"The enemy of progress is happiness"
Whenever Avinash Sable, India’s premier track athlete, feels he needs a reality check, all he has to do is remember a bit of admittedly brutalist East European philosophy former coach Nikolai Snesarev taught him.
In recent years, the 27-year-old from Beed, Maharashtra, has been making a habit of making history – setting records almost every time he races. His latest was on Saturday, when he clocked 13.25.65 in the men’s 5000m at the Sound Running meet in San Juan Capistrano, USA, to erase the longest standing national record in men’s track athletics – Bahadur Prasad’s mark of 13.29.70 that had held firm for 30 years.
The 5000m record – which Sable claimed in just his second competitive race over that distance is also the third national record in his name – more than any other athlete currently. He also has the national record in the men’s half marathon as well as the national record in the men’s steeplechase event.
There will be no celebration over Sable’s latest achievement. Indeed when he returns to his hotel room and when he closes his eye lids, Sable will force himself to forget the exhilaration he’s just felt. It’s something former national coach Snesarev taught him many years back at the start of his career. “Never look back. Never be satisfied with anything you have done,” Sable recalls the gruff Belarusian saying. “I’ve had many coaches over the years, but this is something I’ve always remembered,” says Sable of Snesarev, who passed away a year ago.
Rather than dwell on his achievements, Sable says he’ll start to think about his next training session. On Sunday, when he heads back to the high altitude Olympic training center in Colorado where he’s been training for the last three weeks, he’ll remember another thing Snesarev taught him. “Coach sir ne bataya training karna hai jaise ki life me kuch achieve nahi kiya hai (train as if you have achieved nothing in life),” Sable says.
Honestly though, it’s hard to imagine someone who’s achieved as much in as little time as Sable. As recent as six years ago, Sable had nothing to do with athletics. He had joined the Army as a sepoy (private) in the 5 Mahar battalion. He had served in the glacial wasteland of Siachen, the jungles of Sikkim and the scorching desert of Rajasthan before he was chosen by his superiors to run track in an inter unit competition. Since running his first race, his progression has been nothing short of meteoric -- he's undoubtedly the best Indian track athlete .
“When I think of where I was, it doesn’t even make sense to me where I’ve reached. When I was a soldier, I never even thought that this would be a possibility. When I started running, I thought it would be great if I could get a medal in the army competition. Now I’m running with the best in the world,” he says from San Juan.
This is no exaggeration. At Running Sound, Sable was competing against 1500m Olympic champion Jakob Ingebritsen, who won gold, and Olympic bronze medalist Josh Kerr. At the high altitude center in Colorado, where he started training in mid-April, he runs alongside Olympic champion Paul Chelimo, Boston marathon champion Atsede and US steeplechase champion Hilary Bol.
Sable needs to compete with the best in the world, simply because there’s no real challenge for him in India, where he’s not lost a race across any distance in the last three years. Indeed in his first ever race over the 5000m at last months’ Federation Cup in Kozhikode, Sable finished nearly 10 seconds clear of the second place finisher.
“He’s so far ahead of the field in India. When he’s training in India, he’s almost always by himself. When he’s competing in India, there’s no one to push him. He’s always the one setting the pace,” says Scott Simmons, former coach of the USA Army team who’s been working with Sable over the last couple of months.
However, competing at a higher level of competition comes with its own challenge. “Normally before every race in India, I have an idea how I’m going to do because I know my level and that of the rest of the athletes. But in the USA it’s different. There are so many high level athletes here,” says Sable. Indeed before his most recent race, Sable wondered just how he’d match up to the high class field he found himself in.
Not only was the competition elite, Sable’s preparation had been far from perfect. After the Federation Cup, he suffered a bout of viral fever that left him unable to train for a week. “Once he came to the USA, we didn’t want to push him too hard because he had just recovered from an illness and he was in a high altitude environment. Honestly, his preparation for this race wasn’t the best,” says Simmons. At the start of the race, Sable was a little nervous, admits Simmons. “He’s almost never been in a competition with 20 of the best athletes. The only advice I gave him was to not worry. I told him to take his time and settle in,” he says.
In what must have been a new experience, Sable fell back to the tail of the pack, dead last. Yet as he settled in, he steadily picked up the pace. Eventually he overtook a number of athletes including Olympic bronze medalist Kerr and took 12th place. “For the first time, he didn’t have to set the pace but could follow the pace set by someone else. It worked out well for him,” says Simmons.
For all the promise he’s shown in the 5000m, it’s possible that Sable won’t run another race over this distance over the remainder of the season. Despite his national record, he still has a long way to go to challenge the world standard in this race (for perspective Jakob Ingebritsen won the race with a time of 13:02.03).
Where Sable will focus will be on his primary event -- the 3000m steeplechase, a race in which he’s broken the national record seven times (after first erasing, in 2018, the previous mark which had stood for 37 years). In 2019, he became the first Indian men’s athlete to reach the final of a World Championships and he very nearly made the final of the same event at the Tokyo Olympics as well. Having qualified for the 3000m steeplechase event at the World Championships in Eugene in July, the expectation is that Sable will not just make another final but also push the leading pack.
According to coach Simmons, competing over the 5000m has knock-on benefits in the 3000m steeplechase. It not only allows Sable to build up the endurance he needs over the shorter distance but importantly gives him race experience against elite competition. But while Sable looks to test himself, his competitors are starting to take notice of him too.
“Before he came to Colorado, a lot of athletes had heard of him but they are starting to respect him a lot more. (Olympic finalist and two time USA national champion) Hillary Bor told me that Sable has a very strong and smooth running action. His mechanics over the obstacle and water pit are of a really high quality. Everyone believes he has the potential to go a lot faster. In fact, after the race in Running Sound, a lot of the other athletes came and congratulated him. I think he surprised a lot of them with his strength towards the very end of the race,” says Simmons.
Sable’s self belief has also been improving. “Initially when I came to Colorado, I was not able to train with the same intensity as the rest of my group. But now I’m able to match them. I’ll slowly get better than them also,” he says. But that’s not going to be enough for Sable. He’s already thinking about the World Championships in a couple of months' time. “I’ve achieved nothing until now. My goal has always been either to win a medal or improve my performance so much that the next Indian to beat my record wins a medal. But for that I can’t be satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The sooner I forget what I’ve achieved, the better I’ll get,” he says.