics Federation of India, 25 Army long distance runners are on the shortlist for special training.

“Five athletes from this group were identified as exceptional talents. Ram Singh was one among them,” informed Mathews. “Following his qualification at the Mumbai marathon, we are confident of support for his preparations and one final chance for others with Olympic potential.”

Among the others, Elam Singh (2:18:27) came the closest to London qualification at SCMM 2012 and will be the first off the blocks. “Elam is likely to run at the London Marathon and the government has assured us full support,” said Mathews. “It will be his final chance to qualify for the Olympics.” The London Marathon 2011 results indicate that the first 19 male runners came under 2:18 (Great Britain's Dane Webb 19th in 2:17:41, Kenyan Emmanuel Mutai won in 2:04:40). A steeplechase-runner-turned-marathoner, Elam is lucky with a second chance coming up in April, three months before the 2012 Olympic Games in July.

* * * "Kenyans very good, Ethiopians very good"

Kenyans and Ethiopians rule the marathon world, and the intensity of competition between them leads to astonishing situations. Laban Moiben (Kenya) and Raji Assefa (Ethiopia) were involved in a sprint to the tape for the overall men's title at SCMM 2012. Both were timed at 2:10:48 in a photo finish, with the former sneaking home. The third-placed John Kyui (Kenya) raced in six seconds later.

“Kenyans very good, Ethiopians very good,” was Laban's frank reply when asked about what goes on in his mind when running shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Africans. Earlier, near 28-kms, a group of Ethiopians hounding him induced panic in the Kenyan. “There were too many of them (Ethiopians). I got worried and sprinted ahead to see if they will follow. They did not.”

The sight of an uphill stretch calmed Laban's nerves. “I like running uphill. It is similar to the up-and-down course back home at Eldama Ravine in Rift Valley and I felt comfortable,” said the Kenyan about his first Mumbai run.

The women's marathon saw Ethiopian Nestanet Abeyo cracking the course record in 2:26:12, ahead of pre-race favourites Fatima Sado and Makda Harun, both from Ethiopia. Running her seventh race in Mumbai, Nestanet killed the competition with a spurt at 25kms and upped the pace setting up a strong finish, four minutes faster than Fatima in second place. Both champions earned $36,000 each in the Procam International-organised race, the aggregate prize money this year being $340,000 in the IAAF Gold Label event.

* * * Endurance running from the land of sprints

The Indian Army's Rajesh, T. A., took a few strides towards changing the viewpoint that Kerala athletes are suited more for sprints, jumps and middle-distances. He finished inside the first 20 elite male runners in the Mumbai full marathon and bagged the third place in the Indians' category for $5000 worth of prize money. Statemate Soji Mathew, representing Indian Railways, won the men's half-marathon and $2000.

Army marathon coach Mathews believed the state should change its perception towards long-distance running. “Kerala athletes were not known for marathon running, it is time to look in that direction. Rajesh won third place in the full marathon and Soji Mathew was first in the half marathon in Mumbai. I am hopeful that people who run athletics academies in Kerala will focus on long distance events now. There are numerous academies for sprints and jumps which are producing athletic talent. It is time to pay attention to long distance running. Setting up an academy for marathoners is long overdue.

“Science has progressed so far that we need to change our notions that only sprinters, jumpers and middle-distance runners can come from Kerala, and long distance runners belong to the northern states and so on,” he observed. He also said that Rajesh is a raw talent whose potential is yet to be realised. “Areas like Idukki, where Rajesh belongs, have a lot of running talent with the ability to be groomed for long distance events. Wayanad, Palakkad and Kannur too have youngsters with similar ability.”

Rajesh is a cross-country runner who switched over to the marathon after joining the Madras Regimental Centre (Wellington). “He came to us via the MRC as a promising cross-country runner from Kerala. Now he is part of a group of long distance runners from among whom a few can make an impact internationally with exposure and experience,” said the coach.

Running along the Mumbai seafront for the first time, Rajesh clocked 2:24:25 (lower than his personal best, 2:21:37 in the Mawana Marathon last year), though it must be mentioned that he was only following senior Ram Singh Yadav when the latter broke away from the pack and opted to run on his own. “I just followed Ram Singh and Elam and hoped to be there when they finished,” said Rajesh.

He sounded confident of lowering his time further, running along with foreign runners. “I enjoyed running as a schoolboy and took up cross-country by the time I reached college (Mahatma Gandhi University),” said Rajesh, for whom long distance running may become a career option, like it is for any of his teammates in the Army.