With a new national record, Murli Gavit gets his dreams back on track

Murli Gavit recently broke the national record in the 10km road race. Murli Gavit

On January 8, after crossing the finish line in his first race of the season in Valencia, Spain, Murli Gavit had a reason to be happy. He had clocked a time of 28:42 in the 10km road race, shaving 12 seconds off the previous national record set 14 years ago. Indian athletes seldom run the 10km road race -- it's far more common to run that distance on the athletic track. The Indian record on the synthetic track for instance is a lot quicker at 28:02:89. Yet for Gavit this timing was a very important one. It's his fastest time over that distance on road or on track for over two years now.

It's a race that justified the decision for Gavit, who doesn't have a permanent job, made to spend money out of his own pocket to train at the elite high altitude running base of Iten in Kenya. "It was a risk to train in Kenya. But this result at the start of the year is a great motivation for me. It gives me the confidence that I'm nearly back to where I was at my peak. I will build on this," he said after landing at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport a day back.

Gavit was once India's most promising long-distance runner. He was a double champion over the 5,000m and 10,000m in 2019 and won a silver medal in the longer distance at the 2019 Asian Championships in Qatar with a personal best time of 28.38.34. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic would hurt his career badly. He had been pushing his body to the limit at the start of the year -- looking to breach the 27-minute mark that would allow him to qualify for the Olympics. But the load had been too much and his body eventually broke down. Even after he recovered, there was another blow. Gavit had been a sponsored athlete training in Kenya with coach Hugo Van den Broek, but as the Indian economy crashed in early 2020, that contract was cancelled.

Gavit had to return home to India, to the village of Kumarband in the Dang district of Gujarat. The third son of a tribal family of cattle grazers, he had started his running career back in 2013. It had been his way out of destitution. He had gone from running barefoot, winning Rs 2,000 in his first race to holding the Indian flag aloft in Doha. Now he was back literally where he had started.

"It was a little difficult to come to terms with it. But at that time my goal was still to qualify for the Olympics. Coach (Van den Broek) would send me a training program and I'd try to follow it in my village," he says.

This came with its own set of challenges that Gavit had thought he had left behind. "The best time to train is early in the morning. After that it gets too hot to do long distance running. But there are many wild animals here. When I was in my village there were many cases of leopards attacking and killing cattle. So, I would have to wait until about 8 am to start." Also, he could only do hill workouts and didn't have a track to train on. The fact that the athletics calendar was all but wiped out in 2020 meant he had no practice either.

Despite his best efforts, the substandard training took a toll. In his return to action at the Federation Cup in 2021, he finished outside the podium, clocking 30:31:23 -- his worst time in five years. He took part in the interstate championships and the national championships the same year and again finished without a medal. The Federation Cup failure hurt the most since that was his last chance to meet the qualifying standard for the Games.

"It was one of the lowest points I've had as an athlete. I'd been dreaming of the Olympics for the last five years. And I knew that my training wasn't up to the mark but I still was holding onto some hope," he says.

That's when he decided to go back to Kenya. "Khud se socha [I thought] if I had to get a medal, I have to go to Iten. I knew in India I had no chance to compete internationally. I'd been speaking to my coach for many months already. I'd actually decided in the lockdown itself that I need to go to Iten. In India I was slowly even losing the mentality of winning."

But an international training program in a foreign country doesn't come free. And with no sponsorship apart from Rs 5 lakh he had been getting under the Gujarat Government' Shaktidoot scheme for athletes, there was the obvious problem of finances.

As a child, Gavit's payment for grazing the village cattle had been to go from house to house collecting scraps of food in a pot. It had been a humiliating ritual that had had seared into him the need to be frugal with his money. He remained careful even after he started winning races, carefully putting his prize money -- the biggest of which was won in the 2019 Asian Championships -- in a fixed deposit account. Now he knew what to do. "It wasn't a hard decision for me. Everything that I had earned had come from running. So I was just putting it back. I took out that money and I bought a ticket to Kenya," he says.

In November, Gavit returned to Kenya. "I returned with new umeed (hope). I knew I have a strong group to train with." In Kenya, he stretches his money as far as it goes. "My coach charges $140 a month from his students, but he's only taking $70 a month from me. The international runners from Europe and USA, pay something like Rs 60-70,000 a month to stay in a guest house. I stay in a small room and I cook my own food and clean my own clothes, I can manage at around Rs 6,000 a month. I eat like the local people. I've learned how to cook ugali (a maize porridge) and the local spinach."

If there's one thing he's not compromised with, that's his training. On the motorable road that leads to Iten where Gavit often begins his training runs, there's a signboard that says "Iten the home of champions". This isn't an idle boast. The town, situated 8,000 feet above sea level in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, is the training hub of the world's elite long-distance and marathon runners. "Everywhere you look, there are people running. When you see a group of 100 people running you won't be able to make out who is an Olympic champion and who is a person who is just starting his training. It's another level of training. Your own mentality changes."

In Iten, Gavit, under the suggestion of Van den Broek, has been training with one of the most elite teams of runners which includes European champion Julien Wanders. He's slowly built up his workload once again. "I used to run 160km a week three years ago and my body broke down when I tried to push to 180km because I wasn't ready for it. Now I'm running around 190km a week. My body is able to take the load much better now," he says.

He still has some way to go though. "Right now I'm still not as strong as the main group. They run around 210km each week. I'm slowly getting closer to what they are doing. If they run at the competition pace for 21km, I'll do the same for 18km. But I'll catch up with them."

Running in a group might make him faster but it also works out financially. "When I train with them, I can save money on airport transfers or when we have group meals when we are travelling for competitions, like when we went to Valencia."

As he prepares for another day's training, Gavit is clear that the record in Spain is only a passing milestone for his athletic career. "I'm back at the same level I was in 2019. My target is the Olympics once again but this year I hope I can qualify for the World Championships. But I really want to win a medal at the Asian Games. I want also to get into the 27-minute range but I really want a medal in my hand."

The race in Valencia has had a practical reward too. As part of his state sponsorship, Gavit receives a lump sum amount in April each year. Even though he had dipped into his personal savings, he had almost run out. "I nearly emptied my savings in the cost of my training and making the trip to Valencia. I looked at my account just before the race and ekdum khatam tha (It was nearly empty). Now that I have a national record, I can ask my sponsors for a little advance on the amount they would give me in April."