It's fair to say Avinash Sable's career progression has been quite remarkable. Three years ago, Sable, a humble sepoy (private) in the 5 Mahar battalion of the Indian army was quite happy doing his soldiering duties when he was chosen by his superiors to run track. On Friday, at the 58th Open National Athletics Championships, the 24-year-old erased the oldest standing track record in Indian athletics.
Running at Bhubaneshwar's Kalinga Stadium, Sable clocked 8:29.88 in the 3000m steeplechase to break the 37-year-old mark of 8:30 that had been set by Gopal Saini at the 1981 Asian Championships in Tokyo.
Sable had never envisioned an athletics career for himself growing up as the son of farmers in the village of Mandwa in Maharashtra's Beed district. "The only bit of running we did was running to our school, which was about six kilometres away from my village. My ambition was always to join the Army. So when I finished class 12, that's what I did," he said.
He served as an infantryman in the deserts of Rajasthan and the mountains of Sikkim before joining the army athletics programme. "It was only in 2015 that I started running. The army has an athletics scouting programme and they picked me to be a cross country runner," he recalls. It didn't take long for Sable to show his ability. Within a year of training, he had helped the Services squad to first place in the team competition and finished fifth individually in the 2017 National Cross Country Championships.
His heart was not in that event though. "I would always be interested in the steeplechase race. It seemed more interesting to me. I would try to copy their (the services steeplechase athletes') movements and one day when I was doing jump training along with them, I was noticed by the Army coach Amrish Singh. He then suggested I become a steeplechase runner too," he said.
The decision to switch events paid off very soon. At the Federation Cup in June, he finished a creditable fifth with a time of 9:06.42. That was also when he learned about Saini's National record for the first time. "I thought my time was quite good. Then I saw that the national record was nearly half a minute faster. That's when I wanted to know more about this man who had run such a fast time," he says. He has never however met Saini, who retired from his job with the Rajasthan government but continues to train young athletes in Jaipur.
The 64-year-old said he was relieved that his record was finally broken. "Records are meant to fall every few years. It wasn't right that my record stood for so long. I'm just happy it's been broken now,' he says.
Soon after learning about Saini's record, Sable said he had made his mind up to go for the mark. "I got some more confidence at the Open Nationals in Chennai last year where I had a time of 8:39.81. I was only 9 seconds off the record," he recalls thinking. While he was determined to erase the mark that had stood for nearly four decades, not many believed in him.
"The steeplechase is a very tactical race. So most times, I was told it was not possible to break this record in India because there is no one who can set that kind of pace in India. So I had to set the pace for myself too," he says. It helped that Sable had a coach who shared his goal. Nikolai Snesarav is known to be a hard taskmaster. He's also someone who has guided Indian women's long distance runners to multiple national records.
"Coach Snesarev is a very hard trainer. He would make me run a lot. He must have made me run some 150 kilometers every week," he says. Within a few months of working with Snesarev, he decided to give the record a shot at the Federation Cup in March. "I was trying to set the national record but I didn't have enough energy left and I got overtaken at the end and finished second," he says.
Sable would take another shot at the Inter State championships in July but that attempt was hampered after he suffered an ankle fracture while jumping into a water hazard during training. While he was still recovering from the injury, he took part in the Inter State Championships - a qualification event for the Asian Games. He only finished fourth, a result that was particularly disappointing. "I was hoping to somehow qualify for the Asian Games but I wasn't able to recover in time," he says.
While he failed to qualify for the Games, he had recovered in time for the season-ender Open Nationals. Despite having no pacesetter, Sable opened up a wide lead at the start of the race to finish 17 seconds clear of his nearest rival. The record out of his way, Sable is now targeting bigger wins. His record is only the 79th fastest time in the world this season.
But Sable is confident having set a national record in what was only his fifth national competition to improve even further. "It was important for me to do well here. Now that I have the record out of the way, I have higher targets. My target is to qualify for the Olympics. Before that would have seemed impossible but I'm confident if I put in the hard work I will be able to achieve that goal," he says.