“It’s not that difficult to break the national record,” says Avinash Sable. This statement would sound preposterous coming from the mouth of any other athlete, but makes complete sense when it comes from Sable. The 28-year-old Indian Army man from Beed in Maharashtra is the undisputed king of Indian track athletics at the moment. He holds the national records in three separate events – 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and the half marathon. This is the most NRs held by an Indian athlete at the moment and he is on a record-breaking spree. He reset the national record in the 3000m steeplechase for the eighth time in his career on June 5, clocking 8.12.48s while finishing fifth in a star-studded lineup at the Rabat Diamond League.
What’s more, you can probably count on him to get faster. The Diamond League was only a learning experience, much like his career so far. In a conference call from Colorado on Friday, Sable spoke about his timings, and also his mentality in the sport, the way he has learned from his mistakes, and his struggles with coming to terms with failing to match his lofty standards at the Tokyo Olympics. He also spoke about working up the courage to train in the US, his path ahead not just as an individual athlete, but also for the sport in India.
Looking back at the Diamond League
Running my first Diamond League race was a great experience. It was like an Olympic final or a World Championships final. I have participated in only a few races of this level. If we do this high-level competition (the race featured the podium of the 2020 Olympics as well as the Rio 2016 champion, who incidentally finished behind Sable), regularly, we will keep improving. If we don’t get world-level competition, or if we never compete with them, we will have a very big gap between us and the best. I think when I compete with the best internationally, I give my best. I learn a lot and get a lot of experience. In India, usually, I have to run by myself. There’s a lot more to learn in the Diamond League. There’s always a crowd at every point. You have to learn how to cross the hurdle on a crowded track. You learn where the best runners slow the race down and where they speed it up. You learn where they rest. You get to see their strategy. Lagta hai aage wale race me kaafi faida hoga (I think this experience will help in my future races).
Does he get nervous running with top athletes?
I started athletics in the army. The training in the army helped me a lot. I feel that I don’t get scared in any situation. I know how to get out in any situation. The game feels easy in comparison. The game is easy for me. In the army, if you have a 5km BPT (battle proficiency test), you run, but also carry your weapon and a weight on your back. Running is much easier in comparison. It’s not hard. I have a lot of fun with running.
How hard is it to get a national record?
When I first ran the national record in 2018 (at the inter-state championships in Guwahati), I ran 8.29. At that point, I did not think I’ll do 8.25 (which he got at world championships qualifiers), 8.21 (world championships finals), 8.18 (Tokyo Olympics), or get to 8.12 at Rabat. Now, I don’t think it’s very difficult or that we have to train any different to get the national record.
Before any race, my competition is with myself, not with others. I want to do better than my previous race. I just want to improve my own standard. In India, we think genes of foreign athletes are different, they are naturally better. We think we can’t beat them. But I have started to train with them and I don’t think we are any less than them or we can’t run as fast as they do. We just don’t have the opportunity. We only run in the national competitions. We only think about how to win the race. The winning timing for a race (in India earlier) used to be 8.40 or 8.50. If we ran below 8.50, we used to think it was great. Sometimes, you would win a medal even if you ran a 9-minute race. When I started, I didn’t have any major target. I used to think I’ll get a medal and then get a promotion in the army. I just wanted to get in the top three and get a promotion. I have come from thinking about 9 minutes to running an 8.12 race. Now, when I have to think about running a sub-below 8 minutes in a race, I know it’s not easy, but it’s not improbable either.
When did your mentality change from running to land a promotion to where you are now?
I won my first gold in the national championships in 2017. I felt I had achieved something, and it was time to take a risk. After that race I started training with coach Nikolai Snesarev (who passed away in 2021). My thinking changed after that. (In my first race with him) At the Federation Cup in Patiala, I tried for the national record. I did not succeed because I did not have the training or experience. I came second. If I had just tried to run a winning race, I would have won. The first two km was great, but in the third km, I was tired. But Nikolai coach told me I had to run for the record. So, I tried. Not everyone liked it that I was trying for the record. At one time, it was really hard. People started saying, ‘He did one fast race, he thinks he can break the national record. It’s not easy. He thinks he can do an 8.30… no one can break it in India.’ But I felt, why not.
