As he heads home to his village of Shimlana in West Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district on Sunday afternoon, Kartik Kumar’s bags are noticeably heavy. He’s carrying a year’s worth of belongings.
“Diwali is coming up so I’m carrying presents for everyone at home. I’m also carrying all the medals I’ve won over the last year,” says the long distance runner, who is based out of the Army Sports Institute in Pune.
It’s a rich haul particularly if one considers this is only the second full season of senior competition for the 22-year-old. In his bag he’s carrying his Federation Cup gold medal for the 10,000m event, his silver in 5000m at the National Games in Ahmedabad and a bronze in 10,000m at the same competition. The result he’s most happy with, perhaps, is the finishers’ medal he won just a few hours earlier at Delhi Half Marathon.
A 15th place finish with a time of 1.04.00 isn’t the sort of result that will make Kartik instantly recognisable. He laughs when asked if anyone in the rickety UP state transport bus he’s travelling in knows who he was. But what’s particularly significant is the fact that Kartik crossed the finish line right alongside someone who’s one of the biggest names in Indian track and field.
Although Avinash Sable is credited with a 14th place finish in the competition, he too clocked an official time of 1.04.00. Even as Sable eased over the finish line at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, Kartik was just a half-a-step behind.
That’s the closest anyone’s got to going past Sable in the last four years. Ever since he first broke out with an Indian record at the Open National Championships in 2018, Sable has been in a league of his own, competing at the Tokyo Olympics and breaking the Kenyan stranglehold in the 3000m steeplechase event at the Commonwealth Games with a silver at the Birmingham Games. Since 2019, he’s never lost to an Indian in any race and holds the national records in the 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and half marathon.
Ahead of the Delhi Half Marathon, Sable said he didn’t take part at the National Games earlier this month in order to “give a chance to other athletes”. He wasn’t even sure of participating in the Delhi Half Marathon. He felt his fitness level wasn’t enough to beat the international athletes, which is the standard he sets himself against. Despite that he was more than confident of being the best Indian – a title that he admitted didn’t particularly motivate him any more.
“I hadn’t trained enough to go for the national record myself but I thought it was nice that two Indians could finish together at the end,” he said graciously after the race.
But while Sable was way off his National Record timing of 1.00.30, in Karthik, he was able to find an Indian who was able to match him. The two recorded near identical splits over 5km (Sable clocked 14.22 to Kartik’s 14.21), 10km (Sable was seven seconds slower than Kartik with a time of 29.00) and 15km (both clocked 44.39).
It was a new personal best for Kartik in a race where most runners including Sable were well short of theirs. He may not have returned with a medal, but he certainly earned plenty of respect.
For coaches who have worked with him in the past, this result didn’t come as a surprise. “Kartik has always been a runner who you know has the ability to fight,” says Amrish Kumar, who has been coach of both Sable and Kartik.
Coach Amrish says he saw that fighting spirit for the first time at the 2019 Federation Cup. “Kartik was running in his first 10,000m race in the senior category. He was still very young so he didn’t have the strength that other runners had. In the last lap, he was probably in the 10th or 11th position,” he says. That’s not where he finished.
“At that stage, he knew he was too far from the top three. He wasn’t going to get a medal. But he kept fighting. He overtook five runners and finally finished sixth. It wasn’t a medal result but I was very impressed. You can teach a lot of things in running but you can’t teach fighting spirit. And that’s very important in long-distance running,” he says.
That incident convinced Amrish to sign Kartik up for the Indian Army. He currently serves as a havaldar in the Jat Regiment.
That job was also Kartik’s goal when he started athletics as a 14-year-old. “In our region, a lot of boys run because they are preparing for the Army physical (test). There was also one high jumper who competed at the nationals who inspired a lot of youngsters to do athletics, but the main goal is to join the Army,” he says.
It’s with that in mind that he took up long-distance running training in his school ground and the state roads and won medals at the state and national level for the same. He got a chance to compete at the 2018 Junior Asian Championships where he won a bronze medal which in turn got him a chance to compete at the Junior World Championships.
“When I went there people were telling me I had no chance of a medal because the Kenyans and Ethiopians were much faster than me. But I didn’t care about that. I only knew I had to run and do my best,” he says. Indeed that’s been Kartik’s principle for all his races. “There’s no point thinking how good the person you are running next to is. All you can do is your best,” he says.
Now a regular member of the Army long-distance running programme based out of Pune, Kartik has been steadily improving as a runner. This year, he won his first gold medal at the national level – in 10,000m at the Federation Cup. At the National Games a couple of weeks ago, he only took third place but recorded a new personal best of 28.55.00. He’s followed that up with a personal best in the half marathon as well, shaving off two minutes and 35 seconds from his previous best of 1.06.35, which he clocked at the 2019 Delhi Half marathon.
Despite his strong performance, Kartik gave much of the credit to Sable. “Avinash bhai is a great runner. It felt really good that I was able to run with him for so long. I was a little tired. He kept encouraging me during the race. He would say things like, there’s no one behind us, we can stay together all the way to the end,” he says.
According to coach Amrish, while the race showed Kartik has the potential to hang in there with his more illustrious pupil, there’s still a some way to go before he can start matching the kind of achievements Sable has. “Avinash has certain qualities which he (Kartik) doesn’t have. Avinash has very good speed endurance and a lot of strength. These are things that Kartik has to develop. But he is six years younger than Avinash. He has the time to work on these areas,” he says.
According to coach Amrish, a realistic target for Kartik would be to medal in the 10,000m at the Asian Games next year. The gold medal-winning time in the 10,000m at the 2018 Games (admittedly a slow race) was 29.00.29 – which was slower than Kartik’s personal best. “If he keeps improving the way he is, that is something which is very achievable for him,” says Amrish.
Kartik knows for that he has to first cement his place as the country’s top athlete in 10,000m even before he looks at the continental Games. “There are some very good runners in India. My goal is to first qualify for the Asian Games and do my best there. The qualification standard is high but I hope I can achieve it,” he says.
His result in Delhi where he went stride for stride with one of the country’s greatest runners should give him some confidence towards that target though. “Avinash bhai has done a lot for the country. It was a great feeling to run along with him. But if I work hard, I hope that even I can match up to his level,” he says.