Rio Olympics: Meet the marathoners

Meet Indian marathoners Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, and Kheta Ram as they run the race of their lives as the curtains come down on Rio Olympics 2016 today, writes Roopa Pai.

(Published with permission from Roopa Pai, who first wrote this post on her Facebook wall.)

Traditionally, the last event of the Olympics has always been the men’s marathon, that glamorous test of endurance that is also the millennia-spanning emotional bridge between the modern Olympics and ancient Greece. For the modern marathon echoes, and commemorates, another legendary run—the victory run—in 490 BC, of the Greek messenger Pheidippides, who ran non-stop from the Battlefield of Marathon to Athens, a distance of some 40.8 kms, to announce the city-state’s victory over the Persians, before he collapsed and died, his duty to his country done.

Thankfully, today, running a marathon isn’t fatal (instead, it is often the manifestation of a non-threatening urban mid-life crisis). The reason it was fatal for Pheidippides was probably this: according to historians like Herodotus, the story we know is all wrong. In fact, says Herodotus, he ran a much longer distance than today’s marathoners—240 kms, which is the distance from Athens to Sparta and back again—and apparently not to announce victory but to ask for Sparta’s help against the Persians. A 240-km marathon would kill off most people.

Whatever the actual distance poor Pheidippides ran, the story has a certain seduction, which is why, when the organisers of the first modern Olympics in Athens were casting about for an event that would bring the people of the host city together while establishing that all-important connection to ancient Greece, they came up with the road race that they christened, simply, the marathon. It was a great decision; the marathon is a fitting culmination to all the citius-altius-fortius witnessed over the preceding two weeks, and it brings people out, literally, into the streets, in a 42.195 km public celebration. The finish is inside the Olympic stadium, which is by then packed to the rafters with people awaiting the closing ceremony of the Games, thus ensuring a rousing, roof-raising cheer for the winners.

The Rio edition of the marathon will be run today, at 6 pm IST. And for the very first time, there will be as many as three Indians in the fray—Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, and Kheta Ram—who all made the Olympic marathon cut-off by running the course in under 2:19:00. Each has a great back-story.

marathon1Nitendra Singh Rawat, with a personal-best timing of 2:15:18, which he clocked when he won the South Asian Games in February, is the stud. The Army man, who was freed of active duty so that he could train (the Indian Army allows this benefit to world-class athletes in its ranks), celebrated by growing his hair; he now runs in a pony-tail and a pair of Oakleys. Incredibly, the middle- and long-distance runner qualified for Rio when he ran his first-ever competitive marathon, by running a 2:18:06 at the World Military Games in South Korea last year!

But Rawat wasn’t always so stud-like; one report has the 30-year-old confessing that it was fear that drove him to begin running competitively. In 2008, he was posted close to the PoK border. The terrain was difficult and it was bitterly cold, but Rawat could deal with stuff like that. What he did not enjoy at all was the constant sound of shelling; it gave him nightmares. That was when he hit upon his big plan; if he did well, really well, at sport, he would be posted at a place where he could train and compete. If he didn’t, it was going to be the border. The choice was a no-brainer.

Naik Subedar Kheta Ram of the Jat Regiment joined the army for the same reason so many other young men do—for a steady income. His family was dirt-poor and his village Khoksar in district Barmer, part of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, had almost no water at all. Yet, in summer temperatures that teetered between 46 and 51 deg C, Kheta Ram made the long 4-km trek to school and back, walking, often barefoot, over hot sand, even when he had missed a meal so that his sister and four brothers could eat. It was those years of tramping over sand, a far more challenging surface than mud or tarmac, that helped him develop the kind of calf muscles that have turned him into one of the Army’s best middle- and long-distance runners.

He has other biological advantages—a VO2 max of 84 ml/kg-min, and a resting heart rate of only 45 beats per minute, both comparable with the world’s most elite athletes. (VO2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your lungs take in per kg of your body weight per minute, as measured during incremental exercise, like when you are running on a treadmill while steadily upping its speed and / or inclination. An average untrained healthy male usually takes in a maximum of 35-40 ml of oxygen per kg-min. Lance Armstrong’s VO2 max was 84 ml, same as Kheta Ram’s).

Kheta Ram began running marathons only in end-2015, with a very clear goal—he wanted to qualify for Rio in one event or another, and the marathon seemed the most within reach. His coach, Surendra Singh Bhandari, puts down his almost-instant success—he made the Rio cut when he placed third at the Mumbai Marathon in January, with a timing of 2:17:23—to his immense mental strength, which he believes comes from Ram’s struggle against all kinds of odds growing up.

Today, Ram sends as much money as he can home, but it seems there is never enough, particularly because he needs at least one pair of shoes a month. With all the running he does, shoes wear out pretty quickly and a good pair can cost as much as Rs 10000.

He has no corporate sponsors, and has to use his own Army salary and SAI allowance to buy them. He is depending on a good finish today to attract some corporate attention for himself.

On to Havaldar Thonnackal Gopi of the Artillery Regiment, our third marathoner today, and the one with probably the cutest qualification story of all. The 28-year-old, who represents India in middle- and long-distance running, participated in the Mumbai marathon in January simply to perform the pacer’s role for elite army athletes Rawat and Kheta Ram. He was supposed to pace them—run along with them and help them maintain a consistent top speed—until the 30-km mark, and then, when their legs had reached a steady, race-winning rhythm, drop off from the race himself. But when he got to the 30-km mark, Gopi was still feeling good, so he kept on running until he crossed the finish line. Only to find that with his timing of 2:16:15, he had placed second among Indian contenders, and, willy-nilly, had qualified for the Olympics, all while running the first marathon of his life!

Here’s the scary part, the tribal boy from Kerala’s hilly Wayanad district may never have made it through an education and got into the Army if it hadn’t been for the state government’s ‘Breakfast for Tribal Students’ scheme! Yup, it was the promise of a hot breakfast that brought Thonnackal Gopi bright and early to school each morning, running up and down hills and gaining high-altitude training in the bargain. Yayy for government schemes that work!

Tonight, the curtains will ring down on the XXXI edition of the Olympics, the greatest sporting spectacle of all. All over the country, Indians will be raising a final lusty cheer for London 2012 medallist freestyle wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, and for our marathon men Rawat, Gopi and Ram. And celebrating the fact that on every single day of the Rio Olympics, we had at least one of our bravehearts giving us reason to applaud, as they stood shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world and gave their all on that grand, grand stage.

Roopa Pai(About the author: History buff, computer engineer and writer, Roopa Pai has lived, worked, and travelled in three continents, writing for some of India’s best known publications. She has written over 20 books, which include the 8-part fantasy-adventure series Taranauts for kids, bestseller The Gita for Children and a biography of Chanakya—The Master Statesman for adults. She also has an alternate career as a tour guide with BangaloreWalks, a heritage walks and tours company.)

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