New Delhi, Sep 29 : Defending champions Suresh Kumar and Lalita Babbar may well be the best Indian runners at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon elite Indian category events for men and women respectively Sunday. So could be another previous winner Kavita Raut.
Realistically, the Indian runners are way behind champions from the east African nations like Kenya and Ethiopia who are at least four-five minutes ahead.
For instance, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, the 2011 winner, clocked 59.30 minutes while Suresh, the fastest Indian, finished five-and-a-half minutes behind the African.
What should India do to produce quality marathon runners?
Former runner Tim Hutchings, now a commentator, says India need to encourage more and more youngsters to take to running from a young age.
"India need to create a set-up to spot talent. They must first create an environment where kids get exposed to running and importantly enjoy it. It will take quite a few years to do that," Hutchings told IANS.
"In India, the talent pool is a very small pyramid. They really need to be caught in the fishing net. I think the federations are responsible for the growth but don't think they are doing much. Indian men run marathons in 2:20s which is what elite women do worldwide," says Hutchings, who finished fourth in 5000 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
His views are shared by race director Hugh Jones who says that the lack of infrastructure is the reason why Indians are way behind.
"Indian conditions are not conducive to marathons. Athletes need to spend summers at higher altitudes like hill stations where you need a lot of support structures and training groups within federations or the army. There should be regular competitions at these hill stations.
"Also they need a lot of international exposure. For example, Ram Singh did not run very well at the London Olympics as well as he did in Mumbai. It is because he did not get much international exposure," adds Jones, who won the the prestigious 1982 London Marathon.
However, Indian athlete Sudha Singh, who will be running here Sunday disagrees.
Sudha, who participated in London Olympics in the 3000 metres steeplechase, spent six months training in Eldoret, Kenya, before the Games.
"The altitude is not the only reason why the Kenyans are ahead. Their lifestyle is such that for everything they have to walk or run. Very few Olympians have jobs there. They run in marathons to make ends meet. They don't have many facilities like we do. Many say we don't have good facilities here but that is not true. Come to think of it, the place where Olympic 800-metre champion David Rudisha trained did not have a synthetic track."
Sudha also had suggestions about what can be done to improve the pace of Indian athletes.
"I think what we need is a dedicated camp for only long-distance running and not a mixed one for athletics as it is now. Our diet is also better than what there is Kenya. For higher altitudes the camp should be held in Ooty where it has many routes with army tracks" said Sudha, who finished 13th at the London Olympics steeplechase heats.