No turning back: Ankita Dhyani's mastery at improbable chases makes her unbeatable

Dhyani erased the longest-standing junior national record in Indian athletics after clocking a time of 16:21.19 at the Junior National Championships in Guwahati. AFI

Ankita Dhyani is the most dominant Indian junior athlete over the middle distance at present.

Earlier in January, the 19-year-old won gold medals in the 1500m and 5000m events at the Federation Cup Junior Athletics Championships. She followed that up, over the past weekend, with victories over the same distances at the ongoing Junior National Championships in Guwahati. In the 5000m on Saturday, she clocked a time of 16:21.19, erasing one of the oldest junior national records in Indian athletics -- of 16:21.59, held for the last 23 years by former Asian Games champion Sunita Rani.

Being the pre-eminent junior athlete in the country by some margin comes with its own unique challenge, as Dhyani would find during the race. "I was very confident of winning the gold medal here. But because there aren't many runners at my level here, it's very difficult to get a good timing," she says. With no runner able to set a pace that she could follow, her coach Pratibha Toppo suggested she simply chase whoever was ahead of her. She wasn't to stop even after she got the lead. "Once I got to the front, coach told me I had to chase whoever was coming last," she says. The 5000m isn't a long race by any stretch, but Dhyani ended up lapping several of her competitors over the distance.

Dhyani has been comfortable making improbable chases for a while, though.

Girls did not play sports in the tiny village of Maroda in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. Therefore, when 11-year-old Dhyani -- at the encouragement of a school teacher -- decided that she would, there was no one to run alongside. She did the next best thing. Pauri Garhwal might not be big on organised sport, but it is one of the most productive catchment areas for recruitment to the army. Soldiers from this mountainous region have a reputation for endurance as selection to the army is incredibly tough. Each day, several young men from Maroda -- situated at an altitude of 1400m -- would run along the high hill roads, preparing for the army physical exams.

"I decided to run with them," recalls Dhyani. "A lot of people thought it was strange that this small girl was running with these big boys. A lot of people said I was wasting my time. But I never gave up." While the young men preparing for their exams were never discouraging, they never gave her any favours either. "I had to run along with them. They never slowed down for me," she says.

Back then, Dhyani ran - by her own admission - because it was fun. She had no real expectations to make a serious career of it. One of four children of a farmer, there weren't many resources for her either. It was only in 2017, on the suggestion of the same school teacher who had encouraged her to run, that she gave a trial of her own - for an admission to a sports hostel in Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand.

There was no other option if she was to take her running seriously. No athlete had ever come out of isolated Maroda, and even Rudraprayag, the nearest small town, was an eight-hour journey away. Dhyani came through in her trial, and with better facilities, made it count. She took gold in the 2000m at the Youth nationals in Vijaywada, and won the 1500m at the Junior nationals in Ranchi the following year. In 2019, she took a double gold in the 1500m and 3000m races at the Khelo India Youth Games in Pune, and repeated the feat -- winning in the 1500m and 5000m in Guwahati in the 2020 edition.

Dhyani has never lost a race since she formally started her training.

"She is a very gifted runner," says Toppo, who has coached Dhyani since 2019, after she was selected to train at the National Center of Excellence in Bhopal following her success at the 2019 Khelo India Games. "She is a very aggressive trainer. You can keep pushing her. And because she was running in Uttarakhand, she had already been doing a lot of high-altitude training," she says.

The trajectory of Dhyani's career seemed to hit a hurdle when the national camps were closed in 2020, owing to the coronavirus pandemic. However, she made the most of her return to Maroda. "I stayed in touch with my coach, and she gave me the training plan over WhatsApp. For seven months I trained by myself this way."

This time, she wasn't running alongside the army aspirants. Owing to a heavier workload and the fact that she was technically stronger, she was now running ahead of them. That came with its own set of challenges. "It is difficult to run without anyone guiding you on the track. I was a little nervous running by myself because there are a lot of wild animals on the road. There have been times when I'd see a tiger on the road ahead of me. At that time, the only thing to do is go back where you came from," she says.

There is no turning back for her now. "I think her next target will be the Junior World Championships in Nairobi," says coach Toppo, who expects her to eventually match the achievements of former national record-holder Sunita Rani. The Junior Worlds will be Dhyani's first international event. She had the chance to compete for the Asian Youth Championships in 2017, but missed it because she had never thought of getting her passport made in Maroda.

Should the Junior Worlds be held on schedule, Dhyani will surely be part of the Indian squad. However, her coach feels she still has to improve her timing further to be competitive. Her new national record would only have been the 78th best by an U-20 athlete in the 2019 season -- the last year when competitions were not curtailed due to the pandemic. "Ideally, I'd like her to be running inside 16 minutes before she competes there, but I don't think it will be possible to cross that mark running alongside junior runners," says Toppo.

Therefore, Dhyani will likely be competing in her first senior competition at the Federation Cup next month. It is a big step up for her -- the fastest Indian in 2019 was Parul Choudhary, who clocked 15:36.03. But Dhyani says she will give it her best shot. "It is going to be hard but I'll keep chasing the runner in front of me. I've always done that and it has made me better."