The electric timer at the NIS Patiala flashed 8:20.20, a new national record in the men's 3000m steeplechase event. Avinash Sable had erased his own record of 8:21.37 and set the best time so far this year. Yet you wouldn't have known that by Sable's reaction: No celebration, just the routine stopping of the watch he hand times himself with.
"How could he celebrate?" asked his coach Amrish Kumar, watching at a distance.
It's been less than two weeks since Sable, among the strongest prospects in Indian track running in recent years, lost one of his earliest coaches, Nikolai Snesarev. Snesarev had died in his room in the NIS Patiala campus on March 5, just days after he'd arrived there to help Sable fine-tune his preparations for the Olympics.
Sable hadn't trained directly under Snesarev for two years at that point, but like nearly everyone who had worked with him, had held the 72-year-old Belarusian in immense esteem. Snesarev had coached Indian athletes since 2005, had guided several to national records and later trained Lalitha Babar to the final of the steeplechase in the 2016 Rio Olympics, a first for an Indian track athlete in 32 years.
Sable had also trained with Snesarev prior to that Olympics although he subsequently had to drop out from the national camp and return to coach Amrish. Under Amrish, the chief coach at the army distance running programme, Sable, a soldier, had first been introduced to the steeplechase event.
Appreciative of the time he had spent with Snesarev, Sable was grateful for the Belarusian's decision to travel to India despite the coronavirus pandemic, and had been looking forward to working with him once again. "Coach Snesarev is a very hard trainer. He would make me run a lot. But it really helped me before I got injured," Sable once told ESPN.
Snesarev had arrived at the NIS campus just before the Indian Grand Prix, where Sable took part in the 3000m steeplechase. "On the morning of the race, he asked me how I thought Avinash would do. And I said, 'Doctor, you just watch and see, he's going to set a record. He promised he would do that'," Amrish recalls.
Snesarev never did return to the track, having suffered a fatal heart attack in his room that afternoon. "I was really surprised he hadn't come since he wasn't the sort of man to make a promise and then go back on it. Avinash wanted to check up on him but he had to go for his dope tests, so a few coaches and I went to his room, where we found him. I'm just grateful Avinash didn't have to see that," recalls Amrish.
Sable penned an emotional post on social media later that day. "Sir, I was away from you for two years but was following every rule of yours. I was practicing what you taught me... you used to say my age is 72 years, but yet I will take a risk for you. ... How much ever I write will be less for you," he wrote on Instagram.
Snesarev's death was a shock to coach Amrish too. Although the Belarusian had come to take charge of Sable's Olympic preparation, there had been no animosity between the two. "Dr. Snesarev always made it clear that he understood that Avinash had qualified when training with me. I knew he was a great coach and if we could work together to produce a great result at the Olympics, it would be a great achievement for the country," says Amrish.
Despite the emotional trauma, both Avinash and his coach decided to put their mind back onto the field. The fact that they both were members of the armed forces helped. Amrish served multiple stints in the UN peacekeeping forces in Sudan while Sable, prior to his switch to athletics, was an enlisted soldier in the Mahar regiment, and served a tour of duty on the Siachen Glacier.
"We have both served in the Army. Both of us know what it is to have comrades die in action. We know that we can't lose ourselves to emotion otherwise the mission will suffer. The mission always comes first. That's what I reminded Avinash too. Our mission is still not over," says Amrish.
Not that it was easy. "The first training session was very emotional for us. No matter what you have gone through in the past, losing someone like Dr. Snesarav was a big shock to us. A lot of what we take for granted in Indian athletics today is because Dr. Snesarev made those changes. If Avinash travelled from Bangalore to Chandigarh on a flight rather than take a train to Delhi and then a six-hour bus to Patiala, it's because Dr. Snesarev made those demands when he was the head coach," says Amrish.
Once he managed to compartmentalise the emotional pain, Sable was always expected to be the favourite to win. He had managed to continue training -- first in Ooty and then in the Sports Authority of India campus in Bangalore -- throughout the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic. Just as coach Snesarev had tried prior to Rio, he had been steadily increasing his workload over the past several months -- he's now running upwards of 160km a week.
Just to test himself, he'd taken part in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in November, and in his first race over that distance, he broke the Indian half marathon record. Sable's target, his coach says, was to run around the 8:15.00 and 8:18.00 mark but an unexpectedly steep water hazard in the steeplechase course -- that ended up causing two athletes, including Asian Games bronze medallist Naveen Dagar, to limp off injured -- jeopardised those hopes.
Dagar's injury early on meant that Sable had no real competition -- he finished 15 seconds clear of the second-placed runner. "Avinash had to be more careful than usual in the water jump and that cost him a couple of seconds at least. The fact that Naveen got injured also meant that there was no one to push him," says Amrish, who has little doubt that Sable will cruise under the 8:15.00 mark in more favourable conditions.
"We'd like to take part in a few good international races to show what he's capable of but even if he doesn't get that chance, it's alright. These national records don't matter. They aren't worth celebrating. Right now, we have only one target and that is to make a mark at the Olympics. That's going to be our mission. We won't rest until then," he says.