Midway through the final leg of the men’s 4x400m heat at the Athletics World Championships on Saturday, Ramesh Rajesh felt the dreadful burn of lactic acid build up in his legs. Watching his teammate grimace, from the other end of the track at Budapest’s National Athletics Center, was Amoj Jacob, who had run the second leg. Malayali by origin but a Dilli ke Rohini ka launda (A Delhi boy through and through), Jacob had no sympathy.
“ Bhai mar ja agar marna hai, bas pakad ke rakhiyo (Brother, die if you have to but don’t let him go),” he would mutter between gritted teeth. While this was tough talk, the fact is, Jacob admits, his hands were shaking like a leaf.
Rajesh wouldn’t let go. He stormed past the finish line in the men’s 4x400m heats at the World Championships, just behind Justin Robinson of the USA. Jacob, his teammates Muhammad Anas and Muhammad Ajmal, ran back to the track and together with Ramesh, the team stared anxiously at the giant digital screen.
History had been created many times over. By virtue of finishing second, the Indian team will compete in the final of the World Championships for the first time. Their time puts them in second place among the eight who will compete for medals on Sunday, and ahead of reigning world championships silver medallist Jamaica, Great Britain and Botswana. Their time, the first time an Indian relay team has broken 3 minutes, is a new national record. It also obliterates by nearly half a second the Asian record.
Rajesh would process all of this, hug his teammates. Only then, with the agony of his body finally mattering more than the resoluteness of his mind, would he collapse on the track and be wheeled away on a wheelchair. It wasn’t just Rajesh, every member of the Indian team was spent. Ajmal tried to smile but couldn’t say a word in the mixed zone as he walked off the pain in his quadriceps.
That pain was unavoidable. Rajesh ran like he had never run before. Before he took off in Budapest, the 24-year-old’s personal best in the 400m was 45.67. The American in whose slipstream he was running was Justin Robinson, whose personal best is over a second quicker at 44.47. While the Indian’s last race was at the Sri Lankan national championships earlier this month, Robinson just celebrated a gold medal at the World Championships in the mixed relay.
At least on paper, this was a mismatch. And it wasn’t the only one. Reality though isn’t written on paper. This Indian team was competing in a different zone altogether.
Before the race, coach Jason Dawson, originally from Jamaica, had given the team very clear instructions. Stick to the guy in front no matter what. Once the first lap had been run, that meant reigning world champions and world record holders the USA.
“I was focusing on the USA guy. You have to be with him. He should feel you are with him. He should not feel that he is by himself,” says Jacob, who was running the second leg alongside American wunderkid Matthew Bolling, who has a nearly half-a-second faster personal best in the 400m.
For the Indians, this was super necessary if they were to earn respect. They hadn’t got much of it in the build-up to the World Championships. While the Indian relay teams have historically been some the country’s strongest track prospects, this squad hasn’t always lived up to its potential. They lost their continental record to Japan at the Olympics where they finished ninth in the heats. They failed to make the finals of the worlds last year, with a dismal 3.07.29 timing in the heats. Then they finished 7th at the Commonwealth Games last year, with another poor time of 3.05.51. The team’s strongest runner and national record holder Anas had an injury. Their long-term coach Galina Bukharina left. This year they were beaten by Sri Lanka in the Asian Championships. “We didn’t do well at last Worlds too. We wanted to do better this time,” says Anas.
But for all the team’s wishes, the fact is ahead of Budapest, little attention was being paid to them. The bulk of the interest was on the throwers, jumpers and steeplechasers. It probably wasn’t deliberate, but the Indian team’s name wasn’t even included on the official startlist provided before the race
Jacob says he is fine with this, but that is probably him being a sardonic 25-year-old Delhi boy. “ Accha hai na kisi ne dhyan nahin diya. Underdogs hi keh lo. But hum bhi toh hai na (It’s good that no one paid attention to us. Call us underdogs, if you must. But we also exist). And now we are coming for you.”
Every member of the Indian team put this into practice. Anas, who started for India, Amoj and Ajmal, running the third leg, lived it on the track. By the time Ajmal passed the baton for the final time to Ramesh, the Indians were in second position. The youngest, least experienced member of the team kept them there.
He nearly did more than that. As he and Robinson raced towards the second last turn, the Indian made a bold push for the lead. He almost took it as well.
Rajesh’s American target, long used to breathing free up in front, admits he was spooked. “I was thinking I’ll conserve some energy for the final. But then I could feel something coming up behind me. I didn’t know it was an Indian. But I knew this wasn’t ok. I was like, ‘This isn’t right!’ So, I had to turn it up,” he says.
Robinson pulled clear on the final stretch, the USA winning by .58 seconds. But if the American had an extra gear, the Indians believe they have one too. “ Aaj 2.59 bhaga hai. Kal 2.58 bhag lenge. Kya pata medal ke liye bhi lad lenge (Today we ran 2.59. Tommorrow we’ll run 2.58. Who knows, maybe we will run for a medal too) ,” Jacob says.
The team will have to be even sharper than they were on their greatest day ever. They’ll need Rajesh to get off his wheelchair and be back, running fire. Jacob says he will. “ Kuch nahin hua hai. Ji lega woh. Kal aur karna hai (Nothing has happened to Rajesh. He will live. We have to run even faster tomorrow,” says Jacob.
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