By Amit Mehta FitnessBoston - where dreamers take flight

Boston – where dreamers take flight

Fear is a very explosive emotion, but it has a short life span. It’s the sprint. The marathon is hope. –  Mike Huckabee

On April 15, 2013, explosions tore through the finish line at the mecca for amateur runners – the Boston Marathon. Every year, this finish line is testimony to the culmination of thousands of dreams – some dreams vindicated by a finish, while some interrupted by a DNF. If you think of the process of training for a marathon as a long, demanding opera performance, the Boston finish line would be the crescendo.

In 2013, the smiles shining through the joyful tears of finishers were wiped out by fear and confusion. Lives were lost, careers were ended, and an entire city was shaken to its very soul. A year passed, and when it was time for 2014’s Boston Marathon, the runners were back. The dreamers were back. The field had to be officially expanded to accommodate 36,000 runners at the 2014 edition. There was more in the air than the usual resolute stubbornness of marathon runners – there was a rebellious joy. Not just the runners, but the spectators had too had turned up to reclaim not just the marathon, but the spirit of the marathon. Over the course of more than a century, it is this spirit that kept the Boston Marathon going.

It is easily one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. It all began in 1897, when it was called the ‘American Marathon’ that was a 24.5 mile run from Ashland to Boston – making it the world’s oldest annual marathon. Most people associate this road race with its stringent qualifying times, which currently stand at 3:05 for men and 3:35 for women in the 18-34 age category. However, did you know that the marathon did not always have such demanding timing standards? It was only in 1970 that the sub-4 hour stipulation for course completion was introduced in the race. Until 1970, all runners had to do was sign a declaration stating that they had trained sufficiently to finish the marathon.

The history of Boston breaking the gender barrier is equally thrilling. Currently, 43% of the field at the Boston marathon comprises of female runners. It seems almost unthinkable that female runners were not officially allowed to run in the marathon up until 1972. In 1967, a runner named Katherine Svitzer signed up for the marathon under a gender neutral name, ‘KV Switzer’. Fellow competitors were astonished to see a woman competing in the field. There now exist iconic pictures of the infamous incident in which a male race official can be seen trying to rip the bib numbers off Switzer’s jersey and push her off the course. Despite these tremendous odds, Switzer finished the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes. Switzer’s achievement paved the way for the restriction on female runners to be lifted, with 8 women officially competing in the 1972 marathon.

And who hasn’t heard of the ‘Heartbreak Hill’? Boston Marathon is notorious for its steep inclines, the most grueling one being Heartbreak Hill, which appears in the course at around the 20 mile mark – the point in a marathon when runners are most susceptible to hitting ‘the wall’ and mental depletion. In 1936, defending champion John Kelley overtook runner Ellison Brown, and as he did so, Kelley gave Brown a condescending pat on this shoulder. This only ended up motivating Brown to beat Kelley, giving him a rather painful heartbreak in the process.

In 1975, Boston added another landmark feather to its cap when it became the first major marathon to include a competitive wheelchair division. Every year, Boston becomes a shining platform for some of the most resolute differently-abled athletes, as they are recognized for their athletic prowess. And then there are Boston’s slightly cheekier traditions like the ‘Scream Tunnel’, where the female students of Wellesley College cheer on participants at the 13th mile mark and try to snag a smooch from some (very lucky) runners!

With this illustrious past and many-layered history, it is no wonder that runners keep coming back to this punishing marathon, with 500,000 runners having finished the marathon by 2012. Even the First World War couldn’t stop runners from competing in the Boston Marathon and created heroes, like James Duffy who won the marathon in 1914 before he became a casualty of the war.

Over the course the century, the prize money has grown to a staggering $150,000, with an additional $25,000 for a course record. Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 course record was deemed ineligible for the world record because of the strong tailwind and elevation drops at Boston, which gives an advantage to the runners.

