One of the great stories in Indian track & field in the last 4-5 years, apart from the world-beating Neeraj Chopra in javelin, has been the rise of Avinash Sable, the 3000m steeplechaser who will try to do something unprecedented at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on August 6—win a medal for India in the event.
His best time, 8:12:48 minutes, the national record, would have won him the silver in every edition of the CWG except for the 2018 Gold Coast Games, where he would have finished 5th.
The steeplechase, like any other distance running event, is the fiefdom of the East Africans. At the CWG, that means Kenya, who have won the gold in every edition since 1990, and led a full sweep of the podium in 2018.
India have never had a steeplechase runner who could stand toe-to-toe with the top runners in the world, till Sable’s heady rise. One good way of gauging progress in an event is to look at national records—this is especially true in distance running, where sports science research, improvements in training methodologies, vastly improved financial incentives, more races, and breakthroughs in shoe technology have meant that records tumble every year, sometimes every few months. India’s national record in men’s steeplechase had remained unbroken from 1981 to 2018—37 years—till Sable broke it at the National Championships in 2018, just three years after he started training in the event.
He was just getting started. He has broken and reset the record nine times now, with the last one set earlier this year. The 27-year-old from Maharashtra has since become the first steeplechaser from India to qualify for the world championships since 1991, the first ever to make the finals of a world championships in 2019, and the first to qualify for the event in the Olympics. In the heats at Tokyo, he set another national record (his seventh such feat), but was unlucky to miss out on a place in the finals, being the fastest across all heats to not qualify.
This year, he has taken his training to the next level, shifting base to the US to train with a foreign coach and making his debut at the Diamond League, the top tier of track & field events in a season.
Sable’s story is the stuff of legend. Born to an impoverished family of farmers in Mandava, in the drought-plagued Marathwada region, Sable almost ended up working in a brick kiln. His parents, Mukund and Vaishali, own little land, and worked as daily wage labourers, building roads or working in brick kilns, to make ends meet. A young Sable would see his parents leave for work at 4 in the morning and return exhausted in the evening.
“All my memories of childhood are of seeing my parents struggle to put food on the table for me and my younger brother,” Sable said in an interview to the Hindustan Times.
From the time he was eight, he had to walk a distance of 12km from home to school and back. This is where he found that he actually enjoyed running.
It was in school that a teacher first noticed the boy who ran all the time. He started taking Sable for school athletic meets. When he heard that Sable’s father was thinking of taking him to the brick kiln post, he put his foot down. Yet, the poor financial conditions at home meant Sable’s parents were forced to enroll him, when he was 11 years old, into a government-run residential school for children from economically backward families. But the boy’s running career was floundering without help or direction. He finished school, returned home, enrolled in a local college, and began doing daily wage labour at construction sites on the side.
But running had come calling again, this time in a familiar guise. His college was 8km from home. So, he ran that distance every day. It was only a matter of time till he was spotted again, this time by a teacher in his college, who began to finance Sable to go run in collegiate meets. The untrained runner managed to dominate college events with such ease that it gave him the courage to try out for army recruitment. At 18, he became a part of the Mahar Regiment. Within months, he was posted at the highest battlefield in the world, Siachen Glacier. He survived two years of that icy world, before being posted to Rajasthan, on the border with Pakistan. This is where he was scouted by Amrish Kumar, the army’s long distance running coach, soon to become Sable’s mentor.Sable has not looked back since. In Birmingham, he has the opportunity to clear yet another hurdle, make yet another giant leap.