After marathon win to qualify for Asian Games, army man Man Singh’s long, arduous trek to reach home in the hills

A day after winning his first-ever marathon at the age of 33, Man Singh travelled seven hours in a state transport bus to Pithoragarh. He then took a shared-taxi to Lumti, where his sister resides, to break the journey. To get home to Kumariyagair village in Bangapani tehsil, Singh has to trek uphill with a heavy army backpack on his shoulders. “It will take me almost three hours to cover the 10 kilometres. Most of it is through a forest area. Almost as tough as running a marathon,” Singh jested.

The backpack will be a little heavier too as Singh is carrying sweets to celebrate his New Delhi Marathon win. “In our village, the first choice of career for men is the Indian army. There are many others who are in the army. But I am the first national-level athlete and first marathon runner from Kumariyagair,” Singh, a naib subedar, said.

On Sunday, Singh led a trio of army runners in a 1-2-3 finish in the New Delhi marathon. All three ran faster than the Asian Games qualifying norm of the Athletics Federation of India (2:15:00). Singh clocked 2 hours, 14 minutes and 13 seconds with Appachangada Belliappa (2:14.15) snapping at his heels. Karthik Kumar’s 2:14.19 for third place made this one of the fastest marathons by Indian runners. Singh is now the third fastest-ever, after Shivnath Singh’s four-decade old national record of 2:12.00 and Olympian Thanackal Gopi’s 2:13:39.

Sunday was a special day for Singh because it was only his second gold medal in distance running events at a national-level event in seven years. Singh is a 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres specialist who ran in the shadow of Govindan Lakshmanan, the winner of the double gold at the 2017 Asian Championships.

“I won the gold in the 5,000 metres at the South Asian Games in 2016. That was my last major gold. But at the South Asian Games Lakshmanan didn’t participate in the event. I also had to compete against Gopi. Most of the time I was second or third in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres,” Singh said.

Last year, Singh decided to do something different in his quest to leave behind years of disappointment of being outclassed in races. His training group at the Army Sports Institute in Pune comprised seasoned marathoners like Olympians Nitender Singh Rawat, Gopi and Kheta Ram. Six years ago at the Mumbai Marathon he was one of the pace-setters till 30 kilometres. Back then a thought entered his mind: ‘If I am comfortable running 30 kilometers why not try 42.1 kilometres’.

It took a while for Singh to run his first marathon but the results have been encouraging. Last month at the Mumbai Marathon, his debut marathon, he finished second in the Elite Indian men’s category clocking (2:16.58).

“I have been preparing for the marathon for a few months. I was not able to crack the 5,000 metres and the 10,000 metres in terms of qualifying for big events. The second-place finish in Mumbai gave me confidence that I could do well in the marathon. When I came to Delhi, the weather was ideal for running a marathon. I had a feeling I could meet the qualifying norm for the Asian Games,” Singh said.

Singh had a sleepless night before the Mumbai Marathon. His biggest worry was whether he would be able to complete the distance of 42.195 kilometres. “What if I start to tire after 35-36 kilometres and quit? The other marathon runners had told me how they sort of hit a wall after 35 to 36 kilometres and then it is about mental strength. But I didn’t give up,” Singh, who finished second to Gopi, said.

The last two kilometres in New Delhi too was a challenge for Singh. He started to slow down and both Belliappa and Kumar fancied their chances. “Belliappa and I were neck to neck. I had to dip at the finish to edge him out.”

From hoping to finish on the podium at national events to a medal at this year’s Asian Games – the scale of Singh’s dreams have grown over the past few months. “Now, I have the belief that I can compete with the best in India and Asia in the marathon. I wanted to be the best in the 5,000m and the 10,000m. That didn’t happen. So maybe the marathon is the event in which I can fulfil my potential.”

Singh started running long distances to get physically fit and get selected for army trials, which youngsters in his village aspire for. Before returning home for a short break as an army man-athlete set to compete in the Asian Games, Singh had a lucky break.

The call to his farmer-parents, Sher Singh and mother Muneri Devi connected. “There could be a phone signal for only a few minutes during a day in Kumariyagair. It is a really remote place, so to talk to the outside world over the phone is at times a small luxury.”

Full Marathon (Men results): 1. Man Singh (2:14:13); 2. Appachangada Belliappa (2:14:15); 3. Karthik Kumar (2:14:19)

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