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Murali Kumar Gavit, the cattle grazer who made a run for his life

Murali Kumar Gavit is one of India's brightest prospects in the 5000m and 10000m events AFI

Ahead of the Federation Cup in Patiala, Murali Kumar Gavit did not have to try too hard to find the motivation that would drive him to win gold medals in the 5000m and 10000m races. He was calling on a memory that is particularly vivid.

"When I was young, my parents would graze the cattle of the entire village. At the end of the day, the village would pay us in food. I remember me and my brother would take a big vessel and go around the village," he says.

"Whatever food was left was put in that pot. Some people would give a lot and some would give very little. That was what we had to eat. I used to feel so small when I carried that pot. Even today, before a race, I remember those days. I know where I have come from. That gives me all the motivation I need."

Running, quite literally for Gavit, was an escape from absolute destitution. Born the third son of a tribal family in the Kumarband village in Gujarat's Dang district, he says he would have been destined for a dismal future but for the sport.

"I first knew that something like running existed when I was about 15 years old," he says. "My elder brother had tried to join the army. One day after a bharti (recruitment drive) in Mehsana, he came back very tired. The next day he said that he had struggled in the running part of the selection. At that time I was also desperate to get into the army because I knew that I would get enough to eat and that I could also help my family. That was the first time I knew I had to run."

Gavit decided to contest in long distance races because he had heard that he could make money in them.

"I had heard about a marathon in Ahmedabad which had a prize money of INR 6 lakh. My ambition was to win that marathon so that I could wipe out my poverty in one go. So I decided I would also run 21 kilometers every day," he says.

He ran his first race that same year, in 2013 - a village festival race around the time of Holi.

"I took part because the first prize was 2000 rupees. I didn't even have shoes or chappals (sandals). Within the first two kilometers, big blisters had formed under my feet. But I forced myself to finish the race so I could get those 2000 rupees. It was only after that that I bought my first pair of shoes for 300 rupees," he says.

Gavit was initially satisfied running in small competitions and winning the odd bit of prize money till he could make a serious attempt at joining the army. That was until he heard of an event known as the Khel Mahakumbh - a state-wise talent hunting competition organised by the Gujarat government. It was money that drew him once again.

"Honestly I only decided to take part because the prize money for the 5000m race was 5000 rupees," he says. Gavit won that race, organised for youngsters in his village cluster, then won the next race for athletes from the tehsil and then another for athletes from the entire district. But when called to a state selection trial, he became nervous after seeing runners with full kits.

"I had a two leather shoes I had borrowed from a friend of my brother. I felt I couldn't compete with these guys who looked like they were professionals."

"I used to run in the morning and then graze cattle and then go running in the evening again. There was a time when I ran right into a leopard but I kept running anyway" Gavit

He vowed he would return stronger the next year.

"I started practicing the same evening that I returned to my village," he says. No training he has done subsequently matches, he says, to the one he put in that year. Gavit ran right through the pair of shoes he had won at the Holi race and then ran barefoot on the hill tracks of Dangs.

He then worked as a labourer on road projects earning 150 rupees a day, and then used that money to buy new shoes to run in.

"I didn't' have a coach so I didn't know how to train. But I ran by myself anyway. The roads were bad. It was full of stones and rocks. I used to cut my foot but that was my junoon (passion) then. I used to run in the morning and then graze cattle and then go running in the evening again. There was a time when I ran right into a leopard but I kept running anyway."

The effort paid off and Gavit got the break he needed. He once again won the races including the state selection race this time. He received his first technical knowledge from a coach - Manish Moria, who would also pay for the youngster's shoes and equipment. A subsequent trial was announced to select players for the National Academy in Bhopal and Gavit - armed this time with better shoes, diet and training - aced that as well.

He has only gone from strength to strength since then. In 2016, Gavit won a bronze medal at the Asian Youth Championships, a result that saw him awarded a training scholarship by the Gujarat government. With his family's finances on a relatively stable footing, Gavit's career is also looking up.

Last year, he recorded the second fastest time ever by an Indian over the 10000m - with a time of 28.43.34 - and subsequently won his first national title at the Open Nationals. While his timing at the Federation Cup wasn't as fast - he won with a time of 29.21.99 - it was significant for it marked the first time he beat G Lakshmanan, who had been undefeated in the country over the past five years.

While Gavit is proud of the fact that he has beaten the best in India, his targets now grow ever more challenging.

"Compared to where we are in India, the world is very far ahead. But my goal is the Olympics," he says.

With entry standards for just the 10000m at the Olympics set at 27.28.00, it's a staggering ask as even Gavit himself admits. But he backs himself to get to that goal.

"I know where I have come from. I never even expected myself to come near where I have. And if I can come so far, I know that there's a lot further that I can go."