In a nation that doesn’t boast of a history of marathon running, it is unusual to come across an international distance runner from a humble background pursuing it.
Rati Ram from Alwar, 10,000m bronze medallist at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championships in Pune, has not only plunged into alien territory, he dreams of competing at the Rio Olympics.
The international runner says he wants to do something different. Hence, he opted for an event that is not only a test of character but also demands extreme sacrifice.
Rati Ram admits it is tough. In pursuit of his dreams, he often has to forego his meagre monthly salary of Rs 25,000, because the Railways doesn’t give him leave for training. Leave, he says, is sanctioned only for national camps, otherwise it’s without pay. “It was a tough decision, but I had no choice,” he adds.
Banking on reserves
Since October, Rati Ram has not been paid and is surviving on savings to support his family, which includes four school-going daughters. Last month, he finished third in a half-marathon in the Capital and earned Rs 80,000. “As long as I don’t get my salary, I have to depend on prize money to fuel my passion and support the family.”
Rati Ram has set a target of 2:15 for January’s Mumbai Marathon. Though it will be hot and humid, he is confident of achieving the target on debut.
During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the late Shivnath Singh clocked 2:16:22 to finish 11th, which till date is considered a high point in Indian marathon history. Shivnath not only set the national record, but competed with the world’s best, including eventual winner Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany.
His daring front-running tactics, however, didn’t bear fruit during the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games, which was won by Tanzanian Gidamis Shahanga in 2:15:40. The same year in Jalandhar, Shivnath further lowered his national record to 2:11.59 (2:12). His performance raised eyebrows as some claimed the route was not properly measured.
Shivnath’s successors have hardly competed at the Olympics. After a long gap, Services runner Ram Singh Yadav made it to the London Games, but was far from impressive.
Dreams shatteredDespite outstanding performances in the early 1980s, former national record holder Asha Aggarwal’s Olympic dreams were shattered in 1984. Lack of wisdom on the part of country’s sports administrators led to the trials being held in May at Mumbai. The hot and humid conditions drained the athletes and no one was able to give their best.
Asha timed 3:20 but was not considered for the inaugural women’s marathon in the Olympics. Despite the setback, she continued to train.
A former track runner, Asha began competing in marathon events in 1983 and soon made a mark at the domestic level. But her best was during the 1991 Indian Open marathon in the Capital when she set a national record of 2:40.
These days, none of the top women runners in the country are clocking 2:40. Asha says if her successors have not been able to crack the mark despite better facilities, it has to do with faulty training, and top runners chasing prize money events.
Army runner Binning Lyngkhoi has hit a plateau. In 2006, he was one of two Indian distance runners selected for a training-cum-competition stint at Verbier, Switzerland. Experts say he had the potential to break 2:15. He came close, clocking 2:17 in 2007, but thereafter has been struggling. In the 2010 CWG, he clocked 2:21 to finish eighth. His best in 2013 was 2:20 while he clocked 2:24:40 in 2014.
For his fluctuating career graph, Binning points to the lack of international exposure.
At the global level, things are different. In the early 1970s, top runners were clocking close to 2:10. These days, many are capable of racing close to 2:05 and below.
Binning says despite increase in prize money races at home, there has not been noticeable improvement in the performance of leading athletes. “The road races are not evenly spread out, but restricted from September to January,” he says, adding, “it denies an opportunity to race through the year.”
Perhaps, it could be one of the reasons why top distance runners have been able to swell their bank accounts by winning prize money events but are unable to focus on racing hard and fast.
If results are an indication, the top male marathon runners are clocking between 2:20 to 2:25 these days, while it is close to three hours in the women’s event.
At a time when some of the top Indian runners are aiming high, the presence of women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe (as brand ambassador of the Delhi Half Marathon) will be a boost. Her story — she set the world record of 2:15:24.6 in 2003 during the London Marathon is inspiring as she was asthmatic as a child.
There is a buzz that if she could do it “why can’t we”. The Olympic qualification commences next year, and Indian runners have pledged to win a passage to Rio.