It’s February; the tourist season is yet to fully kick in. The narrow road winds down from Ooty to Coonoor through rolling hills with lush green tea estates, the hillside villas making a colourful mosaic. Every bend on the road brings with it a photo opportunity, and an element of danger as big green local buses appear from the opposite direction, teetering on the edge as they roll inches past you. Stalls by the side of the road offer steaming cups of tea and coffee. A signpost declares the Nilgiris to be the “lungs of the world".

It’s a cool, crisp Wednesday morning at one of India’s favourite holiday destinations. But as the road opens out on to a clearing, you find that the country’s elite athletes have already checked in to work.

The Thangaraj Stadium in Wellington is the base for the athletics national camp. It’s a modest facility; shallow bleachers are used as a makeshift dressing room. The distance runners are kicking up dust as they do seemingly endless laps on the 400m cinder track that borders a grassy patch. A synthetic track would have been ideal, but that’s not what the athletes come to these hilly hamlets for. High altitude is the holy grail of endurance training, and Wellington, situated 1,855m above sea level, gets a big tick for that.

“Muscle hypertrophy," says Surinder Singh Bhandari, a decorated middle-distance runner who is emerging as a star coach. “The air at this altitude is thin, so when you train here the heart and the lungs expand, increasing the capacity to take in and transport more oxygen to the system," he adds. That’s the science behind it.

Marathon running is literally for the big-hearted. And while Bhandari is not the first one to apply high-altitude training in India, he seems to have used it effectively to get his wards into history-making mode. Three of his trainees—Nitendra Singh Rawat, Gopi T. and Kheta Ram—made the Olympic qualifying mark at the Mumbai Marathon in January; it’s the first time since the 1960 Rome Olympics that three Indian male athletes have made the cut for the Games. Even more impressive, they had been training in the distance for less than a year, and Gopi and Ram were running their first official marathon.

Gopi T. at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2016. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
Gopi T. at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2016. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times

The three of them belong to the Army Sports Institute in Pune. That’s where the cream of the army sportsmen now train, but Rawat, Gopi and Ram all started at the bottom of the rung, having enrolled in the army through the general quota.

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Blue sunglasses. Red noise-cancelling headphones fitted over his ears. There are remnants of the ponytail, which had become his signature in Mumbai, at the nape of the neck. Rawat is easy to spot.

“He says it helps him focus," Bhandari jokes about the headphones. “Says it raises his performance by 5%. Whatever works!" Rawat was one of the first Indian athletes to qualify for Rio. He completed the marathon at the Military World Games in Mungyeong, South Korea, in October in 2:18.6. Though he had missed the Olympic mark of 2:17, he made the cut in December when the International Association of Athletics Federations (Iaaf) increased the qualifying time to 2:19.

The flamboyant army man is the big man on the campus. Gopi and Ram, meanwhile, are happy to follow his lead and linger in his shadow, at least for now.

Formerly a 5,000m runner, Rawat knew his limitations all too well and was somewhat daunted by them.

“I had a kind of phobia on track," explains the 29-year-old. “I don’t think I have ever even completed 10,000m on track. I told my coach that in 5,000m I can get you gold at the national level, but nothing on the international stage. I knew I didn’t have the speed, but maybe had the endurance. Which is why we discussed me switching over to marathon."

In February 2015, Bhandari made Rawat run 32km at one go to test his claims. He passed without a hitch. Their little experiment opened up a world of possibilities for Rawat and his training buddies, and Rio was at the centre of it. They shifted base from Pune to Coonoor in July and trained hard for five months, clocking up a mileage of about 250km per week, which is almost on a par with the best marathoners in the world. The training is further broken up into blocks of 5km, to be completed in about 16 minutes each. A week before a race day approaches, they switch to working on speed instead through Interval Training—15 repetitions of a kilometre sprint, with 1- to 2-minute breaks in between.

(From left) Rawat, Surinder Singh Bhandari, Gopi and Ram during a break in training. Photo: Deepti Patwardhan
(From left) Rawat, Surinder Singh Bhandari, Gopi and Ram during a break in training. Photo: Deepti Patwardhan

In Mumbai, Gopi, primarily a 10,000m athlete, was designated as the pace-setter, keeping Rawat on track for their targeted time of 2:15. Though he was supposed to drop out after 30km, he continued fluently to complete the course. The 27-year-old says he had heard about the fatigue marathoners experience in the last 5km stretch and was bracing for his body to rebel, but that never happened.

“They are all natural athletes," says Bhandari, 39, who hails from Uttarakhand. “I have tried to introduce new systems in training, but all of that is honing and polishing their inherent talent. They were diamonds in the rough when we all started the journey in 2012."

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Years of training have pushed their physiological parameters: the VO2 max to as high as 84 and the resting pulse rate to as low as 45 bpm or beats per minute (VO2 max is the standard used to measure endurance capabilities and refers to the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense physical effort, measured as millilitres of oxygen used in 1 minute per kilogram of body weight—cyclist Lance Armstrong’s VO2 max was reported to be around 84 as well. The normal range for the resting pulse rate of an adult person is between 60-100 bpm).

But they had also been given a helping hand by nature early on.

