Even as she was running the race of her life, with the finish line of the women’s 3000m steeplechase in sight, her in fifth place and in line for a maiden place in the final of the World Athletics Championships, Parul Chaudhary admits she felt like something of an imposter.
“There were all these runners who were better than me. I didn’t turn around to see where they were but I could hear the halka (faint) tap tap sound of them splashing in the water (hazard) and I knew they were well behind me. I was thinking what was I doing in front of them? What were all these good girls doing behind me? I was wondering kya ho raha tha yeh? (what was going on?),” an incredulous Parul would later say after clocking a time of 9.24.29 in her heat.
That time was over five seconds faster than her previous personal best (9.29.51) and it helped her finish in fifth place and by virtue of that earn a spot in the final of the 3000m steeplechase event. In doing so she became only the second Indian to make the final of the World Championships after five days of competition at Budapest’s National Athletics stadium.
-’Biggest result of my life’-
On paper, the 28-year-old admits she had no reason to believe she would make the last five and on making the final, what she says is, “the biggest result of my life.” A glance at the start list of the heat in which she ran explains why.
Of the 12 runners in her heat, eight had run far faster than Parul – who had a season’s best of 9.29.51 coming into Budapest – this year.
Seven of those runners were 10 seconds quicker – a near lifetime in her event. Of those were NCAA medallists (Ceili McCabe), Diamond League competitors (Flavie Renouard), Diamond League winners (Sembo Almayew and Daisy Jepkemei), the U-20 World Champion (Faith Cherotich), the reigning Olympic champion (Peruth Chemutai) and a former World champion (Emma Coburn).
And while she wouldn’t have known it on the starting line, Parul would finish ahead of Jepkemei, McCabe, Renouard and perhaps most surprisingly Coburn.
For unlike those big names, Parul’s pedigree was a little more modest. Having started the sport on the recommendation of her father – a farmer in the village of Iklauta near Meerut in western UP – Parul’s rise was steady but not meteoric. Although she became part of the national camp in 2016, it took her another three years to win her first national title in the 5000m, as a 24-year-old, in 2019.
In recent years, she has benefited significantly from the coaching program set by American coach Nick Simmons over the last couple of years – she set a new National record in the 5000m earlier this year and won gold in the 3000m steeplechase at the Asian Championships this year. But that result had to be seen in the context of the relatively weak standard of the event in Asia and the fact that the continent’s strongest runner - two-time Worlds fourth place finisher Winifred Mutile - was missing in Thailand.
-The Budapest strategy-
There wasn’t anything weak about the standard of the field in Budapest.
Parul was brutally realistic about her prospects. “I genuinely didn’t think I would go to the final. There were maybe just three runners who were at my level. Otherwise, everyone was better than me,” she says.
Her goal was simple. Make the most of the opportunity of running alongside a much stronger field. “I was looking to qualify for the Olympics. The Olympic qualification standard was 9.23.00. I just wanted to run faster than that,” she says.
Not expecting to beat the rest of the field took pressure off her. It kept her goal for the race – a personal best and Olympic qualification – tightly focused. And the fact that she had a healthy respect for her opponents meant she didn’t take the race lightly.
-Sable’s advice comes handy-
That last factor was critical, says Avinash Sable who not only watched the race but had been advising Parul on strategy before she came out. “Dar hona itni buri baat nahi hai, (It’s not such a bad thing to be scared)” Sable will say later.
Sable says this independently of Parul but she would have agreed with that. “I had no belief that I would go to the final. Sometimes as an athlete if we think we are so good that we become overconfident it’s also a problem,” she says.
Indeed, if Parul making the final of the women’s 3000m steeplechase was unexpected, so too was national record holder Sable failing to advance in the men’s steeplechase event.
Sable, the Commonwealth silver medallist, had been expected to fight for a medal. His exit was a body blow to the Indian contingent and certainly for the Nick Simmons-coached Indian distance running group, for whom Sable is a talismanic figure.
Despite his disappointment, Sable would help Parul learn from his mistake. “I take a lot of inspiration from him,” says Parul. “His steeplechase race had gone badly but he told me to learn from it. He told me not to run in and out of the lanes like he did. In his race he was running in the third lane, then the first and then the second. He didn’t want me to make that mistake. He told me to just pick a lane and run on that. The only thing I had to focus on was the hurdles and water jump. I did that. I took the first lane and I stayed there,” she says.
And unlike Sable who admits he made a mistake by conserving energy in his race in preparation for a likely final, Parul with nothing to lose says she went “all out”.
Right from the start, Parul stayed in the middle of the pack, but secure in the inside line. Thanks to the pace set by Chemutai and Cherotich, Parul had run the fastest 2km split of her career. She was only 0.17 behind Emma Coburn, in sixth place, and the two of them were in a small pack in between the leaders and the rest of the field.
There was still no reason to assume Coburn, a former Olympic medallist and a two-time world medallist would relinquish her fifth-place spot. That’s when the Indian hit a bit of luck. Coburn, who was dealing with a hamstring injury post the USA trials started fading and the Indian having done the hard work found herself at the right place at the right time.
Parul wouldn’t have known about Coburn’s injury at the time of the race. The fact that she had overtaken someone she knew was one of the greats of the sport boosted her further.
“After I beat the USA girl, I felt I might actually get the fifth place. She is a world champion and an Olympic medallist. But even then I didn’t really believe I was going to go to the final. I was still thinking I had to finish in less than 9.23.00
As Parul kept pulling in front, she kept waiting for a catch, “I kept thinking someone is going to go from behind me and come out in front but that never happened,” she says.
-Eyes on Olympic qualification-
As she savours the win, Parul is still a bit miffed that she didn’t get the 9.23.00 time that would have guaranteed Olympic qualification.
“I started athletics in class 11th. Even then my goal had been to become an Olympic athlete,” she says. In a couple of days, Parul will have the chance to take another crack at that mark though.
Once again she’s anything but the favourite. Of the fifteen runners who will compete in the final on Sunday, Parul – despite making a massive personal best – was the slowest in the heats. That doesn’t bother her since her goal is clear. And while the national record – of 9.19.76, set by Lalita Babar at the 2016 Olympics, and the best ever finish at the world championships - 8th place also by Babar at the 2015 Worlds - is potentially there, Parul’s not thinking about either of them.
“In the next race, I will try to work even harder. This will be my first experience running two races in one competition. I know that everyone in the final will be stronger than me. Whoever these girls are, I will try and follow the first group. In my mind, all I want to do is a new personal best. If I can do that, everything else will take care of itself,” she says.
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