After the Federation Cup, we had a camp in Dharamshala. I wasn’t sure what to do to break the national record, but did extra workouts. That wasn’t the coach’s fault. I didn’t know better. I got ankle pain (because of the extra workload) and picked up an injury, and couldn’t take part in the 2018 Asian Games. We had trials at the inter-state championship and I finished fourth. I had to listen to a lot of jibes from people after that. My competitors said, ‘He can’t do anything. Ek race bhaaga (he has run one good race) , and he thinks he can do the national record.’ I had never told senior athletes that I was great, or could beat them. But they tortured me. Maybe, the situation is different now.
In September 2018, we had the Open Nationals. I felt I had to break the national record no matter what. That is when I broke the national record for the first time.
What’s next after Rabat?
Right now, we (Sable and coach Nick Simmons) are thinking we want to run a competition to find out what my range is if I run an all-out race (not a tactical one chasing a medal). I just want to see how much I can push myself. I’ll try and do this maybe 15-20 days before the World Championships. I’m not going to think about the position I finish in or the kind of competitors I am facing. I just want to run a race and do my best. I want to see just what my capacity as a runner is. After that I’ll go to the World Championships. I’ll do better there than at the Olympics, I think. (The World Athletics Championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon, United States from July 15-24)
What happened at the Olympics (Sable set a new national record but it wasn’t enough to qualify for the final of the steeplechase event at Tokyo)?
I caught COVID-19 just before the Olympics. I was really unwell. I didn’t even think I’d be able to run an 8.30 race there. At one point, I thought I would say I won’t go to the Olympics because I felt I wouldn’t be able to do well there. For many, the chance to participate in the Olympics is a dream, but I lacked confidence and wasn’t ready at all. My coaches convinced me to run in Tokyo. Uske baad bhi result nahin aya (but I didn’t get the result after that). I was very upset after the Olympics. To forget the disappointment, I went home to be by myself. My family asked me why I was keeping to myself. I used to just stay in the fields and sometimes slept there. I did a little farming, too. I kept thinking I would start practising eventually, but didn’t at all for three months. Then, I went to the national camp in October. That’s when I started again. Slowly, I regained confidence. When I did 8.16 at the IGP, I felt If I could do this time in India, in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) in all that humidity and lack of competition, then I could do better abroad against better competitors in better running conditions. I thought I should take the risk. Khone ke liye kuch nahin hai (I have nothing to lose) . Let me go abroad.
What was the risk in training abroad?
After I broke the national record for the first time, coach Snesarev was very happy. He had a lot of plans for me. He had made plans for high altitude training in Kyrgyzstan, but that did not work out because I said I would not go. I did not go because I wasn’t sure if I would do well. That was a risk I didn’t take then. It was one of the biggest mistakes I made. I was always worried how I would do outside the country. I always felt I had to train in India until the Asian Championships.
I have always been encouraged to go outside. Before the Tokyo Olympics, there was a chance to train in Uganda, but I refused to go. It was a big mistake to not go out earlier. If I had gone earlier and trained with these athletes, maybe Tokyo would have had a different result. I would probably be better than I am now.
Training in Colorado
Initially, more athletes were supposed to come with me, but they did not get the visa. So, I came alone. I was nervous about that. Also, Jinson Johnson had come here in 2019 and did not adjust well; it was too cold here. It’s difficult for Indian athletes because there’s always ice here. We are used to training in the heat. Jinson also got an injury. I was a bit scared. I was thinking ‘how will I manage food. Training method is changed. What will happen now?’
I wasn’t able to do much in the first workout. I found it difficult to manage initially. I really like training in India. The amount of facilities we have in India, we don’t have here (in Colorado). You have to do everything by yourself in Colorado.
In that case, what is good about heading to Colorado?