Rawat, a Havildar in the Kumaon Regiment, hails from Uttarakhand and his earliest athletic pursuits were limited to herding cows in hilly terrain. Ram, a Naik Subedar of the Jat Regiment, is from the Barmer district in Rajasthan and used to trek 4km to his school every day through the desert. Gopi, a Havildar at the Army Artillery Centre in Hyderabad, is from Wayanad, a hill station in Kerala. His state still produces the maximum number of track athletes in India; Gopi is the only one in the group who remembers consistently participating in school and college meets before making his mark as a runner in the army.

“Nitendra and Gopi come from hilly areas, so even though they didn’t quite know it, their hearts and lungs have been preparing for the workload right from the beginning," says Bhandari, who was a role model for Rawat and other athletes from Uttarakhand. People born at higher altitudes are also known to have higher RBC (red-blood cell) counts. “Ram doesn’t come from a place at a high altitude, but just walking in the sand is bound to strengthen the lower body muscles like the hamstrings and calves," he adds.

Urban and corporate India has taken up marathon running with zeal, adding great momentum to the movement. But the competitive runners still come from the country’s heartland and humble backgrounds. Rawat, who has two younger sisters, helped his parents keep their small farm in the foothills of the Himalayas. Having failed to procure a form for BTech (he didn’t go to college that week and didn’t know that the BTech forms were out), he went through the army’s fitness trials and got in at the age of 18. Only after that did he get into organized sport of any kind.

But in his first official marathon (2015), the Military World Games in South Korea, Rawat clocked a time that was good enough to get him to the Olympics. He has lowered it since, hitting his personal best at the recently concluded South Asian Games. He won the gold with a time of 2:15.18.

Growing up in Rajasthan, Ram and his family of eight—he has one sister and four brothers—were left to the mercy of the monsoon for their livelihood. In 2004, he joined the army at the age of 18. “At that time, I just wanted to join any place that provided steady income," says Ram. Married and with two children, he now also has his own family to cater to.

Gopi, an only child, had to juggle his schooling with helping his parents on their patch of land, where they planted rice and ginger alternately. At 21, he passed the fitness test to enrol in the army, dropping out in the third year of a bachelor’s in economics.

Like most of the athletes housed in the national camp, the three marathoners are the only earning members of their families. Savings are sent back home; their only extravagance is shoes. A good pair of running shoes costs about 10,000. And the volume of their work means they wear out one in a month.

“We need two shoes at any given point because it’s not advisable to wear the same one every day," says Ram. Rawat adds, “Plus there are different shoes for training and for competition. The training shoe has more cushioning, while the competition one is lighter."

Rawat got a lucky break when global sports apparel firm adidas came forward to sponsor his gear after his Olympic qualification was confirmed in December. As of now, he is the only Indian athlete to bag such a sponsorship; the rest have to fend for themselves.

Even that, though, isn’t such a bad deal.

Because in the army, if you are good, really good at sport, they excuse you from active duty.

All of them have done the nine-month mandatory army training. Coach Bhandari, Rawat and Kheta Ram have also been posted in sensitive areas. While Bhandari was part of the second line of defence in Jammu and Kashmir in 2000, right after the Kargil war, Rawat served in the state in 2008, when his shin injury kept him away from the track.

“In Kashmir, cold wasn’t the problem," he says. “But the whole atmosphere is so tense, you have to be alert 24x7." Having been in this situation earlier, Bhandari adds, “There’s no time to feel scared for your life there. It’s either kill or get killed." Ram was posted first to Jammu and then to Manipur in 2006, but his adventures were restricted to training and staying put with his unit.

“After seeing those conditions in J&K, I thought it’s better to start working hard at sports," says Rawat. Sport was their safe haven.

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Up in Coonoor, the marathon athletes, who had spent five months training for the Mumbai marathon and another one preparing for the South Asian Games, lead an insulated life. Every day of the week, morning and evening, they make the 15-minute car trip from their accommodation on Hatherly Road, Coonoor, through the well-groomed Wellington cantonment area, to the Thangaraj Stadium. Occasionally, they go down to the market to stock up supplies or send money home.

“After training so much through the day, there isn’t much time left for anything else. Just rest and recovery," says Rawat, who has started immersing himself in the autobiographies of champion runners such as Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie. The cottage provides stunning views of the valley below through French windows, but it’s a scene that can get boring pretty quickly. The television serves as a distraction.

“In a year, we get about a month of holidays, when we can go meet our families," says Gopi. Ram has to stay away from his young family for months on end, while Rawat had to delay his Valentine’s Day wedding to December because it clashed with the South Asian Games.

All those sacrifices and that doggedness are starting to make sense now that they are on the threshold of their first Olympics. When and if they get the final nod for Rio from the Athletics Federation of India, which will send the selected list of athletes to the International Olympic Committee, they hope they will not be burdened by the historic occasion. Their first target is to beat the national record: Shivnath Singh’s time of 2:12, which has stood for 38 years.

“When you are running for so long, there are many thoughts that flash through your mind," says Rawat. “There will be a time in the race when your body wants to give up. But the most important thing is to focus on the job at hand, to persevere."

To, simply, go the distance.

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