Considering the dominance with which he won the Indian competition at the 2020 Delhi half marathon (his time of 1.00:30 was nearly four minutes in front of the second placed Indian (1.04:16) and shattered the old national record of 1.03:46 by nearly three and a half minutes), it's hard to overlook the fact that Avinash Sable had been treating the race almost like an afterthought.
"I only found out I was going to be taking part in the race until about a month ago," says Sable, who, on Sunday, was running only the third half marathon race of his career. The 26-year-old's priority, he says, remains the 3000m steeplechase event, in which he is the reigning national record holder, more so since that's the race for which he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics last year.
Yet, after he had originally made the cut for Tokyo at the World Championships in Doha, Sable hadn't really had any sort of competition. He had travelled for a month to Morocco last year and then had headed to the high altitude training center in Ooty in preparation for the Olympics. That event, like most of the year's athletics competitions, would be cancelled even as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world.
Sable's decision to compete in New Delhi was largely a response to this predicament. "It's incredibly frustrating to train the entire year and not have any competition to take part in. You can only see where you need to improve during competition," he says. This assessment is backed up by his coach Amrish Kumar as well. "He needed to take part in a competition. Any competition, even a 1500m race would do," says his coach Kumar.
The need for competition is particularly acute for Sable, owing to his inexperience as a runner. It was only in 2015 that the then 21-year-old sepoy in the Indian Army, who had completed tours of duty at the Siachen glacier, Sikkim and Rajasthan, had been scouted by the army running program.
"He is a very strong runner and he gets better with every race that he runs. But unless he competes, he won't ever know what mistakes he is making. He will always be short of confidence when he competes against the elite runners, who have been running for many years," says Kumar.
While a half marathon is seven times the distance of the 3000m steeplechase, there were elements of preparation the two events had in common. "Both races need a certain amount of endurance. If you can train for endurance in the 21km race, that will also help you out in the 3000m race," says Kumar.
The postponement of the Olympics had also worked out in Sable's favour. "Of course, he was looking forward to taking part in the Olympics this year. But at the same time, we knew that it would be very difficult for him to compete for a good position based on his current level. So when the Olympics was postponed, I motivated Avinash by reminding him that he could get much stronger by next year," says Kumar.
What that additional training time meant was that instead of focusing on the Olympics, Sable could work on building his base for the next season. Even more fortuitous for Sable was that the Delhi half marathon fell right in the middle of his endurance training period. "When we got the opportunity to take part in the half marathon, he was already running 280km each month. He only did two or three training sessions focused on the half marathon before the race," says Kumar.
It speaks to Sable's far improved physical conditioning that he recorded the time he did with as little practice as he had, improving on his previous best half marathon time of 1.03:58. He certainly felt so himself. "Before the race I wasn't very nervous. Coach only told me to sleep well and not worry about how the others were doing. He told me that while my target was to go under 1 hour, there wasn't going to be a chance that I'd do worse than 1 hour and one minute," says Sable.
While he did match his coach's expectations, what was particularly heartening to him was the fact that he felt he'd improved. "My endurance level and speed, both are a lot better than it used to be in the past. I'm many times better prepared now than I was at the World Championships. I'm a lot more confident when I run now," he says.
That boost, he says, will make the next couple of weeks of mandatory quarantine prior to reentering the SAI Bangalore campus worth it. After smashing the national record in a race he wasn't even serious about, he's looking forward to his next and most important challenge - doing the same in the 3000m steeplechase as well.
"Right now, Avinash's best in the 3000m steeplechase is 8.21:37. The target for the Olympics will be to get that down to between 8.12:00 and 8.15:00," says Kumar. Sable himself feels this is possible. "Right now, I feel my endurance level is comparable to the best in the world. I still think I need to improve on my speed. Overall, I feel I can push myself even more," he says.