Boston has elevated itself to the realm of legend and folklore. It has become an emblem of hope and determination to elite and non-elite runners alike. Runners now compete in waves, with other runners who have qualified with the same timing. However, ‘wave’ has come to symbolize so much more when it comes to Boston – it’s a tidal wave of human emotion, an upsurge of humanity coming together to collectively push the envelope of human achievement and endurance.

Indian aspirations in Boston

As the running movement has taken flight in India over the past decade, it is inspiring to see more and more Indian athletes every year striving to qualify for the Boston course. With better training facilities and more awareness of scientific nutrition in the country, we hope to see a growing cadre of amateur and professional athletes alike who will be setting their sights on this historic race.

In this issue, we had the privilege of speaking with three Indian runners who will be giving it their all in Boston 2015. They represent the ambitions of the growing community of serious amateur athletes in India who want to spread their wings beyond domestic events. They also stand for the challenges faced by this community, as Indian runners still have to overcome the obstacles of high participation fees and the lack of sponsorship opportunities. However, as the aspirations of this community take flight, glimmers of hope are starting to shine through windows of opportunities. As one of the Boston hopefuls from India told us, it’s about patience and determination. Given the gusto which with the Indian running community is breaking its shackles, we can only expect more runners to make their mark on the global scene in the coming years.

These runners we spoke with graciously shared with us their training regimen, their goals for this iconic race, and the motivation that drives them to seek one of the most prestigious finisher medals in the world of running. We hope these stories will serve as an inspiration to everyone who is reading.

Ash Nath

Ash and the Boston Marathon go way back. One of India’s most prolific veteran runners, Ash is a six-time Boston qualifier, who has consistently bettered his performance on this prestigious course. For someone like Ash, coming to Boston every year is a quest to test himself against the very best in the world.

There are some runners who train very hard to qualify for Boston who are happy to just be there. For them, the race in itself is a celebration, as they take the time to hi-five spectators and steal kisses from the lovely Wellesley ladies. However, for runners like Ash, Boston is a pressure cooker race where there is no letting up until the finish line has been crossed. Ash harnesses this pressure and uses it to assess himself against other world-class amateur runners. While some might crumble in the face of peer pressure, Ash sees this as an opportunity to thrive and to push himself.

It is this attitude that helped him reach milestones like breaking the sub-3 barrier at the 2013 Boston Marathon, an impressive feat on any course, but particularly commendable at Boston. “That particular race came down to mind over matter,” he says. At the 25K mark, Ash recalls the choice between holding a steady pace to reach a PB, but missing out on a sub-3, or to go out all guns blazing. As his stride opened and he ran over Heartbreak Hill, his choice was clear – the course would not break him that day, and the sub-3 was his.

In retrospect, Ash’s sub-3 effort is tinted with sadness, considering the events later that day that would go on to shake the world to its very core. Suddenly, in the larger picture of life, running looked very insignificant indeed. Ash recalls 2014’s race being far more somber – one could feel it in the atmosphere and the heavy security arrangement. However, there were more runners at 2014’s race than ever before. Clearly, runners were determined not to let the terrorists win. In 2014, as thousands of runners crossed the starting line, human spirit had already won.

Even with his success record at Boston, Ash insists that there is no secret to it. It’s quite simple he says, “You must train smart for your muscle type and the outcome will follow.” He describes himself as skewed towards the fast-twitch muscle type, so he tries to handle the mileage with care so as to not blunt his natural speed.

As with many runners, Ash says that the course topography at Boston proved a challenge in his first attempts on the course. He says runners should beware of the initial 15K downhill which lulls runners into a false sense of complacency. Here, runners can tend to go out too fast, only to pay the price later when fighting against the g-force. While most runners train for uphill battles, what distinguishes Ash is that he trains for running downhill.

For his 2015 race, Ash will be banking on his experience to run at a steady pace, and using his honed intuition to retain his strength for the race beyond 24K, when the hill section starts. On the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Ash says that this is in fact the last of several hills that runners encounter on the course – at a point where runners are at their most weary. “Make friends with the hills. My training ground for some time now has been a challenging 8K loop. Most runners are petrified of hills but when your technique is right and you have trained correctly, then there is no fear,” are his words of advice for fellow runners who are setting their sights on Boston in the future.

