Nashik’s long run
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Boys in olive fatigues walk towards the imposing Bhonsala Military School building at Nashik at six in the morning. The clicks of their boots on the asphalt are drowned out by a steady patter of footsteps. The olive-clad bunch is soon forced off the road as a group of 25 runners comes charging, led by a man on a battered bicycle. The group makes its way past the building and heads for a hillock three kilometres away. The cyclist hollers at a handful who have fallen behind.
The youngest runner in this group is seven-year-old Sara Nagre while the oldest is 61-year-old retired schoolteacher Sukhdev Kale. Somewhere in between is a 27-year-old Asian Games silver medallist.
It was here in Nashik that Kavita Raut began her training. The girl from Savarpada, a hamlet 85 km down State Highway 26, started running over hillocks on her way to school and graduated to running in packed stadiums. Anjana Thamke, another rising star, began running over two hills on her way to school. Thamke, who hails from Ganeshgaon, 40 km from Nashik, already has two junior national records and has won three gold medals at a recent national-level meet in Pune. There are other athletes in the group who have shown similar promise. Most come from poor tribal families in the hills near the Gujarat border.
Just like Kenya, famous for producing long-distance runners of repute, Nashik too is fast becoming a nursery for Indian athletics. The hilly terrain, clean air and lack of roads make Nashik district ideal for practising athletes. Like many Kenyan long-distance athletes, Raut and her friends too began by running to and from school. Most athletes here come from farming families and running for them is a way out of deprivation.
The starting block
The man on the bicycle, 49-year-old Vijendra Singh from Muzzafarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, started it all. A Sports Authority of India (SAI) athletics coach, Vijendra was posted at Nashik in 1992. Nearly a decade after he first started training athletes on the dusty Bhonsala Military School ground, he stumbled on his biggest find.