Not quite the final turn at the Buckingham Palace before the iconic finish at The Mall in London, but the luminaire lights of the BPCL refinery dotting Mumbai’s eastern freeway did blink at the crack of dawn at Himanshu Sareen during his 42.195-km run this Sunday.
When the 36-year-old ran his second virtual marathon in three weeks — after “Boston”— it marked a unique milestone of his running career. He was among the 70 Indians, from Mumbai to Bengaluru, who strapped on their timer watches to run the first-ever virtual London marathon.
While Sareen hit the high road around Wadala, there were those who were looping 800m laps around their residential complexes to compete in this pandemic time “offshore run” — around 43,000 runners from 109 countries ran London “virtually”.
Mumbai’s extended monsoon ensured that the “long-distance” participants got a feel of London, although the potholes at Wadala’s Bhakti Park were an unwanted addition along with the overnight rain and the notorious drainage. “I was to start with a 1-km stretch in front of my apartment complex and I had to improvise. Rains and poor drainage forced me to go to-and-fro 500m each way,” he says.
Later, he would have to tackle another detour. “It was a convex-shaped obstacle, which I’ll call a reverse speed-breaker,” he says, laughing while describing the 2-metre jumbo puddle that made him briefly forget that this was “London”.
“I’ve run all the majors in the past — Boston, New York, Berlin, London and Tokyo. And even some exotic races like Antarctica. But running Mumbai in off-season, at a time when we usually start training, was uncomfortable but satisfying. At 2.52 hours, this was my second fastest time,” he says.
Keeping up self-motivation, when the temptation to quit was strong due to the pandemic, was the true victory, he says.
Missing the atmospherics of the thousands who line up along London roads to cheer up the runners, Sareen was happy his wife rose early to make up for that crowd. “My wife Shweta in previous years has actually taken the London tube to meet me at different points in the London race to cheer for me. This time, she didn’t miss any part of my race helping with hydration support,” he says.
In Bengaluru, Harish Vasishta joined four others on a route that was crafted by the head of their running group Pacemakers and the lead marathon tour operator, Gauri Jayaram. It was a 10-km loop around the scenic lake at Hesaraghatta. Jayaram also arranged for hydration, nutrition, pace setters and a dedicated photographer. The event was live-streamed on Facebook.
“I finished in 3 hours 48 minutes, which was alright for one-month training cut short by lockdowns. But it was a beautiful personal race for me with colleagues, friends cheering for me and my wife following me in a car lighting up the route. They even arranged a finish tape for each of us so that felt great,” says Vasishta, a 44-year-old software professional with a doctorate in operations engineering.
In fact, the top international virtual marathons have arrived bunched up — five in eight weeks, next being “Chicago” in two weeks. And different runners have reacted differently to these offshore runs.
Bengaluru’s top amateur runner, Anubhav Karmakar, who runs in the 2 hours 38 min bracket usually, felt he just couldn’t feel the competitive juices flowing at the 30km mark, missing the buzz of London. On the other hand, Nanjundappa M, ran unflustered to set a new personal record with 2.37:10.
“Most runners, who travel around the world for races, had thought the pandemic would clear out by September-October and they would be able to travel, so this was still shocking. While it gave purpose to some runners in a season with no runs and meant many things — improved timings, comebacks — many of the seasoned runners spoke of missing the real deal which affected timings,” says Jayaram.
Back in Mumbai, Sareen, a senior VP at a trading & financial institution, had invested around Rs 60,000 for the latest race watch, with an ancillary footpod as there was a 0.01 pc chance the GPS watch linked to the London Marathon app could crash.
While being an important pit stop on his fitness journey from 100 kg to running all majors, London remains an important box ticked each year. However, he says, never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d be running past his own housing complex and jumping over puddles while competing in an official international marathon.
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