Even as a Boston veteran, he approaches every attempt at the course with the same sense of excitement and enthusiasm. He dreads the sense of complacency that comes with running only on the home turf in India, and believes that true competition is essential to realize what the flaws are in one’s training are, and where one stands in the face of global competition. Ash reminds us that some runners at Boston have quit their jobs to be able to train better and compete at Boston – when one is going head-to-head with dedicated runners of such quality, anything less than 100% is simply not an option.

Some might argue that a runner such as Ash, with his illustrious career has nothing to prove. However, it is his very determination to test himself against the best at Boston that keeps his passion alive and burning.

Vaishali Kasture

Ask Vaishali Kasture about what it’s like being the first Indian woman to qualify at Boston, and you’ll receive a modest answer. She believes that there are many Indian women who capable of qualifying for the historic race, but just didn’t bother with it. Even in the face of her humility, the fact remains that Vaishali is a multiple Boston qualifier, having earned her maiden qualification by running the Holy Family Memorial (HFM) Maritime Marathon in 3:41.

It’s when you realize that Vaishali is also a Comrades finisher and multiple podium finisher at home – feats that she achieved while juggling a high ranking position at Goldman Sachs – that the weight of her accomplishments truly sink in.

To Vaishali, Boston signifies a humbling and inspiring experience, and an opportunity to be a part of the global and diverse tribe of runners. As an ambitious runner who has earned several plaudits at home, the fact that one has to qualify for Boston with other high caliber runners from across the world is what makes it an appealing challenge for Vaishali.

Vaishali takes a different approach than other runners, in that she doesn’t train specifically for Boston. She believes that by training for events at home and other international events, she is in training for Boston all year round. In the month before Boston, she focuses more on hill training to deal with the tricky gradient of the course.

At the peak of her training season, she works on strength building, core workouts, light weights at the gym, and 3-4 days of running. Her running schedule incorporates intervals, tempo runs, and long runs. During the rest of the year, she increases her gym workout by lifting heavier weights, reducing her mileage, and running at an easier pace.

It is clear that Vaishali’s mindful approach to looking at training as a constant, ongoing process instead of an event-specific phenomenon, is the secret to her success at Indian and international events. For Vaishali, Boston is not the result of a few months of training – but a reward of her long-term commitment towards training.

As a veteran female runner, Vaishali stresses on the importance of making conscious nutritional choices. “With my busy schedule, I have to make up for the constant deficit of calories in my diet by taking iron, calcium, vitamin D and omega supplements. I experience that my performance gets impacted if haven’t been focusing on getting quality nutrition. Whether you are an athlete or a corporate worker, what you eat is what you are,” she reiterates.

Even as a regular podium finisher, running is surprisingly more about the spiritual experience than the acclaim for Vaishali. As someone with a high-stress job, running signifies a cathartic and purifying experience to her. She also views running as a great leveler – a chance to meet people from all walks of life that one would perhaps not get the opportunity to meet and get to know otherwise.

As Vaishali goes into Boston 2015 feeling confident she says, “It’s obvious that running has made me stronger physically. However, what’s not so obvious is that it has helped me become stronger emotionally too. It may sound borderline insane to some people, but it has made me get in touch with my spirituality to some degree.” It is perhaps this level-headed and grounded attitude towards running that helps Vaishali pursue the sport with such dedication.

With the boom in the Indian running scene since 2004, women’s participation in the sport has been on a steady upswing – however, there’s still a long road ahead. Women’s participation in the sport is yet to equal that of their male peers. Positive role models like Vaishali send out a strong message that it is possible for Indian women to achieve international success, while successfully managing roles at home and the workplace. With the increasing visibility of success stories like Vaishali, we can look forward to seeing the Indian presence at international events bolstered by ambitious and gusty women runners. 

