Unsettled by thoughts of how the Olympics will pan out as Kavita Raut stays awake many nights. Resettled into a boot camp far away from home where a fiery Russian coach bawls away instructions, not too different in their shrill pitch than an infant complaining of gripe. Not settling for anything less than her best time on the clock when she planned for the next nine months of her life, starting last December.
And dissettled – as obsolete as that word may sound – by that even more obsolete thought that even her labour of 2 hours 38 minutes 38 seconds when she qualified for the 42.195 km Olympics marathon run earlier this year, might still not be the defining cornerstone of her life.
That, somehow, women’s sports careers and achievements, might still need the appendages of marriage and children and a blissful after-sport life.
But thoughts of ‘settling’ haven’t quite crossed Raut’s mind in the run-up to Rio.
Husband Mahesh Kumar Tungar says every girl’s fairytales cannot be wired the same way and his happily-ever-after will culminate in Rio when his wife finishes her race at the iconic Sambodromo on August 14 after eating up miles that take in Flamengo Park and Botafogo beach. The couple have not found the time for a formal honeymoon of picture postcards since they married in 2013 — but he laughs that he’ll whisk her away for 10 days post Olympics, away from hard training and stop-watches, to anywhere she wants, where she can laze and recover from the strain of what’s been an obsessive dream for the duo to get the marathoner to the Olympics.
Coming from rural Maharashtra and a rather conservative neighbourhood, he’s gotten accustomed to cruder questions than when Kavita plans to get ‘settled,’ like Sania Mirza got asked on TV. And no sheepish apology following, mind. He reckons it came out sounding wrong from the TV anchor though he might not have meant it to be offensive. But he’s just as sure nobody had ever bubbled up with a question to, say a MS Dhoni, about fatherhood before the 2011 World Cup.
‘’But Indian culture has 1000 limitations on women and has 1000 expectations from them too. But I wanted bigger things out of life for my wife, which fulfilled her ambitions. If the goal is massive like Olympics, then none of these ‘life targets’ of marriage, children, home and car, set by the society matter. Everyone in family should adjust,’’ he says as preamble to what he calls is not an uncommon story in Indian sport, though the society at large might be different. “All of the Indian women athletes find support from their spouses. If you love a sportswoman you have to love her sport,’’ he says simply.
It took some time though, given Mahesh Kumar Waman Tungar, a Nashik boy too, knew nothing about athletics. Like the million other boys from Maharashtra, Mahesh had not looked beyond his professional goals of becoming an engineer. He played cricket as ‘time-pass,’ but it was only when he was posted at Nagpur for five years as an engineer with the state electricity board, that he ventured out to watch a marathon. He’d been instructed by his family – who were distant relatives with Raut’s family – to pay a courtesy call to the distance runner in 2013 when she was in town for the Nagpur Marathon. ‘’I met her and soon decided I would marry her, so I went and spoke to her parents a few months on.’’
Kavita had agreed, not knowing what would happen of her future in running.
A CWG and Asiad medallist in 2010, the achievements — like Sania Mirza whiplashed “wasn’t enough’’— as even strangers in the village community took the liberty to pester Kavita’s parents about when they would get her married off. “No one could say anything to me, and it’s a bubble that sportspersons live in with their training and competitions. But people bugged my parents constantly, so even if I wasn’t dying to get married I said alright,’’ she recalls.
She stayed on at the Federation Cup when her engagement took place in absentia, and landed straight for her pre-wedding haldi, leaving all the trousseau shopping to her family. ‘’I remember my parents asking Mahesh nervously if I could continue,’’ she remembers. What he did next surprised her beyond what she’d imagined. Within 10 days of my marriage he helped me pack my bags to go for the India camp.
On their first anniversary, he was at the camp in Ooty persuading her to keep calm and heed to her coach and what is commonly known in athletics circles as Nikolai’s scolding.
Kavita meanwhile, was on the verge of quitting when injuries were threatening to end her career at the start of 2014 – a big year given the CWG and Asiad. The Rio Games were on the horizon, mocking her throughout for how she’d missed out in the previous two editions.
Kenya and Italy. Kavita Raut will never forget the effort she put in while benefitting from the two training stints abroad. Four Indian women athletes had camped in the valley and then shot off to Italy ahead of the London Games in an attempt to secure qualification over the 5000-10,000-marathon events. Success at the continental and Commonwealth level was alright, but Kavita knew Olympics was the real deal. “I never missed a single practice, I wanted to qualify desperately and followed every regimen sincerely. But I just couldn’t qualify. You know, when your best effort is not enough,’’ she trails off thinking momentarily of 2008 and 2012 when she missed her chances.
Her motivation to run at an all-time low, she’d get married the following year. ‘’Luckily to the right guy,’’ she says.
