When long distance runner Nitendra Rawat arrived in the Capital for Sunday’s half marathon, he was least bothered about the pollution levels in the city. He would have run at any cost because he had a point to prove. The 32-year-old Rio Olympian, who was excluded from the national camp in September, won the Indian men’s elite category in a photo finish clocking 1:03:53s. Rawat also bettered the Indian course record of 1:00:04s in the process.
G. Lakshmanan finished second with the same timing but Rawat dipped at the last moment to ensure his torso crossed the finish line ahead of the Tamil Nadu runner. Lakshmanan, in fact, raised his hands in celebration thinking he was the first to cross the line only to realise that his gesture was premature. “It happens,” he said with a sheepish smile later.
For Rawat, it was one of the most important victories of his career. After a dismal show at the marathon in Rio, his fitness and performances had been on a downward spiral. This was just his third race since the Olympics where he finished 84th after suffering a hamstring injury. In September, when the updated list of national campers arrived at the SAI centre in Bengaluru, Rawat was shocked to see his name missing from the list. “I was absolutely shattered. I had no clue about what I should do next. I wanted to continue my training and if it wasn’t for the Army, my career would have been over,” the Kumaon Regiment havildar says.
Rawat quickly consulted his seniors in the armed forces and was allowed to train at their facility in Ranikhet, about 70 kilometres from his home in Garur village in Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar district. But despite being so close to his village, Rawat has not been there even once since his exit from the national camp. “Honestly, they don’t know about it. I don’t want them to get worried,” he says.
Ranikhet is devoid of dedicated sports facilities unlike the SAI centre in Bengaluru. Rawat chalked out his own training regimen and juggled between practice and daily chores like preparing his meals. “It’s an army training centre and athletes have different requirements. I would return to my room after a long training session and then prepare my meals. The juniors there were very co-operative and helped me whenever they could,” he explained.
“If I was working at any other place, they would have asked me to do administrative work as soon as I exited the camp. The best thing the army did was to let me train,” he adds.
The injury in Rio was a blessing in disguise, Rawat feels. He never took exercises and strength training seriously earlier. It also helped him find his “true” friends and cut down his time on social media. “I could not handle the negativity. People would message me and ask ridiculous things on Facebook. Just days before the Games, I received so many congratulatory messages and after the race, the same people turned against me,” he says. He is now awaiting a national recall with an eye on qualifying for the Commonwealth Games next year.
Winners: Elite (women): Almaz Ayana (1:07:11s)Men’s: Birhanu Legese (59:46); Indian women’s elite: L Suriya1(1:10:31s).