Nitendra Singh Rawat felt a slight twitch on both his legs on the eve of the marathon at the Rio Olympics. It was meant to be just a light training session. Instead, the 31-year-old ended up pulling both his hamstrings. A few months before the Olympics, he had clocked an impressive timing of 2:15:18 at the South Asian Games in Guwahati – it was his personal best too. At Rio, much was expected of the man who has been the closest to breaking Shivnath Singh’s national record (2:12:00). But eventually, he’d have to run the 42.195 km course with aching legs.
He still finished the race 84th among 155 with a timing of 2:22:52, but Rawat does not draw much inspiration from the result. “I had set a target, anything less than that meant nothing. Not even finishing the race on one leg,” he says. The injury took him seven months to recover. He got back to training only in March last year. Mentally, though, he was demoralised and fearful of another injury. The delay in his recovery lost him his place in the national camp. He carries that baggage with him now, as he prepares to compete in his first full marathon since the Olympics, at the Mumbai Marathon on Sunday. And this time, with the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, in sight, he has a new target. “The Olympics was my first big tournament. Now I’ve got a second one coming up and a chance to redeem myself,” he says, on the eve of the run in Mumbai.
The task to qualify is much more difficult this time though. While organisers of the CWG have set 2 hours 19 minutes as the qualifying standard, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has decided to send only those athletes who can clear the 2:13 mark.
“The federation doesn’t want to send runners just to compete, but rather athletes who can be medal contenders,” says Lt Col A Rajesh, Officer In Charge (OIC) of athletics at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. “At CWG, there will be the big runners from African countries. But the AFI would rather send runners who can get some competitive experience and then perform at the Asian Games which has a more open field.” Incidentally, clocking below 2:13 at the CWG in 2014 would have resulted in a top five finish, and top four spot at the Asian Games in Incheon. But there is enough quality at hand in both Rawat and Thonakal Gopi to reach those marks.
The latter thrived in Rawat’s absence, finishing a commendable 25th at Rio. The 29-year-old from Wayanad district in Kerala even became the first Indian man to win the Asian Marathon Championships in November last year. Rawat, too, has shown glimpses of a return to form, when he competed at the Delhi Half Marathon last month, setting a course record among Indian men when he finished at 1:03:53. He’s been training alone for the past month in Ooty, working on achieving a performance that will put him back in the national camp, and even secure a spot in the Gold Coast contingent.
On Sunday, Rawat and Gopi will be chasing after a 2:13 timing, and will even have a foreign pace setter in Marius Ionescu. The Romanian is the winner of 2015 Dusseldorf Marathon. Incidentally, the last time Rawat competed in Mumbai, Gopi was his pace-setter. Now both are gunning for a mark that is within touching distance of Shivnath Singh’s 39-year-old national record. “It’s been there for way too long now. Ultimately, that’s what we need to break,” Rawat says.
Asian Games steeplechase champion Sudha Singh asserts that the 3000m steeplechase is her pet event, but is also looking to securing qualification for the Commonwealth Games marathon. She heads the Indian women’s field in Mumbai, and will need to clock better than 2:45 to earn a spot for the Gold Coast event. Like the men, the women’s field will be aided by a foreign pace-setter, South African veteran Hendrick Ramaala, who was the winner of the inaugural Mumbai Marathon in 2004.
In March, at the Federation Cup in Patiala, Sudha will need to do better than the 9:42 min mark to qualify for the steeplechase.