Last year in March when 24-year-old Ajay Kumar Saroj was injured, he ended up spending more than two months at his village, Kajiani, near Allahabad. During this rare break, nursing a fractured leg and mostly confined to his bed, the quarter-miler would constantly think of race strategies.
On Wednesday night, Saroj ran a perfectly tactical race in Doha to win the 1,500m silver medal at the Asian Athletics Championships ahead of Mussab Ali of Qatar in a photo-finish. Saroj’s timing of 3:43:18 was .006 seconds faster than Ali behind Abrahim Kipchirchir Rotich of Bahrain, who won the gold. After biding his time, the Indian came up with a terrific final 50m sprint to surprise the leading pack.
“The time I spent at home after injury helped me. An empty mind is a devil’s workshop, so I would keep myself busy by planning my races,” Saroj told The Indian Express. He also spoke about the role his family played in his success. With his father insisting on being by his bedside, the family-run cement shop had to be shut. “Going home was the best decision I took. My family took proper care of me and I could plan for Doha too.”
Saroj needed to be sharp and well prepared since he was up against a quality field. Among a host of top runners, Bahrain’s Rotich was clearly the favourite. The first couple of laps, Saroj stayed behind the leading pack of Rotich, Ali and Mohammed Ayoub. “The track at Doha is very even. Actually, we aren’t used to running on such good tracks in Ooty, where we train. So it took some time to adjust. I knew that running fast at the start will affect my stamina. That’s why I ran behind the leading group. I knew that I will recover time in the next two laps and can sprint in the last lap,” shared Saroj.
A tough beginning
The youngest among six children, Saroj would dream of becoming a middle-distance runner watching his elder sister Shashi and brother Ajit compete at senior level. The young Saroj would ask his father to accompany him to run at the local school in the village. In 2009, he started training under coach Rustam Khan at Madan Mohan Malviya Stadium and his first national medal came in the form of a bronze in the 1000m at the junior nationals in Lucknow in 2012. This was where he was spotted by coach Jaswinder Bhatia and started training in Lucknow.
Saroj would finish fifth at the Youth Olympics in China in 2014 before winning the gold medal at the Asian Junior Championships in Vietnam. “I used to accompany my sister Shashi for training and when she was away, my father would accompany me to the village ground. He would get me Goldstar shoes for Rs 320 from Allahabad. When I won the bronze in Lucknow, I knew that I wanted to run middle-distance and long-distance races and I would also watch videos of world champion Asbel Kiprop of Kenya. It is always a challenge to control a race, these things one learns gradually,” remembers Saroj.
In 2017, Saroj won the gold in 1500m at the Asian Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar with a timing of 3:45:85, edging out Asian Games bronze medallist Jamal Haraine.
Two months later, he would post his career-best timing of 3:41: 93 at the Indian Open in Chennai and would touch the 3:43 mark once again in the Asian Games Pre-Tournament event in February last year with a timing of 3:43:85. This year, Oliver Hoare of Australia is the world leader with a timing of 3:37:20. This year, Saroj has touched the 3:43 mark twice with first one coming at the Federation Cup in Patiala, where he clocked 3:43:57, and on Wednesday.
Coach Bhatia, who has coached Saroj since 2012, said: “When he won the bronze at junior nationals, I knew this boy can do well in 1500m at the senior level too. He ran effortless and smoothly and his management of speed was good. He could have won the gold in Doha. He trailed the leading group but knew that he can recover. He knows how to recover in the race and to save his stamina for the end.
“The Ooty track where we train is very bad, it is full of stones and dirt. Such conditions don’t help runners to improve timing. Saroj can do well and has the body and mind to reach the qualification mark for the world championships.”
As for Saroj, the medal would bring joy to his family. The Indian Railways employee has taken a loan for more than Rs 7 lakh for his training and despite no monetary support from the Uttar Pradesh government, the athlete has not lost hope.
“My task is to train and win medals. That’s what brings joy to my parents and my siblings. Half of the salary of my two brothers is spent on my training, apart from my own salary, and I currently have a loan of Rs 7 lakh to repay. Some athletes train abroad to adjust to different conditions and I also want to do that,” shares Saroj.