From Beed to Tokyo, Sable’s long, hard run
Avinash Sable’s gritty journey, from growing up in a drought-hit village where his parents were daily wage labourers, to breaking national records and qualifying for the Olympics.Updated: Dec 14, 2019 17:08 IST
“Bas, zid thi (I was just stubborn)!”
Stubborn sums up Avinash Sable.
Zid, of single-handedly plucking his family out of poverty. Zid, of making his way into the Indian Army. Zid, of discovering his love for running, and in less than five years after becoming an athlete, smashing through a national record that has stood for decades—bettering it three more times in the space of a year—and becoming the first Indian man to make the final of the 3000m steeplechase race at the 2019 World Athletics Championship and qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
Travel to Mandava, where Sable was born and raised, and it’s not hard to see the source of his deep-set tenacity.
Eight kilometres inland from the highway that runs from Mumbai to Beed, Mandava is a village with roughly 2,500 people and little land. The road that leads to the village is rocky and cracked during the long dry months, and muddy and non-existent when it rains. In November, when this correspondent visited, the village’s farmlands lay mostly barren—barring a few patches of wheat, and a few groves of lemon trees.
It is here that Sable first started running, more out of compulsion than as a sport.
Sable’s parents—father Mukund and mother Vaishali—own a small parcel of land, but like almost every family in the village, struggled to make ends meet with farming. Instead, Mukund and Vaishali started taking up daily wage jobs—as labourers to construct and repair roads near Lonavala and Pune, or as workers at a brick kiln near the village.
“We would leave at 3am for work after waking up at 2am to prepare the day’s food for Avinash and Yogesh (Avinash’s younger brother). And we would return only late in the evening after we got our day’s money,” Mukund, sitting on a charpoy outside his house, recalls.
For a young Sable, these years of struggle left a deep impression. “Working hard is in my blood,” Sable says. “Whatever memories I have of my childhood, most of it is seeing my parents’ struggles to feed me and my brother every night.”
And thus, despite not having the luxury of a cycle like some other boys, Sable says he never thought twice about the difficulties of reaching his school, 6km from his house, on foot. On the contrary, Sable, as early as when he was eight years old, began to find a solitary joy in running those 12km to and from his school every day.
Swinging a plastic bag filled with his books, Sable would run on. “Woh kehte hai na, God’s gift,” Sable says. “I have that with running. Whenever I used to run, people would say, ‘This boy never gets tired of running’.”
His primary school teacher, Babasaheb Taware, was one of the people who noticed.
When he was in the 4th standard, Sadashiv took Sable to a school athletic meet for a 1000m race. Sable came first.
“He had the talent and discipline but more importantly, he had guts,” Taware says. “That’s when I knew he was not an ordinary boy.”
Taware knew he had to look after the boy carefully; when Sable’s father told him that he was thinking of taking the boy along daily to the brick kiln since there was no one home to take care of him, Taware intervened. He offered to take Sable home with him instead after school, and Mukund could pick him up on his way back from the kiln.
“If he had gone with his father at that time, he wouldn’t have become a runner,” the 47-year-old Taware says.
When he was 11 years old, conditions at home forced Sable’s parents to send him to live in a hostel for economically backwards children. Here, his running talent was spotted again. This time, he was sent to the Aurangabad Krida Prabodhini centre (Krida Prabodhini is an ambitious state-run programme which runs residential sports schools across the state to groom potential athletes).
Ironically, it backfired. In the four years that Sable spent at the Krida Prabodhini, from standards 7 through to 10, his running career all but stopped.
“I was very short as a kid, so no one there thought that I could do well in long-distance running. I didn’t perform well in any race that I participated in during those years,” Sable says.
Sable thought that his sporting career was over. After finishing school, he returned home and enrolled in a college, hoping to pick up odd jobs after class to help his family—for a six-hour workday at a construction site, he earned ~100, he says.
For all the change in his life, one old habit returned. Still without any form of transport, Sable began running again—house to college, and back—16km every day.
And just like in school, another teacher saw Sable’s potential—the college’s physical education coach, Zameer Sayyed, took Sable under his wings, helping him train before and after classes. On Sundays, when there was no college, Sable would do a 10k run to a sugar factory down the highway; the teenage athlete’s workload was monstrous.
Between 2010 and 2012, Sayyed paid from his own pockets to take Sable to taluk, district, division and state level 5000m races. Sable was, literally, far ahead of the competition.
“Those races were of 12.5 rounds (around a 400m track), and by the time Sable finished, his competitors would be in the ninth or 10th round,” Sayyed, sitting in the college sports room with a basketball in hand, says. “While the others would get tired after seven-eight rounds, this guy would increase his speed. His stamina was something else.”
The zid was back.
“Deep down my heart, that’s when I felt that I could do something in running,” Sable says.
