Survival run: For Sunil Dawar, sport offers escape from extreme poverty

Sunil Dawar won gold in the 5000m at the Junior Nationals, breaking a 24-year-old record along the way. AFI

Sunil Dawar might be earning praise as one of India's brightest prospects in middle-distance running by virtue of crushing a 24-year-old record at the Junior Nationals in Guwahati, but the 20-year-old has more modest ambitions for now. "It would be really great if I get a job out of this," says Dawar, who won gold in the 5000m in a time of 14:13.95 -- erasing the previous mark of 14:14.48 set by Gojen Singh in 1996.

Dawar, who also won the 1500m event in Guwahati, is upfront about his priorities. Running was, at least at the beginning, simply a way out from grinding poverty. The eldest of four children of a tribal family in the Dhawda village in Madhya Pradesh's Barwani district, he says he would have been destined for a dismal future but for the sport.

With no land of their own, the family moved to the neighbouring district of Khargon when Dawar was five. The family of six lived in a small mud hut in the nondescript village of Tanda Barud, performing any manual labour job they could find. Although he was enrolled in the local government school, Dawar worked right alongside his parents as well. "As a child, my parents would go to the hills and cut wood to sell. I'd gather fodder and go down the street selling it. That's what you had to do if you wanted to eat. Sometimes even then it wasn't enough and you'd go hungry," he recalls.

Running, though, offered the possibility of a place in the army. At least, that's what Dawar felt when he saw scores of young men, preparing for the army recruitment drives, run at a ground adjacent to his school. "I had no idea what running was or what the 1500m or 5000m races meant. I just knew that if I became a strong runner, I might join the army myself," he says.

It wasn't until 2016 that Dawar ran his first formal race at a district meet. "We had a PT teacher who needed to bring athletes and she knew that I was someone who would run every day because I used to run with the boys who were preparing for the army recruitment. I had no idea what event I should run in, so I competed in everything. I ran everything from the 100m races to the long-distance races. That's where I found out that I had some talent in long-distance running," he says.

"It was very difficult. I'd be working to build houses and then I'd go home to a jhopri (mud hut). But that motivated me. I knew whatever I did I had to find a way out of this poverty." Sunil Dawar

With the same PT teacher now taking an interest in him, Dawar says he began training specifically for athletics. With neither him nor his teacher having much of an idea about coaching, there was no method to his training. "I just thought I had to run fast over long distances. We didn't really know what we were doing but my teacher helped me out with shoes. Otherwise I was normally running barefoot," he says.

Athletic training, though, was almost a luxury at that point. "If it was the sowing or harvesting season, I'd get up at 5 am and then work in the fields till 10 am. After that, I'd go to school. Only after school ended and if there was no work, I'd practise running on the ground next to my school," he says.

There were no rest days. "And if there was a holiday, I'd try and look for work. I'd work on some construction site. It was very difficult. I'd be working to build houses and then I'd go home to a jhopri (mud hut). But that motivated me. I knew whatever I did I had to find a way out of this poverty. Either I'd make something of myself in athletics or I'd join the army." he says.

Dawar got his opportunity in 2017, when he won cross-country races at the village and district level, and eventually placed second in the state to qualify for the national school games in Rohtak. He'd win another silver there -- his first medal at the national level.

That medal opened further doors, in particular the ones to the Madhya Pradesh Athletics Academy in Bhopal. "After I won a national medal, they called me for trials. I needed to get in not just because I could get coaching there, but because I knew I'd have a place to stay and get food regularly once I was selected. Woh aur zaruri tha (that was more important)," he says.

Dawar was selected and began his formal training from there. He's been consistently among the medals since. "I've never come back from a tournament without a medal," he vouches. Dawar has won gold over the 1500m at the U-20 nationals in Guntur in 2019 as well as over the 1500 and 5000m at the Khelo India Games. He also won a silver medal at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu the same year.

"I ran away from the main roads, in the fields and along a canal. It was dark and lonely but I had no choice." Sunil Dawar

Despite his success over the middle distances, Dawar admits he once considered the longer races. Not for purely sporting reasons, though. "There's no money in the 1500m and 5000m. On the other hand, there's money in marathons. I once took part in a local marathon and I got Rs. 20,000 for winning it. That was a huge amount of money for me. I even bought a phone with it. I was tempted to continue running marathons but those races really break your body. It has been hard but I decided to stick to the middle distance only for now," he says.

Never, though, did Dawar have to grapple with financial concerns as much as he did during the coronavirus lockdown in 2020. Having returned home after the MP state academy was shut, it was as if his struggles had resumed. "I first felt sad because I thought that I would have to return to doing manual work but then I realised there was no work because of the lockdown. Even if there was, the police checking was so strict, it was impossible to work. The only place where my parents could find work was in the fields, where checking wasn't so strict. Or they'd take loans. I did what I could. I watered and fed cattle and goats," he recalls. Unable to train in the day, Dawar only ran at night when no one was about. "I ran away from the main roads, in the fields and along a canal. It was dark and lonely but I had no choice," he says.

Once the lockdown loosened, Dawar returned to the MP Academy. As his results at Guwahati show, he's only getting better. The tournament was his last as a junior -- and he's now setting his sights at the next level. "I honestly believe I have the talent and I'm capable of putting in the hard work to succeed at this level," he says. That's for the future though. "Right now I'm really hoping to get a job. It would make my life a lot easier," he says