In India, in the camps, I had to train by myself since no one could train like me. The biggest advantage is there are athletes of my level in Colorado. I’m doing workouts with them. Sometimes, these guys can do even more than I can. They have grown up in hill/altitude and are naturally very strong. Training at high altitudes is like running at sea level for them. But, if I can do the workouts with them, I can run with them also.
Here, the athletes come from their homes and train. I don’t think any country has given facilities like India, but here, the training partners are great. They always think of working together. There’s no jealousy, no feeling of ‘why is this guy working with us, or he will do better than us.’ They don’t have those feelings at all.
What’s the difference in mindset of athletes in India and abroad?
Yahan ke athletes se kaafi sikhne ko milta hai (You learn a lot from the athletes here). We talk during the cool downs. Race ka experience batate hain. Ye competiton se pehle, ye workout kiya tha. Ye track kitna fast ya slow hai. They talk about good qualities of specific athletes. Bohot kuch sikhne ko milta hai (Athletes here generously share their racing experiences. They tell me about workouts before races. Which tracks are slow and which are fast. I get to learn a lot). We have Paul Chelimo, the two-time 5000m Olympic medallist, training here. But he doesn’t show off at all. They are very simple. I like that a lot about them. They mix easily with you. They don’t think we are a different country or he is my competitor. They don’t think if he is training with us, he will get better. In India there is a problem with this. If we don’t change this thinking, we won’t get better. We have to support each other.
What else can India can do to get better results?
In any athletics event, if the pehla (top) athlete does well, those behind will know the path to follow. I don’t want to say anything about our senior athletes, but it took 37 years to break the old steeplechase record (Gopal Saini’s national record of 8.30.88 which Sable broke). Thirty years ago, we were close to the world level. You had athletes who were coming fourth at the Olympics. But we fell behind. If a record lasts for 30 years, it’s not good. If a top athlete is very strong, it changes the mindset of the others behind him. It’s like what you see in Indian men’s javelin now. One athlete (Neeraj Chopra) did really well and now you have so many athletes throwing more than 80m.
In the past, you could win a bronze medal in a national competition with a time of 9.05.00 in the steeplechase. Now in the normal army trials, the race is being run at 8.45. and national medals are going at 8.30 and 8.40. If we create a target, unke liye bhi rasta ban jayega (a target opens a path for others).
In Morocco and Ethiopia, they have 8-minute runners. So the thinking (for the others) is we have to do 8 minutes as well. In India the only record we had seen was 8.30, so everyone thought that’s the target. I think I will win a medal for sure, but if I don’t, I will make sure I set a target Indian athletes will want to chase. I will change their mentality.
With the Olympics standards high, what does Sable need to do to win a medal?
The first time I went to the Olympics, I wasn’t confident or fully fit. Now, there is confidence that I can do well. When you perform well, you automatically get more confident. First I have to break 8.10. But if I have to medal at the Olympics, then I have to get my capacity to 8 minutes. Only then can I be certain that I will be able to run an 8.10 race no matter the competition, whether the race is slow or fast, or whether I’ve got good competition or not. That’s why I have to be able to run the steeplechase in under 8 minutes. I’ve never had small targets. I always thought I have to run better than I am (at that moment).
Prospects at World Athletics Championships in July
Training for the world championships is very good at the moment. The time zone helps (the world championships in Oregon and Sable’s training camp are in the same time zone). If I came from India, the first eight days would have gone in adjusting to the time zone. At the 2019 world championships, I went in with a personal best time of 8.29.80. This time it is 8.12.48. I’m going in with a faster time, and also have more experience. So, I think the race will be better.
Coach Nick’s planning is great and it feels great to follow the plan. The workouts felt hard in the first 15-20 days because they were so different. We have not started speed workouts yet. I’ve not started training for peak performance. I ran the 8.12 mostly with endurance track workouts. The main preparation left is speed work. Accha hi rahega (It will be good). I hope I have a good time at the world championships. I have 30-35 days to prepare. I have got a great chance to do even better.