Sayyed recalls how for a felicitation ceremony organised by the college after Sable won one of the state races, he advised the principal to hand the boy a cash price of ~2,000 so that he could buy running shoes.
“He needed money, and he needed to run. I was trying to help with both,” Sayyed says.
But for all his passion for running, it was still not a viable way of making money, and Sable desperately needed to earn. At 17, Sable made his way to an open trial held by the army in Osmanabad. He passed the physical and was summoned for a written test in Pune. Without money for a hotel, Sable spent the night sleeping at the gates of the Army Institute.
On December 2012, Sable joined the Mahar Regiment of the Indian Army. His first posting, in the winter of 2013, was Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield. For a man who had never seen snow before, Sable found himself in a place where it seemed to never stop snowing. He spent two years there, with no thought of running. Then he was posted to the desert town of Lalgarh Jattan, near the Pakistan border in Rajasthan, where summer temperatures hover near 50 degrees. Sable distinctly remembers one evening in the soaring heat, when he and his fellow jawans were talking of running.
“We were sitting in the mess, and some boys told me, ‘You run well, but cross country is not easy. You won’t be able to do it’,” Sable says. “That was my turning point. I wanted to prove them wrong. Bas, zid thi.”
Even as his colleagues would begin their training at 6am, Sable woke up at 4 to run alone. The solo act would continue for an hour in the evening too, when everyone else would relax after the hard day’s toil.
Sable ran his first inter-army cross country race in 2016, and immediately came under the notice of Amrish Kumar, the army’s long-distance running coach. Kumar picked up Sable to be a part of the army’s camp for the top 22 long-distance runners held in January 2017 in Hyderabad, where his running pathway took a dramatic detour.
Kumar, a steeplechase runner back in his younger days, knew that ‘Shivaji Maharaj’—as he teasingly called Sable—was not meant to rule the cross country circuit. So, one evening during the camp when his steeplechase athletes were crossing hurdles while training, Kumar summoned Sable for a conversation.
“I told him, ‘Come, I’ll show you a new game today’,” Kumar recalls. “He asked me, ‘How do I cross the hurdle?’I asked a 12-year-old girl to jump and show, which she did. Avinash laughed seeing that.
“I said, ‘Shivaji Maharaj, do you think of yourself as a Maratha’? He said, ‘Yes sir, I do’. I said, ‘If you’re a true Maratha, you will cross this hurdle easily’.”
Sable was convinced.
“He came to me and said, ‘Okay sir, I’ll do it (steeplechase)’,” Kumar says. “I said, ‘You won’t just do it, you will break records in six months’.
“I told him, ‘You come from an area (Beed district) which is so challenging that it can break the best. But it didn’t break you. So you can do this.” Kumar recalls.
So sure was Kumar about Sable that for the Open Nationals in Chennai in September that same year, he called up other coaches in advance and told them that he was bringing a boy who will leave everyone else behind. True to his coach’s words, Sable won gold with a timing of 8:39.81s.
What gave him that confidence in a rookie who, till a few months ago, had no idea about steeplechase?
“His muscles and body physics,” explains Kumar. “His height is not that much, but if you look at the world’s top steeplechase runners, they’re not that tall. Sable’s muscles were long and strong, like a horse.”
“Pehle se hi ghoda tha woh (He was a horse from before),” Taware, the primary teacher, says. “In school, when he played kho-kho, no one could catch him for four-five minutes; he would keep running in circles without getting tired. That’s how his muscles became so strong.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise to either Taware or Kumar—who is still Sable’s coach—that the Beed man has made such giant strides in the last 18 months. Sable set a new steeplechase national record at the 2018 Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar in September with a timing of 8:29.80s, erasing Gopal Saini’s 1981 mark. He has since re-written that record three more times; it now stands at 8:21.37s, which he ran in the final of the Doha World Championships in October to book his ticket to Tokyo.
That final was watched by children in Sable’s school once it was up on YouTube. The school now has a smart TV installed in the principal’s cabin, and the village sarpanch has already decided that the people of Mandava will watch Sable’s Olympics race together on that TV.
Since he joined the army, Sable rarely finds time to visit home; but things have changed there. His parents do not have to do daily wage labour anymore; Sable has ensured a steady source of money. Instead, they cultivate lemons on their two acres of land. From the earthen house Sable grew up in, his parents have shifted to a brick-and-cement home with one room and a separate kitchen.
“We never dreamt of this,” Mukund says. “We were daily wage earners with no money. But destiny favoured Avinash and made his life.”
For Sable, the next few months will be lived the way he likes it—with the single-minded pursuit of a goal.
“Ever since I qualified for the Olympics, I’ve set my mind on giving my life to it,” Sable says. “I want to put on a show that will create history for India.
“Bas, zid hai.”