Mahesh Tungar had married a lovely woman who spoke her mind. And spoke a lot. “I usually talk non-stop. He’s the quieter one, who thinks things through and is very calm. We’re opposites, thank god,’’ she says. While he had packed her off to the national camp for a year, it was when she returned after suffering an injury that he decided to not allow her to dawdle away her life.
“I’d heard of her achievements and we’d celebrated her winning the Arjuna Award. But I wondered if after everything, she would still live with the regret for the rest of her life that she never went to the Olympics. I didn’t want her to live wondering what if… She had to become an Olympian,’’ he decided.
Kavita’s results on the track were stagnating, but she still fancied her chances on the road in the biggest race — the marathons. For someone who came from a tribal village and ran long distance to school, and made a living out of running half marathons across India, it wasn’t entirely unthinkable to train for the return lap. She would set her sights on the biggest battle.
She was slowly recovering, and then began the journey that Mahesh calls a ‘his primary duty as husband.’ None of her peers — Sudha Singh, OP Jaisha or Lalita Babar had truly thought that Kavita would return after marriage. “it had seemed impossible even to me then,’’ she recalls.
But Mahesh decided he’d make good one marriage vow of walking each step by her side. The Gangapur Road in Nasik, running parallel to the Godavari river, was best suited for road-mileage training — though it would need a good slot of 2-plus hours of little-to-no-traffic.
“Vehicles – big trailers, trucks start to go up and down at 5 am. So we needed to start at 3. Mahesh would be ready at 2.50 am every morning and drive alongside as I ran till 5. He would have to rush to work by 7.30 after that,’’ Kavita recalls. “Somedays he returned home from work at 12 midnight, but he would always be ready by 2.50.’’
‘’To finish a mileage of 38-40 km, we had to start at 3 am. I couldn’t let her go alone. She had to fulfil a family role and a national role and represent India. It was my duty to help her, if not me, who else will?’’ he said.
As mechanical engineer with the trifurcated electricity board he’d sorted out a lot of technical problems. But being by Kavita’s side helped him deal with situations that belong more in a doctor’s ER. “Earlier in June, we were told at 7 pm the previous evening that the next day would be a fitness trial over 40km. We quickly got her race-ready and she cleared the trials,’’ he says.
But the qualification hadn’t been easy either. Kavita had hoped to qualify at the Mumbai Marathon — though she wound up fifth among Indians with a poor timing. Another opportunity would present itself at the Guwahati National Games. “She ran two marathons in a span of two months, it was stressful. But we were happy once she qualified,’’ Mahesh says.
In an unprecedented move, Mahesh’s chief engineer and the state tribal affairs minister would approve a 4-month long deputation for him to accompany his wife to training in Ooty and look after her well-being as she trained for the Olympics. “I think everyone understands that this cannot be done alone. Male athletes lean on their families for all sorts of logistical and emotional support, so why can’t women,’’ he asks.
“Frankly, as soon as my international career took off my parents started chipping in for me,’’ Kavita recalls. When she was spotted by SAI coach Vijender Singh in a school cross country meet, she was just a raw recruit to Singh’s training base in Nashik – which is producing many more athletes after Kavita’s triumph.
“Sir could convince my parents to let me run. It’s a conservative area but every parent does whatever it takes for his child. What I didn’t expect was that my in-laws too would offer the same selfless support. I am not expected to cook or do any household work.’’ She never thought twice before sprawling out at home after a tough workout. In her new home too, she was packed off to rest.
Kavita quips that till not long ago it would have been considered scandalous for a bride from her village to not attempt to learn to make puran-poli, a traditional Maharashtrian delicacy. “At my house, my only job was to eat it after my mother-in-law made it and polish off the ghee,’’ she jokes, hoping Nikolai never reads this or she’d never hear the end of it.
Her father-in-law would often drop her off to training practices and ferry her back. So it was when he was hospitalised from a brain haemorrhage just before the Mumbai Marathon that Kavita would devote herself to sitting by his bedside and help him nurse back to health. Guwahati had come after a lot of tribulations. It had been a marathon journey to the marathon.
Mahesh Tungar’s walked every step of the way with Kavita in her journey to qualify, and he promises to make sure that his wife gives a good account of herself and Indian women who’ve qualified for the marathon for the first time — OP Jaisha being the first to qualify. Kavita teases him often that he ought to start running alongside too. “He’s still slim right now so I won’t badger him too much. But Virender Sir often gets behind him to start training too.’’ Tungar though is content in her shadow, her biggest cheerleader, her support staff.
Will the couple ever run the Mumbai Marathon together. Maybe just the last 195 metres, he jokes. “Nako re baba. I’ll leave it to the woman of the family to become the hero,’’ he laughs.