Riding out the highs and lows: How marathoner Thonakal Gopi keeps going

Five years ago and over 10,000 kilometres away from home, Thonakal Gopi was experiencing the greatest moment of his life. He was at the 2016 Olympics — from Sulthan Bathery (a town in Wayanad, Kerala), he had made it to Rio. He was sharing the grandest sporting stage with the best athletes in the world. It was a wild dream that came true.

Gopi, who is sponsored by the sports brand Asics, is now cooped up in his room in Bengaluru, where he trains. He is uncertain about making it to the 2021 edition of the Summer Games. Events since last year have been postponed or cancelled. Gopi’s schedule is in disarray. A ticket to the upcoming Olympics, hence, is unlikely.

If the participation in Rio was largely unexpected, Tokyo seemed within reach. Gopi, who is part of the Indian Army, clinched the gold medal at the Asian Marathon Championship in 2017. The following year, he topped the podium at the Tata Mumbai Marathon. In 2019, he entered the Seoul International Marathon without a coach or support staff and yet managed to clock a personal best time of two hours, 13 minutes and 39 seconds. The time was two minutes above the cut-off for the Olympics men’s marathon qualification (2:11:30s). Gopi was cautiously confident. “It will be hard, but I am going to train harder and do my very best,” he had said.

“The pandemic has made things difficult for all. The schedules of many athletes around the world went for a toss. So, it is hard to see events getting postponed or cancelled. One has to deal with these situations,” he says.

From strength to strength

Mental fortitude is necessary for a sport that requires non-stop running of 42 kilometres, mostly minus cheers. Even before marathons, Gopi was familiar with hardship. An only child, Gopi used to help his parents grow rice and ginger in the small patch of land they owned in Wayanad.

Gopi was fond of sports. KP Vijayi, the physical education teacher at the Government High School Kakkavayal in Wayanad, spotted him when he was in Class VII. She was instrumental in Gopi taking up athletics seriously. She made him switch from 600m to 1,500m. Soon, he started winning medals in inter-school meets.

There were not many who could beat Gopi in Wayanad. At the State-level, however, where he competed with better-trained athletes, he struggled. He needed to improve. After Class XII, he joined Mar Athanasius College at Kothamangalam. Good performances at the university level got him into the Army Sports Institute in Pune in 2009. It also meant he could visit home only once a year (even now, home visits are rare). But he maximised his access to coaches and superior training facilities.

“That was a turning point,” he says about joining the Army, “That is where I learnt most of what I know about long-distance running.”

In 2014, he won gold in the 10,000m run at the National Open Athletics Championships. Two years later at the Mumbai Marathon, Gopi, now predominantly a 10K runner, was sent as a pacemaker for his colleague Nitendra Rawat. He needed to be on the track only for the first 30 kilometres. He, however, found the distance comfortable and cleared it within the Olympic cut-off time.

A race against time

The ginger farmer’s son earned the chance to represent his country at the Olympics.

“Going itself was a victory,” he says, “It was the first time I was participating in such a big event. I could watch and meet the world’s top athletes from diverse events. I could observe how they train closer to the race, the warm-ups and workouts they do, their diets, and things like that. I also spoke to a few other long-distance athletes.”

All this knowledge helped him do well in the events over the last four years. Some of it is also helping him deal with the lockdown. “Since outdoor training is not permitted, it is important to keep yourself fit with some at-home workouts,” he says.

He recommends a good diet, sleep and exercise for people dealing with lockdowns. “Also, a sound mind is as important as a sound body. You should also have a sense of direction, a goal that you look forward to accomplishing.”

In Gopi’s case, that goal is the Olympics. Will he be distraught if he can’t make it to Tokyo?

Gopi is a pragmatic man. His WhatsApp status reads, “Dream is important, but training is crucial to reach what you are destined to do! train for it”.

“If not Tokyo, I will get ready for what comes next,” he says.

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