The Indian team faced a strange predicament as they lined up at the start of the IAU 50km World Championships in Hyderabad last month. Most of the runners were from the Indian Army and had clocked some of the fastest times during marathons this year. However, none among them had the experience of running the 50km distance in the past.
“It was a very new experience for us, since these runners had never taken on an ultra marathon in the past. We were asked to field a team at very short notice. But all our athletes are marathon runners, who have clocked under 2 hours 20 minutes. So I was very confident that they would be able to get past the 50km mark in good time,” says KC Ramu, head coach of the Indian Army team.
By the end of the race, Ramu’s boys had pulled off a coup, clinching silver in the team event with an aggregate time of 8 hours 48 minutes 50 seconds. It was the first podium finish for India at the championships. At 2 hours 54 minutes 9 seconds, Anish Thapa Magar was the fastest among the Indians, followed by Akshay Saini (2:57:05) and Pralhad Dhanavat (2:57:36). Spain (8:28:02) took top honours while Great Britain finished third (8:51:58).
Before the IAU 50km World Championships, the last major race for the Indian runners was the Bengaluru Marathon on October 8, where Magar and Saini managed a one-two podium finish. Ramu believes that the speed work that they had put in before that race was vital for the 50km distance. There on, they continued training at their base in Ooty, which kept them in fine nick when the opportunity to run at the World Championships arrived.
“The distance beyond the marathon mark is all very different. It was almost like all the training that we'd put in was for this last 8km,” Magar says.
Practice practice practice
Their weekly mileage of 200km was bumped up to 230-250km. Ramu put them through an intense three-week training cycle that featured two sessions on most days. It started with a 25km run where the pace alternated every few kilometres between 3.15-3.35 per km, besides one long run of about 39km during the week. The workouts also included interval training over a 5km loop, the five repetitions run at a pace between 3.10-3.15 per km with a few minutes of rest in between. Another session featured 15 repetitions of a 1,200m course that was run at a similar pace.
The terrain in Ooty made it conducive to include hill runs for close to an hour. Gym sessions for strength work with a focus on the core were scheduled twice during the week. Two weeks before the race, the athletes took on a run that extended beyond three hours. This was followed by a week of low volume workouts to allow the body to recover.
“While we increased the mileage during training, the idea was also to drop the pace at which we would take on the runs. During marathons, we usually run at 3.15-3.20 per km and get faster towards the finish. But for the 50km, the idea was to run at a 3.30 pace,” Dhanavat says.
A test of mental endurance
For these seasoned marathoners, a lot of the effort was mental as they negotiated this new distance and the uncertainty of how things would pan out during the race, especially in the hot weather of Hyderabad. “During a marathon, it gets really difficult after the 32km mark. It’s just your determination and a very high level of training that takes you beyond that. After so many marathons, we know what it takes to get to the finish. But this was different,” Dhanavat says.
Overcoming this particular mindset was the most challenging aspect of running the 50km. All the runners were aware of how they felt at the 32km mark. But the final burst, which they usually reserved for the next 10km, had to be restrained this time around, given the additional distance they had to negotiate.
“Just to build up to running a good marathon takes a while because things get difficult even for the toughest athlete between 30-35km. Then again, a 50km race is just 8km over the marathon distance, but you need a different level of endurance to finish it. It’s a mix of maintaining speed and focussing on endurance,” Saini says.
“Marathons need speed, while ultra marathons need endurance. I had told the boys that beyond the 42km mark, it was going to be a psychological rather than a physiological effort. If you are tough in the head, you’ll make the finish in time,” Ramu adds.
Magar feels that meditation and yoga sessions were critical when it came to tackling this particular aspect of the race. “It almost felt like I was running alongside another person over that final stretch - a lot of self talk, while reflecting on the training that I had put in over the last few weeks. That was the driving factor for me because I realised that ultra races can get really lonely. Picking up silver while running for the country was special,” he says.
The focus for this team is back on marathons in the hope of making the cut for the Paris Olympics next year. Ramu is also keen on targeting Shivnath Singh’s national record of 2 hours 12 minutes, which he set back in 1978. “It’s a long standing record and all our effort will be towards breaking it,” Ramu says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.