A day after winning his first marathon at the age of 33, Man Singh traveled seven hours in a state transport bus to Pithoragarh. He then took a shared taxi to Lumti, where his sister lives, to break the journey. To return home to Kumariyagair village in Bangapani tehsil, Singh has to move uphill with a heavy military rucksack on his shoulders. “It will take me almost three hours to cover the 10 kilometers. Most of it is through forest area. Almost as hard as running a marathon,” Singh joked.
The backpack will also be a little heavier as Singh is carrying sweets to celebrate his victory in the New Delhi Marathon. “In our village, the first career choice for men is the Indian Army. There are many others who are in the military. But I am the first national-level athlete and the first marathoner from Kumariyagair,” said Singh, the naib subedar.
On Sunday, Singh led a trio of Army runners in a 1-2-3 finish at the New Delhi Marathon. All three ran faster than the Athletics Federation of India Asian Games qualifying norm (2:15). Singh clocked 2 hours, 14 minutes and 13 seconds, with Apachangada Beliaappa (2:14.15) hot on 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, behind Shivnath Singh’s four-decade national record of 2:12.00 and Olympian Thanakal Gopi’s 2:13:39.
Sunday was a special day for Singh as it was only his second national-level distance running gold medal in seven years. Singh is a 5,000m and 10,000m specialist who ran in the shadow of Govindan Lakshmanan, the double gold winner at the 2017 Asian Championships.
“I won gold in the 5,000m at the 2016 South Asian Games. That was my last big gold. But in the South Asian Games, Lakshmanan did not participate in the event. I also had to compete against Gopi. Most of the time I was second or third in the 5,000m and 10,000m,” Singh said.
Last year, Singh decided to do something different in his quest to put years of disappointment behind him from being outclassed in racing. His training group at the Army Sports Institute in Pune included seasoned marathoners like Olympians Nitender Singh Rawat, Gopi and Heta Ram. Six years ago in the Mumbai marathon he was one of the risks up to 30 km. Then a thought struck him: “If I’m comfortable running 30 kilometers, why not try 42.1 kilometers.”
It took time for Singh to run his first marathon, but the results were encouraging. Last month at the Mumbai Marathon, his debut marathon, he finished second in the men’s Elite India category (2:16.58).
“I have been preparing for the marathon for several months. I couldn’t crack the 5,000m and 10,000m in terms of qualifying for major events. Second place in Mumbai gave me confidence that I can do well in the marathon. When I came to Delhi, the weather was ideal for running a marathon. I felt that I can meet the qualification norm for the Asian Games,” said Singh.
Singh had a sleepless night before the Mumbai Marathon. His biggest concern was whether he would be able to cover the distance of 42,195 kilometers. “What if I start to get tired after 35-36 kilometers and stop?” Other marathoners have told me how they kind of hit a wall after 35 to 36 kilometers, and then it’s all about mental strength. But I didn’t give up,” said Singh, who finished second to Gopi.
And the last two kilometers in New Delhi were a challenge for Singh. He started to slow down and Beliappa and Kumar fancied their chances. “Beliapa and I were neck to neck. “I had to fall at the finish line to pull it off.”
From hoping to finish on the podium at national events to a medal at this year’s Asian Games – Singh’s dreams have grown in scale over the past few months. “Now I believe I can compete with the best in India and Asia in the marathon. I wanted to be the best at 5,000 meters and at 10,000 meters. That didn’t happen. So maybe the marathon is the event where I can fulfill my potential.”
Singh started running long distances to stay physically fit and to be selected for the army exams, which the youth in his village aspire to. Before returning home for a short break as an Army athlete to compete in the Asian Games, Singh had a lucky break.
A call to his farmer parents Sher Singh and mother Muneri Devi connected. “In Kumariyagair, there could be a phone signal only for a few minutes during the day. It’s a really remote place, so being able to talk to the outside world on the phone is sometimes a small luxury.”
Full Marathon (Male Results): 1. Man Singh (2:14:13); 2. Apachangada Beliapa (2:14:15); 3. Karthik Kumar (2:14:19)