Sable ends Kenyan steeplechase hegemony at CWG, wins silver medal

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Three Kenyan runners set the pace for him as Avinash Sable gamely tailed them, forcing them to turn back to see where he was on track. In recent times, Kenyans usually crane their necks to see if Ethoipians or a Moroccan, the current world champion Soufiane El Bakkali, is on their shoulder. There was no El Bakkali at the Commonwealth Games, but Sable rattled the mighty Kenyans who are masters in the steeplechase and hold bragging rights at the CWG.

Former world champion Conseslus Kipruto, and his countrymen Abraham Kibiwot, a 2018 CWG silver medalist, and Amos Serem, an Under-20 World Champion, were aiming for a seventh-straight Kenyan clean-sweep at the Commonwealth Games. Seeing three Kenyans tag team a race and setting the pace for each other can deflate the spirit of most competitors. But Sable, an army man from drought-prone Beed who has served at siachen, is made of sterner stuff.

Less than a month after falling into the trap of waiting and watching in one of the slowest races ever in the World Championships, Sable was bolder on the track at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Unlike at the World Championships, there was no crowd on the track and Sable didn’t have to worry about getting boxed in. Here, it was him versus the three Kenyans.

In Eugene, Kenya was denied a gold; today they missed out on a clean sweep because of a strong run and a brilliant finish by the Indian. Sable kept going with the leading trio and for a short while they opened up a small lead. Yet, India’s best middle-distance runner with three national records in three different events, was prepared to hang in there and bide his time.

It was a high-risk strategy but Sable has developed loads of stamina and has developed a fast finishing kick in the final 400 metres. He was determined to run a race which reflects his potential. With 800 metres to go, Kipruto had given way to Serem and Kibiwot and Sable moved into third. Soon, Sable powered past Serem and was snapping on the heels of Kibiwot.

Kibiwot, the gold medal winner was so worried about Sable going past him that he had a misstep when trying to clear the final water jump. Serem made a last-ditch effort to move past Sable into second place but he failed because the Indian’s finishing kick was too strong, even for a Kenyan.

Sable didn’t fade away on the home stretch. He made Kibiwot stretch each muscle to the limit to hold him off. 8:11.15 and 8:11.20 is how they finished with Sable even dipping at the line like a sprinter hoping to nose ahead at the very last second. Serem was third with 8:16.83.

This was Sable’s ninth national record but what matters today is the medal, a silver at the Commonwealth Games in an event dominated by Kenya is no mean feat. India’s first-ever medal in the event and to end a Kenyan clean sweep going back to over two decades made him win hearts around the world.

This race was a contrast to the slow pace at the World Championships which was won by Morocco’s El Bakkali with a time of 8:25.13. El Bakkali and Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia were holding back but the others were not ready to take a risk and bolt ahead. Sable had set his previous national record at the Diamond League in Rabat earlier this year, a very fast race in which El Bakkali had run a sub-eight minute time. Sable likes fast races because he can go all out and keep pace with the leading pack. In slow races, he is still unsure of when to push, especially against a world class field, like we saw at the World Championships.

The split time of his first 1000 metres shows the difference in speed. At the Worlds, Sable covered the first one-third of the race in two minutes and fifty nine seconds. Today it was 2 minutes and 40 seconds. In Rabat this was 2:42. Clearly Sable was in the mood to take down the Kenyans. With a 1000 metres to go it was clear a national record was around the corner. 2:44.4 and 2:43.4 is what Kibiwot and Sable clocked respectively in the final 1,000 metres.

The silver will be a redemption for Sable after he failed to make an impact at the Olympics and the World Championships. Soon after the Tokyo Olympics, Sable was home. In Mandva, a village in the arid Beed district, India’s best distance runner started working on a farm. He had broken the 3000-metre steeplechase national record again at the Summer Games. But not qualifying for the final was a disappointment he could not overcome, Sable says. Initially, he didn’t want to travel to the Olympics, because after testing positive for Covid, he was drained. The legs had felt heavy-laden when he trained. Sable rewinds to pre-and-post Olympic days.

“After the Olympics, I stayed home. I did some farming. I could not do well because I had Covid. I had lots of weaknesses. I felt I could not even run 8:30 (8 minutes and 30 seconds). At one point I thought that I would pull out of the Olympics but sir (coaches) told me that it is important to run in the Olympics. If you get a chance, why not take it. I was not confident of doing well at the Olympics. I was disappointed,” Sable had said before the World Championships.

He didn’t train for nearly three months. Just going for a jog seemed like a herculean task. Sable’s family was worried he was turning into a recluse. “People at home used to ask why are you becoming a loner. I used to be on the fields the whole day. I wanted to start practice, but it took time,” Sable had said.

By October, when the national camp commenced, Sable was bitten by the running bug again, although it took him a while to hit his stride. At the Indian Grand Prix at Thiruvananthapuram in March — his first race since the Olympics — he rewrote his national record again for the seventh time. It was humid during the race yet Sable overcame the conditions to go faster than he had before. “At the Grand Prix when I ran 8:16 (8:16.21). I felt better. If I could run in Trivandrum in the humidity. I thought I could take a risk.”

The ‘risk’ Sable is talking about is travelling abroad halfway around the world to train with some of the more accomplished runners from around the world. “Maybe earlier if I had trained with these (foreign) athletes I could have got a better result in Tokyo,” Sable says. Now Sable has not only embraced ‘risk’ by training in Colorado Springs, but he has also embraced a training method aimed at making him lightning quick in the final 400 metres of the 3000m steeplechase. The colder climes near the Rocky Mountains didn’t deter him.

When distance coach Scott Simmons first met Sable in Bengaluru in March, the purpose was to break the ice. He also wanted to ask Sable if he was ready to rework his training programme if he travels to Colorado Springs. “He seemed to be ready,” Simmons had said before the World Championships.

The fast kick. A fast kick in the final 400 metres was a focus. Some of the best in the world can complete the last quartermile in 53-54 seconds. Sable can be just as fast. “He can do a sub-60 (seconds) in the finish, the last 400 metres. He is capable of even 56 seconds. That would mean he would be very fast over the hurdles too, including the water jump. The key is to finish fast if he is aiming for a medal (at the major championships). He will break the national record again, but he is capable of doing much more in terms of a medal,” Simmons had said.

“His speed is pretty exceptional,” coach Simmons says. “He is also extremely tough. He has fallen, got up and competed again. He has strong bones. In training he is disciplined.”

Last month in Rabat during the Diamond League, when Sable broke the national record again he had registered the 12th fastest in the world this year. Sable says being part of the same race as some of the best has helped him access where he stands. unlike in competitions in India where he usually leads from start to finish. “My first Diamond League (Rabat) was a great experience. I feel if I compete against the best in the world, I will improve. You learn how the best runners slow down, how they decide to go fast in a race,” Sable said. ” In India, I run on my own and I run ahead. But in steeplechase, there is always a crowd (on track) and in international races, you get to learn a lot.”

Sable believes a sub-8-minute race from him is a possibility. If he feels a hint of nerves when competing against the top athletes, Sable thinks of his days as a soldier in the army. He has been posted in Siachen in freezing temperatures and also in extremely hot places like Lalgarh Jatta.

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“I started running when I was in the army only. So that has helped me a lot. I can live in any kind of situation. Running (on a track) is easy. If you are running 5 kilometres BPT (battle proficiency test) in army training, then you have to carry a weapon and then there is a bag on your back which is also heavy. This is damn easy. I love running,” he said.

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