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Ask any regular runner in Mumbai about Dynaneshwar Tidke, and they will tell you what an inspiration he is. This Navi Mumbai-based runner’s story is one of triumph against all odds. A father of two kids, Tidke juggles his full time job as a production supervisor with an extremely demanding training schedule – all in the quest to finish big at the Boston Marathon 2015. As his first international event, Boston holds much significance for Tidke. However, something tells us that this certainly won’t be the last for this gifted and humble runner.

Dnyaneshwar qualified for Boston all the way back in 2012, but has not able to compete until now because of the high financial threshold for participation. With the Indian market catching up fast with high tech gadgets and the latest in gear and nutrition, it is sometimes easy to forget that running competitively is a privilege that not all runners can afford. In view of this, Dnyaneshwar’s achievement becomes all the more inspirational.

When he started running in 2007, his fellow runners from the Navi Mumbai Runners group spotted his potential and suggested that he should start training with a coach. In 2011, Dnyaneshwar started training under renowned coach, Savio D’Souza, kick-starting a series of stellar performances that would pave the way to Boston – including a 2:53 3rd place finish in the 2011 Pune International Marathon and a dazzling 2:56 SCMM 2013 effort.

The adage ‘fortune favors the brave’ came true when he met his sponsor while running with the Shivaji Park Marathon group, and things really fell into place. The next step was to specifically train with Boston in mind. His focus has been on strength training and core exercises. Along with speed training with 25 x 300 runs, cool-down runs for 2 miles and fartlek training, he has been training on Khargar Hills and the inclines on the Panvel to Matheran route. His cross-training efforts include swimming to build up stamina and endurance for the challenging second half of Boston. Dnyaneshwar is a big believer in a vegetarian diet, which includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Additionally, he stresses on getting enough protein post-workout, and ensuring supplementation with calcium and vitamin D for injury prevention.

The road to Boston has not been rosy. Dnyaneshwar suffered an injury in November 2014, which threatened to put a serious spanner in the works. He allowed himself to recover till January, in time for the SCMM 2015. Dnyaneshwar says that it is important to understand when to push your body and when not to – the importance of proper recovery cannot be overstated.

Dnyaneshwar also emphasizes that a great training plan should include a tapering schedule. For Boston, his tapering starts from the 1st of April, when he will reduce his weekly mileage to 130 kms in the first week of April. Relaxed pace runs will start taking precedence over speed training.

For this this final stretch, he talks about focusing on his mental preparation, grounding himself, and envisioning the finish in his mind. Is he feeling the heat for such an illustrious event? “Yes, I must admit that there is a lot of pressure. A lot of work and patience has gone into reaching this point. Boston is an incredible opportunity and I want to do this event full justice,” says Dnyaneshwar. He has been practicing the ancient art of Pranayam, along with telling himself that ‘it’s just a race’, in order to take some pressure off.

His experience as a runner shines through when he says that regardless of physical training, races are won in the mind. Dnyaneshwar believes that it is extremely important to keep one’s sense of enjoyment alive about running. “Yes, training is important, but it is also essential to derive happiness from the act of running”, reiterates Dnyaneshwar. With this grounded, humble and focused approach, he seems predestined to achieve the sub-2:50 that he is aiming for.

Post-Boston, he will be looking at securing exemplary performances at Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kerala in the latter half of the year; but for now, his mind, body and spirit are calibrated in harmony for Boston.

Any sage words for fellow Boston runners and those dreaming of Boston? “Take it easy. Yes, Boston is a big deal, but you can’t sabotage yourself by letting the race take over your mind. Enjoy running and build up your endurance.” Dnyaneshwar seems to have made the most of his challenging in securing sponsorship to compete at Boston. “Even though I qualified for Boston in 2012, it would take 3 years for me to officially compete. Sometimes, you just need to be patient for things to happen at the right time and at the right place. Sooner or later, things fall into place.”

To that we can only say, Amen – and more power to you, Dnyaneshwar.

The team at Unived Sports wishes all the Indian runners at Boston Marathon 2015 the very best of luck. The hopes and dreams of Indian running community will be in solidarity with these fantastic athletes on the 16th of April. May the Indian contingent at Boston keep growing every year!

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