Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2019.
Armyman Avinash Sable dominated the men’s 3000m steeplechase race at the Federation Cup in Patiala. On Monday, he won the gold medal with new national record of 8:28.94 and qualified for the Asian and World Championships for India.
But three years ago, Sable hadn’t heard much about steeplechase. Having joined the Indian Army via regular recruitment, the now Havaldar was happy going through his daily rigours. The 5 MAHAR soldier was first posted in the Siachen glacier, where temperatures would fall below minus 50 degrees.
“The first day in Siachen was the worst,” Sable remembers. “There was snow all around me. I had not seen snow before that, and there was nothing to do apart from your duty. There was no network in the area and I was the junior. So, I did not know what to do or whom to talk to.”
The 24-year-old from Maharashtra’s Beed district – one of the worst drought-affected areas in the state – was posted in Siachen for two years, a time in which he was on “general duty.” In inhumane conditions, Sable and his fellow armymen had no water for daily use, and neither were they aided with accessories to beat the cold.”
Growing up in Mandwa village, the son of farmer parents had never envisioned of becoming a runner, forget being among the best in India.
“My parents are farmers and I used to run six kilometres every day from home to school. So in a day, I used to run 12 km. I wanted to do something for my family so I joined the army,” he says.
After serving in Siachen, Sable served in the deserts of Rajasthan. He was posted in Lalgarh Jattan, a small cantonment in north-west Rajasthan which sees temperatures rise to a maximum of 45 degrees in the summer. This is where Sable decided to join the athletics programme.
“My colleagues encouraged me to get into sports because they thought I will be good at it. So I took part in the cross-country in 2015 and continued giving good results for my regiment,” he says.
However, in 2016, Sable stopped running. He put on weight while in Sikkim and even injured himself as a result.
“I weighed 76 kilograms but I continued competing and injured myself,” he says.
“So everyone wrote me off. Some even told me that I would never run again. I was fed up and decided to reduce my weight to show that I can do it all over again.” Sable added.
Sable brought his weight down to 59 kilograms and once again began winning medals for his regiment. It was during one of the inter-army races in January 2017 at the RT centre in Hyderabad where army’s middle and long distance coach Amrish Kumar spotted him. Without any delay, Amrish decided to train him.
“We worked for eight months to bring his weight down and then slowly worked on his speed. He had strength and endurance as he is from a rural area. He was very good at cross-country and when I saw his jumps in training, we decided to move him to steeplechase,” Amrish says.
The change in event saw change in Sable’s fortunes. He finished a credible fifth at the Federation Cup in June 2017 and by Septemeber he won his first national title in Chennai with a timing of 8:39.81 before breaking the 37-year-old national record of 8:30, set by Gopal Saini, in Bhubaneshwar with a timing of 8:29.88.
While 2018 was a year path-breaking performances for him, it also saw him miss the Asian Games and suffer an injury.
“He could not participate in the Asian Games because of the injury he suffered while training under former foreign national coach Nicolai Sensarev in Bangalore. He wanted to leave running after that,” Amrish says.
Once Sensarev left in September 2018, Sable was without a coach for a month. With his performance falling and injury worsening, he decided to move back under Amrish in Bangalore.
“He came to us in Ocotber and we worked on his injury. He had little strength, moderate endurance but good speed. So for first three months we did not let him run fast and slowly increased the pace. Then we went to Ooty where the altitude is 2340 metres,” he says.
His first competition of the year was the Grand Prix I in Patiala, where he clocked 8:41.87 to clinch the gold. However, the main target was qualifying for the world championships either from the Federation Cup or the Asian Championships.
“When I came back to Amrish sir everyone was saying I cannot train under an Indian coach and that I will never break the 8:29 mark. I was determined to do just that and show what I am made of,” he says.
With the qualification mark set aside, Sable is now focused on performing well throughout the year, including qualifying for the Olympics. But during his journey to become India’s top steeplechase runner, Sable calls himself an armyman first, and despite the tough times, he is ready to don the uniform and return to Siachen if he gets the call.
“If army asks I will go back. That is my duty. But till then I want to do this and make the army proud.”
Update: In August 2022, Sable created a stunning record.