Avinash Sable had a good race last night. Running in the final of the 3000m steeplechase at the World Championships, he set a new national record with a time of 8:21.37 and also booked his ticket for the Tokyo Games by finishing inside the Olympic standard of 8:22.00.
But while it ended wonderfully, the race got off to, by all accounts, an ominous start for the 25-year-old who was making his World Championships debut. Within the first turn of the very first lap, the sole Indian was running dead last, some 10 metres behind the race leaders Conseslus Kipruto and Getnet Wale, who had set off at a blistering pace. Kipruto routinely flirts with the eight-minute mark. Sable's best -- the then Indian record, recorded in the heats just a couple of nights ago -- was nearly half a minute slower at 8:25.23.
For the neutral in the stands at the Khalifa stadium it was a demoralising observation of the gulf of class that lay between the best of the world's elite and Sable, who some might have felt had already overachieved by simply making it to the final.
"It's embarrassing to be so far back. Koi aur banda hota toh give up kar deta (Any other person would have quit)," says his coach Amrish Singh who was watching from the galleries as well. Not Sable, an enlisted soldier of the 5 Mahar regiment, who has served on the icy slopes of the Siachen Glacier and the mountains of Sikkim, though. "He is an armyman and he won't quit. No soldier will run from the battlefield. He will fight till his last breath," says Singh.
Sable didn't give up in the heats either even though he had plenty of reason to. It was a world championship debut from hell, as twice he was tripped over by Ethiopia's Takelu Nigate. The first fall was bad enough. The second time came just before the jumping obstacle. Instead of vaulting over the bar, he had to scramble over it. "It was as if I was back to my basic training in the Army where we had to climb over hurdles. Kaafi jaan lag gayi thi usme (It took a lot of effort to get over it)," Sable jokes.
The falls, though, cost him several seconds. While he still managed to create a national record, it was not enough to earn him the automatic qualification. "I was so depressed after that," Sable said. "I knew the capacity I had in me and I couldn't live up to it. The national record didn't mean anything to me." It took a protest by the Athletics Federation of India to reinstate him in the final and that brought a renewed sense of purpose to Sable. "I'd got one more chance. I couldn't waste it this time," he says.
Even as he trailed further back, Sable's goal was clear in his and his coach's mind. "I knew the medal was out of our reach. If the pace of the race was about 65 or 65 seconds a lap (an 8:10.00 to 8:15.00 race), then he could keep up. But if the race leaders were running faster than that then he would have to concentrate on qualifying for the Olympics and finishing below 8:22.00," says coach Singh.
The Olympics have been on Sable's mind only since 2016, when he saw the Rio Games on TV with the rest of his 5 Mahar Army unit in the garrison town of Lalgarh Jattan in Rajasthan. "I saw the marathon and wrestling events. That time I saw how the flag of the winning athlete was getting raised and I wanted to win that glory for my country too," he recalls.
Sable had started as a cross-country runner in the inter-unit competition but was finally noticed and introduced to the steeplechase event by Singh, chief coach of the army distance-running programme. Singh had picked him even though he was only the fifth fastest runner at the 2017 inter-services meet. "I had liked him because he was from Beed in Maharashtra. That's a region which produces very hardy men who can tolerate a lot of stress and struggle," says Singh.
The switch was a fruitful one, with Sable first breaking the 24-year-old steeplechase national record -- the then oldest standing one in track -- at the inter-state championships in 2018. Since then he has broken his own record three times this year -- clocking 8:28.94 at the Federation Cup in Patiala and then twice at the World Championships over the past few days.
His latest achievement was challenging in its own way. Since he wasn't part of the lead group, Sable had no way to tell just how far off the pace he was. He didn't even have a watch on his wrist for coach Singh had ordered him to hand it over before the race. "Avinash has a bad habit of looking at his watch too often. So I asked him to give it to me before the race. During the race he was looking at the digital clock at finishing line after each lap to check how fast or slow he should be going," says Singh.
Sable, though, was comfortable in the situation he was in. "I never felt any fear even when I saw that they were very far ahead of me. I didn't need to see or bother about them. I only had to run my own race. In my training I always have the ability to judge what my correct pace has to be. So in a race, I was confident that I was running at the speed I needed to be at," he says.
While Sable accomplished his primary goal -- qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics -- he and his coach aren't done yet. Their ultimate ambition is to contest for the medals next year. The bronze medal at the World Championships went at 8:03.76 while the same medal at the 2016 Olympics was won with a time of 8:11.52. Singh feels Sable can improve even further. "Coach had set my target for the World Championships at 8:15.00. We couldn't achieve that because I ran a bit slow in some of the middle laps. It was also the first time that I was running two races (heats and final) just a couple of days from each other. So this was an important learning experience for me," he says.
Sable's not sure exactly how his preparation for the Tokyo Games will proceed. He has accomplished tremendously with coach Singh at the national high-altitude camp in Ooty and subsequently at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bangalore. He's scheduled to travel to Colorado Springs but is uncertain whether to take that step.
"It will take me a month to adapt to a new country but at the same time I will get to learn more when I train along with better runners. That's how I will learn and improve more," he says. These will be lessons he hopes to apply when he takes to the track in Tokyo ten months from now.
"This time my fight was with myself. I had to qualify for the Olympics first. Next year I will build the capacity to compete with the world leaders. At the Olympics, I will fight with them," he says.