Steeplechase runner Avinash Sable wants to challenge the best at Delhi half-marathon

India’s 3,000-metre steeplechase record holder and Olympic hopeful Avinash Sable, starved of track races ahead of the Tokyo Games due to the pandemic, will run the weekend’s Airtel Delhi half marathon to keep his competitive juices flowing.

Sable, who has qualified for next year’s Olympics, has been frustrated like the rest of India’s elite athletes due to cancelled meets this year. And he has decided to test himself against the best in the race run on the Capital’s roads on Sunday.

“My goal is to stay with the leading pack of elite runners and give a good timing,” Sable said from his base in Bengaluru on Tuesday.

His coach Amrish Kumar said the target was to clock 60 minutes for the 21.0975 km race. “He has been doing really well in training. In the lockdown period too he has been training consistently. He can go all out,” Kumar said.

If Sable achieves his ambitious target, he will better the national best—1:03:46 by Kalidas Nirave. The Indian best in the Airtel race is 1:03:54. Sable has not run under 64 minutes.

Sable often used to run road races in winter months when there are no track races, but has never attempted to race with the elite group led by Kenyans and Ethiopians due to the scorching pace they set. The elite winner usually runs under 60 minutes.

The surge in coronavirus cases across the globe has disrupted the athletics calendar as well. Sable said Sunday’s race will be a good platform to test his nerves. “I’m hungry to run hard and fast,” he added.

“The season has been frustrating. There was no competition because of the pandemic. I have done good endurance training. So I thought this will be a good platform to test myself against international athletes at home.

“I don’t run in marathons now—the last was in 2017. Both steeplechase and half marathons are tests of endurance. I was doing high-altitude training in Ooty in July and shifted to Bengaluru in August under Amrish sir,” Sable said.

The Armyman’s task is cut out. The quality field includes Bahrain’s Abraham Cheroben, one of the fastest in the distance(PB: 58 min, 40 secs). At least 10 runners in the field have clocked sub-60 minutes, including Ethiopians Andamlak Belihu and Guye Adola. Two-time world 5,000m champion Muktar Edris of Ethiopia will make his half-marathon debut.

Last year, the Maharashtra runner’s heroic efforts at the Doha world championships earned him a ticket to the Olympics. He lowered the national record twice in steeplechase, clocking a best of 8min, 21.37 secs (Olympics qualification mark: 8 min, 22 secs) in the final, finishing 13th out of 16 competitors.

“In steeplechase, I have worked on my speed, strength and hurdle technique. I know we will not get many competitions before Olympics. I have to work harder to improve,” said Sable.

In the absence of prominent Indian distance runners like Olympian Nitender Singh Rawat and T Gopi—both have opted out—another international steeplechaser Naveen Dagar from Haryana could be the one to watch.

Dagar, the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist, wants to prove a point. “I’ve strong legs to finish the race in a fast time,” the 32-year-old said.

In July, 2018 the Army runner was suspended for doping violation at the Guwahati Inter-State track and field competition. Sunday will mark Dagar’s first comeback race. “The ban is over. I have been training hard,” he said.

Gopi has been undergoing rehabilitation since April for a knee injury he suffered last year while Rawat doesn’t want to take a risk in the current health climate. “I will race next year when things get better,” the runner from Uttarakhand said.

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