In a field that boasted of Olympians Gopi T and Nitendra Rawat, it was surprising to see a little-known 21-year-old emerge as the champion among Indian elite runners at the Delhi Half Marathon on Sunday. Uttar Pradesh’s Abhishek Pal clocked 1:04.13s to edge Avinash Sable (1:04:14) as Asian marathon champion Gopi T managed 1:04:15s for third spot. Defending champion Rawat, who had been training in Ranikhet, fell by the wayside, finishing a dismal 12th.
For Pal, the result brought more relief than joy. His morale was down after not being able to make the cut for the Jakarta Asian Games despite “achieving qualifying mark” at an event much before the final trials in Guwahati where he put up a poor show due to health complications.
“I had some issues with my stomach. There was some muscle strain which hampered me from giving my best in the selection trials. I had already achieved the qualifying mark before but the Athletics Federation insisted on the trials. But that’s alright now, I am content that I could compete against senior Indian runners and outdo them,” Pal told The Indian Express.
Back home in Amethi, the race was keenly watched by his farmer parents who live in a joint family of 25 members. It was in the village fields that Pal, along with his siblings, started training under uncle Kamlesh. The fields would be watered and evened out to resemble a track where the youngsters would spend hours working on their technique, endurance and speed.
“We had those low-quality canvas shoes when we started beginning. I got my first pair of decent shoes only before I took part in my first nationals. Training with your family always helps. We have each others’ backs all the time and don’t hesitate to share notes or suggestions. I have seven members from the family who are into running and so you can say it runs in the blood,” said Pal, whose sister Phoolan also took part in Sunday’s race. “She’s suffering from an injury and that’s why she couldn’t do well. But she’s a very good runner,” he added.
Honed in Kenya
Pal, who generally trains at the Bhopal Sports Academy, was confident of outrunning his compatriots, especially after rigorous training stints in Kenya where he got to observe the world’s finest middle and long-distance runners from close quarters, including 800m world record holder David Rashida and Mary Jepkosgei Keitany, who owns the world mark in a “women-only marathon”. Although their training regime is different for the Indian, they do occasionally cross paths, especially on “easy days”.
“The dedication of African runners in second to none. They practise twice as hard as most Indians, including me. If we try to go their way, we are bound to fizzle out in no time. I have interacted a lot with these track stars and one thing that struck me was their humility. None of them has the trappings of a star and that’s what I admire about them the most,” Pal said. Pal’s Sunday triumph has boosted his confidence ahead of 2019 — a very busy year for athletics where he will try to make the cut for the Asian Athletics Championship and the World Championships. Pal, who insists that he has no interests in life apart from athletics, has a very cliched response to a question about his future plans: “Desh ke liye medal jitne hai bas, aur kuch nahi.” “I have a lot of friends who often tell me that I am way too serious. They ask me if I would like to go out for a movie or hang out sometime, and I always have to politely refuse. For me, training is the most important thing. Once I retire, I can do whatever I like. Till then, I’ll be serious.”