When Avinash Sable returned to the changing room after completing the men’s 3000m steeplechase event at the World Championships in Oregon, he wasn’t exhausted as much as he was trying to wrap his head around what just happened. “He wasn’t fatigued at all. He felt like he hadn’t even run a race. He was disappointed, but more than that, he was just confused,” says his coach, Scott Simmons.
Indian athletics fans who got up early on Tuesday to catch the race would have felt the same after the race in which the 27-year-old Sable came 11th with a time of 8.31.75 secs. This was his slowest race since October 2019.
His time in the final was more than 19 seconds off his personal best of 8.12.48. Indeed, it was 13 seconds off the time he had clocked in the qualification round of the World Championships.
What was particularly frustrating for many fans was that Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali won the gold with a time of 8.25.13. The reasoning, therefore, was that Sable, who had run a time of 8.18.75 in the qualifiers, had squandered the chance of a lifetime to medal at the World Championships. Fans are watching Sable, who is improving his national record in the event almost at will, and their disappointment after the race was evident.
So, what went wrong in Oregon?
Unprecedentedly slow race
Middle and long distance races, especially at the elite level, are rarely run as straight shootouts; most are tactical affairs. Athletes have to decide when to push the pace. If they attack too early, they run the risk of running out of energy when others are making the final kick. If they wait too long, they might have to make up too much ground. While races can be tactical and cagey affairs, there has never been a race like this World Championships final.
The gold medal time of 8.25.13 is the slowest in the history of the World Championships – almost 10 seconds slower than the earlier slowest winning time of 8.15.16 in the 2001 edition.
Sable wasn’t the only one off his pace. Winner El Bakkali’s time was his slowest in a decade. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life in athletics,” says Simmons. “It was just a really odd race. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see anything like this again.”
Why was the race so slow?
To understand just how slow this World Championships final was, compare it to the Diamond League in Rabat in May this year. The Diamond League featured all the athletes who competed at Oregon with the same gold (El Bakkali) and silver medal (Lamecha Girma) winners. In Rabat, Sable had settled in at the back of the pack and was in last place at the 1000m mark before slowly making his way to the middle of the pack in the next 1000m and attacking in the final 600m to finish with a national record time.
Sable went in with the same race strategy in Oregon, but it was doomed to fail. That’s because the race in Rabat saw El Bakkali win with a time of 7.58.28 – 26.85 seconds faster than his time in Oregon.
The pace in Rabat was made possible because the race had two designated pace setters. In Oregon, on the other hand, no one pushed the pace. “There were two Olympic champions (El Bakkali and Conseslus Kipruto) and two Olympic silver medallists. None of them decided to set a fast pace. No one had a plan,” says Simmons.
“When we went into the race, everyone expected Girma to set the pace early on. He has lost twice (at the 2020 Olympics and 2022 Rabat Diamond League) to El Bakkali because he can’t match his finishing kick. It seemed obvious that he would try to set the pace early on to try and negate that,” says Simmons.
But Girma, to everyone’s surprise, decided to sit quietly in the back of the pack. He was just ahead of the last place athlete after the first lap. The athletes saw the expected race leader dial down and did the same. “No one really had a plan on what to do if they didn’t push. There were three athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia. I thought they would probably form a team and attack at some point. But no one did. It was just really odd. When they didn’t push, everyone who wasn’t an Olympic medallist decided not to push either,” says Simmons.
How did that affect Sable’s race?
Sable’s tactics in Rabat had worked to perfection, but would bomb in Oregon. In Rabat, even though Sable was chasing the pack, he still clocked a fast 2.42 split over his first 1000 metres. In Oregon, Sable, in a slightly better position (14th out of 15 runners) had a 2.59 split over the same distance, 17 seconds slower – almost the same time (19.27) he was off his national record finally.
Despite his relative slowness, Sable wasn’t entirely out of the reckoning. At the 2000m mark, Sable was just 1.28 seconds off the lead – a negligible timing in the steeplechase. But the final third of the race is where the finishing kicks of the top athletes make the difference. Sable’s finish is still not nearly as strong as the elite. “No one really did anything until the final lap, and because of that, essentially this became a 400m hurdles race. That’s where El Bakkali is the strongest,” says Simmons.
Indeed, while Olympic champions Bakkali and Kipruto and two-time world silver medalist Girma were in 5th, 4th and 7th position at the start of the final bell, their finishing kick took them to the podium.
Sable tried to make up lost time in his final lap. He clocked a time of 1.02.15 in the final 400m, his fastest split over the distance in his career and nearly two seconds faster than the 1.04.08 he clocked during his national record at Rabat. By that time, though, it was too late. In effect, his race had almost certainly been decided within the first km.
So, why didn’t Sable attack sooner?
Sable had run in a very different manner in the qualification round. He had stormed off to an early lead before dropping to fifth place in the second-third of the race and attacked in the final third. While he chose a different strategy in the final, Sable would have realised the race was unfolding at a much slower pace. Sable did try to break out of the pack on multiple occasions, swinging wide of the pack and trying to run past them.
Overtaking, though, isn’t as easy in the steeplechase as in other long distance races. In the steeplechase, athletes have little choice but to stay inside the first three lanes since they have to clear four hurdles and a water obstacle on each lap. Every time Sable tried to find a straight in which to accelerate, he was forced inside the pack by an upcoming obstacle.
That meant Sable’s best chance of getting in front was through the group. But the tight nature of the bunch (less than six seconds separated Sable from Bakkali at the finish line) meant space was at a premium. The only time the pack opened up was in the final lap when the Bakkali, Kipruto and Girma made their finishing kick.
What could Sable have done better?
According to Captain Amrish Kumar, who coached Sable to the final of the 2019 World Championships and the Tokyo Olympics, the athlete should not have waited to realise how slow the pace was. “Avinash should have picked up the race after the first kilometre itself, if not earlier. If you are running a 3-minute km, wahin maar khaoge (you will be beaten there itself). Right now, his capacity is to run a sub-8.10 race. There was no reason for him to be running in last place. He should have stayed in top 6 instead of running in the last place. He should have realised that his finishing isn’t as good as the top guys, so he had to push earlier,” says Kumar.
According to Kumar, Sable will need to change tactics quickly. “He’s a much better runner than he showed today. This is probably the worst race he’s run. He needs to stay in the leading pack at the Commonwealth Games, otherwise he will have the same result there as he did in the World Championships,” warns Kumar.
While Sable could have adapted to the change in race tactics earlier, his current coach Simmons thinks this tactical nous will come to him as he gets faster and more experienced. Sable has improved significantly in the course of his career, but Simmons points out that even his career best timing is only the 12th best in the world this season. While Sable can take control of races early on, this will be harder to do in an absolute elite field.
“When you are an 8.12 runner, you need a lot of confidence before you can push the pace against runners who run sub-8 races. As Avinash gets stronger and is able to run an 8.05 level race, he’ll be a lot more confident of going out by himself,” he says. Simply put, the more Sable runs in high-level competitions, the faster he’ll be able to grasp this.
“Avinash is still very inexperienced at this level. He has run world-class races maybe, five times in his life (2019 World Championships, 2020 Olympics Games, 2022 Rabat Diamond League and the 2022 World Championships). If this had been a normal race, there’s no reason he wouldn’t have done a sub-8.10 race,” says Simmons.
But the World Championships final isn’t a normal race. “I wish I could say that the more he runs races like this, the better he will know how to manage in these situations, but I can’t. It was just an aberration. There were many runners much more experienced than Avinash, and none of them understood how to deal with what happened. It was just one of those really crazy races,” says Simmons.