Best Foot Forward

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Photo: Sudeep Chaudhuri
Photo: Sudeep Chaudhuri

The white triangular shades lining the roof of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium cut through the orange sky. It was 6.30 on a Saturday morning, hours before any sane journalist should wake up. But the stadium’s outdoor practice track was buzzing. In one corner, India’s athletics coach for the disabled trained his charges; blind sprinters followed his voice as they sped across the orange synthetic track. In another, Delhi’s middle-distance runners ran up and down the cement steps as their coach barked instructions at them.

Somewhere in the middle, wearing a yellow Nike T-shirt with ‘Pre’ — the nickname of his idol, American middle-distance runner Steve Prefontaine — printed on it, stood Karan Singh. With a smile on his face, the 27-year-old constantly moved among a group of six young boys and girls as he discussed individualised running programmes and a series of drills unknown to Indian sports with each child. They are members of India’s first private professional running team, the Indian Track Club. The nine current members are the first step in Singh’s plans to change the way India runs. “At the Olympics, running and swimming have the maximum medals, but India is nowhere in these sports,” explains Singh. “We have over a billion people, a huge potential talent base, so why can’t we win? Because our system is flawed.”

It is an opinion shared by India’s national pole vault coach LS Upadhyay. “Be it athletes or coaches, there is no dearth of hard work in India,” says Upadhyay, who Singh drafted in as agility coach for his club. “But coaches lack knowledge of new methods. We recycle the same methods we have learnt or those we pick up from short visits by foreign coaches, but there is no system for us to update ourselves.” Once they graduate from of the National Institute of Sports, the onus is on the coaches to keep themselves updated through books or the Internet. There is no culture of refresher courses.

The result is what many of us would have faced in school or college, where everyone, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, has to run the same distance, do the same exercise and hope for different results. “In school, we just run. No one teaches how to run or what to do,” says Aryan Sadh, 12, the youngest and most talkative member of the team.

The problem goes well beyond the school system. “For the last two years, I have been forced to train myself,” says Sajeesh Joseph, 26, who is a four-time 800-metre and three-time 1500-metre national championship winner. He clocked 1:47.3 in his 800-metre race, nine-tenths of a second off the qualifying mark for the Olympics. “At the national camp, the coaches train the group, not the athlete. All 20 runners will follow the same programme, regardless of their ability. I felt I was wasting my time, so I started coaching myself. But I desperately need a coach. To drop those 0.9 seconds, I need someone to guide me, to tell me what I am doing wrong. But the coaches here are not interested in their athletes winning medals at the Olympics. Simply qualifying is enough for them.”

It was this one-size-fits-all policy that caused the most serious injury of Singh’s athletics career. Having chucked cricket — he was a leg spinner in the Delhi state team — for middle-distance running in 2006, Singh was at a national camp in Bengaluru in 2011. He was forced to follow a regimen his body couldn’t endure. He tore his groin two days before a crucial meet. “Imagine all that hard work, months of training, wasted because the coach didn’t know my body,” he rues.

Singh’s potential as a runner reached fruition when, in 2011, he made his way to Eugene, Oregon (Track Town, US), birthplace of Nike and training hub of his icon, Prefontaine. “Running became my life. I woke up at 4 am every day. I ate healthy, lived alone and trained hard. Everything I did was to become a better runner.” Working with a professional team, with the best running talent and coaches the US had to offer, his times tumbled and he was eventually selected for that ill-fated national camp.

In 2012, faced with body fatigue, injuries and the death of a childhood friend (the first to push him towards running), Singh retired and returned to India with the intention of using the methods he had picked up to train elite athletes.

Back in India, though, Singh realised that he’d rather work with the youth. “There is only so much you can do with a 24-year-old. To run well you have to run light, remain injury-free and get hundreds and hundreds of kilometres under your feet. So you have to start early.” That is the focus at the Indian Track Club: get them early and provide professional, individualised coaching so that everybody can run at a pace their body can handle.

