At the Rio Olympics, marathon runners T Gopi and Kheta Ram did a commendable job by clocking a personal best of 2:15:25 and 2:15: 26. The Army runners finished 25th and 26th in the gruelling event.
It was the best performance by top distance runners outside the country since the Montreal Olympics in 1976 where the late Shivnath Singh finished 11th with a time of 2:16:22.
With Army runners raising the bar, it was expected they would carry on the good work.
Earlier this month, the Army team got another chance to showcase its talent at the World Military Marathon championships in Turin, Italy.
However, there was a setback as Kheta Ram got injured. He had pain in the calf muscle, which slowed him down in the second half and he quit at the 25-km mark.
Gopi finished sixth, but his time was nearly four minutes slower than his Rio time of 2:15:25. The other two runners, Rashpal and Elam Singh clocked a poor 2:23 and 2:30. Sbaai Youssef of Morocco won with a time of 2:13:43.
The showing in Rio and Turin suggests that while there is talent, the second rung isn’t strong enough to make an impact at the world level.
Road racing culture
The country has witnessed a surge in road races, with over two dozen prize-money marathon and half marathon (21km) races spread through the season. It’s an opportunity for distance runners as some organisers also invite top athletes from overseas. The boom however hasn’t given a fillip to distance running.
Currently, there are only three runners -- Gopi, Kheta Ram and Nitendra Singh Rawat -- capable of running below 2:16 in marathon. The others are still struggling to break the 2:20 barrier.
There is some improvement in the women’s group, and the top four have been able to break the 2:40 mark. The country’s leading runner OP Jaisha has a personal best of 2:34:43, a national record, which she clocked during the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
In recent times, Sudha Singh, Lalita Babar and Kavita Raut have broken the 2:40 barrier.
Former national distance coach JS Bhatia, who is still associated with middle and long distance national camps, felt top runners don’t take adequate breaks between races, which is why they don’t improve. “Athletes are racing frequently to win prize money races, and that’s why only few are able to do well,” he said.
To bridge the gap in talent, the athletics federation should have a big pool of athletes, according to a national level coach. There have been significant changes in training methods but only those in the national camp have benefitted. In the build-up to Rio, according to Gopi, his weekly mileage was close to 300km, logged in the highlands of Niligiri. This helped him become a better runner.
With the 2017 World Championships less than a year away, the federation plans to focus on marathon. Chief coach Bahadur Singh said there was improvement in the event. “We hope to build a good team for upcoming events,” he said.