New Delhi: In what was being billed as a match-up between Nitendra Singh Rawat and Gopi Thonakal, unassuming Amethi boy Abhishek Pal walked away with top honours, finishing the 14th edition of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon as the fastest Indian. Pal breached the tape in 74 minutes and 13 seconds, 1 second faster than Avinash Sable and two seconds clear of Gopi.
Pal was not the fastest to start — Sable led at 5km mark — but began to close in at the halfway mark. At the 15km stage, he was joint second with Sable with Gopi nosing ahead, but had enough in his legs to push for the top finish.
“I am very happy with the result. I had prepared well for this event, and am really happy to deliver,” the 21-year-old told Firstpost.
Hailing from a farmer’s family, Pal was initiated into distance running by his uncle Kamlesh Pal in his native village. In fact, the Pal household is replete with distance runners, with his younger sister Phoolan competing in the same race. His uncle, a running aficionado, trains children in Amethi, and Pal was quick to dedicate his win to his roots.
“My family has been extremely supportive, and I want to dedicate this to them. We are a close-knit family, and my uncle has been instrumental in shaping me as a runner,” he said.
After a successful junior career, Pal moved to seniors category in 2013, and shifted base to Bhopal’s State Athletics Academy in 2015. His pet events, Pal says, are 5000 and 10,000 metre runs, and he won a bronze in the 10,000-metre category in Federation Cup in Patiala earlier this year.
The Federation Cup high was followed by the disappointment of missing the cut for the Asian Games, and the time that Pal spent at his village while his peers competed in Jakarta steeled him. Pal had pulled his abdomen muscle in training, and the injury prevented him from performing to his potential at the trials in Guwahati.
“That was a real low phase of my life. My family tried its best to keep my spirits high, but it was really tough. I desperately wanted to do well for the country.”
He returned to form with a silver in the 5000 metres event at last month’s National Open Athletics Championships in Chennai, and the podium finish gave him belief.
“That result gave me a lot of confidence. I prepared well for 20-22 days for this,” he said.
“I was, in fact, gunning for the national record. My body was feeling good, and I knew that I will be able to beat the field in the last 500 metres. I finished eighth at the last edition of this race, so I wanted to set that record straight.”
On Sunday, Pal’s 22-member family sat in front of their lone television set, tracking their son’s progress. Manish Pal and Yashoda Devi, his parents, celebrated their son’s gold medal by distributing sweets in the entire village.
The winner’s cheque of Rs 4,00,000 has come as a welcome relief for Pal, who, in the absence of sponsors, relies solely on his Railways job to meet his requirements. “There’s lot to take care of — diet, supplements, shoes, and this prize money will surely be a big help. I will also send some money home so that my uncle can help the fresh crop of running enthusiasts,” he said.
The Delhi Half Marathon success has spurred Pal to dream big, and the youngster has the upcoming heavy-duty season on his radar.
“Next year is quite big in terms of athletics; we have Asian Athletics Championship, World Championships and then the Olympics in 2020. I want to win medals in these events and make the country proud. Running alongside Olympians such as Gopi has given me lot of confidence.”
Pal will fly to The Netherlands next month for another road race, before resuming preparations for the next season.
Second-placed Avinash Sable returned to competitions after a 15-day injury-enforced break caused by damaged tendons. Primarily a steeplechaser, Sable entered the competition to make use of his off-season, and ended up being on the podium.
Amrish Kumar, Sable’s coach, was understandably happy with his ward’s race. “I am quite impressed with his timing and technique. We entered the competition to keep Avinash in good shape ahead of the hectic season, and I am very happy with his performance,” Kumar said.
The third fastest Indian was reigning Asian marathon champion Gopi Thonakal, who started the race as one of the favourites. After maintaining his second position for better part of the race, Gopi fell behind in the final 500 metres, conceding his lead to Sable.
“I am not very disappointed with the result,” Gopi said. “I was returning to competition after February, so it was not really easy. I am happy to have competed well and secured a podium finish,” he said.
The men’s elite race was won by Ethiopia’s Andamlak Belihu with a time of 00:59:17, followed by compatriot Amdework Walegen (00:59:21). Kenya’s Daniel Kipchumba completed top three with a commendable time of (00:59:48).
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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2018 16:58:46 IST