Nitendra Singh Rawat has always been one to keep a keen eye out for his looks, be it the beard he carefully maintains, or the snazzy sunglasses he never runs a marathon without. On Friday, two days before the Mumbai Marathon, Rawat kept up with his preferred fashion style, but did have something new to gloat about.
The typical marathon runner has a rather skinny body-type to go for the gruelling 42.195 km race. Rawat though has transformed his body from that skinny frame to a lean look. And it’s all in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “When I had gone to Rio 2016, I struggled with a hamstring problem that continued for over a year,” he says. “Then I had a navel displacement problem. The only way to get a full recovery from both was to start strengthening the entire body with a lot of weight training. That’s why I have this new look.”
The 32-year-old’s new fitness regimen doesn’t just involve spending time in the gym, working out his muscles with weights. Training in Bangalore, Rawat goes through laps of a running track littered with hurdles. “The hurdle drills are specifically for the hamstring,” explains the armyman. “I go through multiple rounds every week to build up my leg-strength. I keep joking with my coach, ‘itna budhape main aap steeplechase karwaaoge’,’”
The infantry havaldar in the 6th Kumaon Regiment first made a name for himself on the marathon circuit when he raced to a course record-breaking run (for Indians) in Mumbai in 2016, clocking a time of 2:15:48. In his absence, though, it was his former pace-setter T Gopi who took over as the country’s leading men’s marathon runner.
At the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, where Rawat set the course record, Gopi was expected to drop out of the race after completing 30 km. Instead he carried on and finished second. “I remember that well,” he says. “I was still feeling pretty good about myself and decided to continue. That was my first ever marathon. Shuru sab wahi se hua.”
Like Rawat, Gopi too has started weight training in preparation for Tokyo. The journey to Japan however starts in Mumbai, before it moves to Doha for the World Championships in September. The qualification standard required for the world event is 2:16 for men and 2:37 for women. “That means that we pretty much have to break the course record here to secure qualification,” Rawat says. “The only difference from the last few years is that I have the experience on how to prepare myself. And I’m a lot fitter. So it is doable.”
On the women’s front, the onus of competing in the marathon falls on veteran Sudha Singh. The 32-year-old had clocked a career-best 2:35:35 at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. Since then however, Sudha, who had made a name for herself in steeplechase and went on to capture a silver medal in the 3000 m race at the Asian Games last year. At this stage though, she is torn between which of the two events she will focus on.
“I can start my qualification for the marathon here in Mumbai, but in March I’ll have a chance to qualify for the steeplechase event for Doha,” she says. “Both are priorities. Somehow, if I qualify for both, be it in Doha or Tokyo, I’ll have to discuss it with my coach.”
Qualification for the steeplechase event at the World Championships will require Sudha to clear 9:40 – a mark she has cleared in the past (her career-best is 9:26.55). It’s the longest race however that the trio is currently focusing on. In less than two years, the gaze of the athletic world will descend upon Tokyo, as the biggest names in each field will compete for the gold. The Indians would love to throw their name in that hat. But they must conquer the course in Mumbai first.