But the training doesn’t stop there. Singh and his team design a 20-hour daily schedule for each athlete — what time to sleep, how much to sleep, what to eat when, when to swim, when to rest, how much TV to watch (or not watch), when to have an ice bath, what temperature the water should be, when to get a massage as well as regular appointments with the team doctor and chiropractor. “To be a top athlete, you have to live the life. It is not enough to just train, everything that goes into your body needs to push you to become a better runner.”

Upadhyay believes that Singh’s methods are what is missing from Indian athletics. “Karan is looking at the bottom, the base of sporting talent and providing a professional environment from the start. Yes, at the top level, we have all these things — doctors, coaches, facilities, all the food you can eat — with no focus on proper nutrition. But no one cares for the youth. We are losing hundreds of potential stars to injuries as well as the lack of a recruiting system.”

A step at a time Singh trains members of the Indian Track Club
Photo: Sudeep Chaudhuri

That’s where Phases Two and Three of Singh’s grand design come in. At the end of the month, he will organise the first of a series of open running meets in Delhi. The idea is two-fold: to spot and recruit talent as well as to provide the kids with a goal. “As an athlete, you need to have a goal in sight. Yes, saying you want to run for India is a goal, but that will take at least four to five years. You need to have short-term targets and the chance to assess yourself against others,” explains Singh, who ran throughout the year in similar meets in the US. It is something that is missing in India, even at the highest levels, with only three national athletic meets in a year. “It is very difficult as an athlete to peak and then drop and peak again,” says Joseph, who Singh invited to train with the team to provide a role model to his kids.

Phase Three, meanwhile, is to adopt the Kenyan policy of creating feeder systems in rural areas. Singh plans to travel to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kerala, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand and create a talent pool of at least 100 14- and 15-year-olds, of whom one or two could make it to the Olympics and World Championships.

In Kenya, like in rural India, everybody traditionally runs or walks or jogs as a mode of transport. Every morning, young kids run on mud tracks to schools, often clocking up to 20 kilometres a day. “I’ve spoken to some Indian athletes who had trained in Iten, the home of Kenya’s running programme,” says Singh, who had a Kenyan teammate in the US. “They told me that when they’d be out running in the mornings, 10-year-old barefoot kids with school bags would run past and reach the ground before them. Without realising it, these kids are building the platform of excellence in athletics.”

It was Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary with no running experience, who transformed running in Kenya. He was posted at Iten in 1976 for three months. He still lives there today and the running school that he set up — there are hundreds now — has produced 25 world champions, including the likes of Augustine Kiprono Choge, Wilson Kipketer and David Lekuta Rudisha. “The Kenyan model is based on high effective participation,” says Singh. “Like cricket is to India, running is to Kenya. Thousands of children play the sport; add to that the high altitude coupled with natural talent and you’re bound to succeed.” Unlike the US, Kenya is not big on facilities. (In fact, they opposed bids to build a synthetic track in Iten because they prefer to keep it simple and run on mud.) However, like the US, they have hundreds of running meets. So the world is shocked when a young Kenyan runner suddenly emerges; they don’t realise that the athlete has run thousands of kilometres and competed in hundreds of meets even before the age of 14.

Phase Three is all about creating that “high effective participation”. By travelling to rural areas and tribal centres, where kids walk and run on a daily basis, the team plans to hold mass running meets. From the hundreds of kids that come to participate, they will choose about 25 to 30 to be trained by their coach locally. “The training will be built around the games they play, anything that gets them to run. Once a week, we will give them agility training. Without the kids realising it, we are developing their running ability, their running muscles and by the time they are 14, they will have run hundreds of kilometres,” explains Singh. It is then that they will choose the top few children and bring them to Delhi, looking after their accommodation, education, nutrition and heath as a part of the elite training camp. “You have to back yourself. Out of the hundreds of well-trained runners, one or two percent will make it to the top level.”

To anyone who has played sports in the country, to anyone who has watched our greatest sporting talents thwarted by institutional apathy, to anyone who despairs at the fact that Indian athletes seem novices at every Olympics, the Indian Track Club’s approach is a breath of fresh air. Time will tell whether or not their efforts translate to international glory. For now, it seems enough that we are going in the right direction.

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