In hilly Ooty, a running mission

Delhi’s Karan Singh is putting to use his years of learning in the US to train kids from tribal communities with dream of sending middle and long-distance runners to 2028 LA Olympics

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Karan Singh picks up promising kids from the tribal communities of Jharkhand and Gujarat and takes them to Ooty to groom them as runners while also taking care of their education

What he missed out doing as an athlete for his country, he wants to see his wards do it. 

Karan Singh, only 33 years and whose knee surgeries cut short his aspirations to shine for India as an athlete, is putting to use as a middle and long-distance coach what he learnt and observed during his five years of training in athletics in Florida and Eugene in the United States.

To fulfil his burning desire of producing athletes who can participate in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics and stand on the medals podium in the 2032 Games, Karan is training young boys and girls from the tribal communities of Jharkhand and Gujarat at the high-altitude Ooty in Tamil Nadu since August 2018.

Karan, a native of Delhi, moved out of his comfort zone and chose the popular hill station in South India to train the kids who are in the age group of 10-14 years. "The number will go up to 20 by the year end, and we will focus on these young talented athletes for the next few years," Karan tells DNA from Ooty.

The closest Karan went to representing the country was the national camp he attended in 2011.

What really kindled the desire in him to coach middle and long-distance athletes – from 400m and up to marathon – was when he saw elite national athletes like Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut getting overlapped at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, during his stint there.

Prefontaine Classic is a very important event in the IAAF (world athletics body) annual calendar, earlier a regular IAAF Grand Prix venue and now part of the IAAF Diamond League, having the world's best athletes.

Developing a culture 

Karan says: "It was in 2012 in Eugene when Arjuna awardees Preeja, and Kavita came to Eugene for the Prefontaine Classic. They came to Eugene and got overlapped a couple of times. When competing at that high level, you don't want to get overlapped and not compete. Getting overlapped is not the fault of the athletes. It is with the process.

"It got me thinking. I was never among the best athletes myself. But with the training in Eugene, if I could drop my timings at the college level, these elite Indian athletes could beat the girls without getting overlapped if they are given the opportunity with the right structure in place," he adds.

That's when Karan started developing a program. "I designed a goal for myself. I initially set 2020 Olympics as the target but was finding it difficult to achieve. Looking at the athletics culture in Eugene, I understood that there was a system in place, there were coaches, people wanted to do athletics. And, they also had money," says Karan.

"I returned to India in 2013, set up a club for kids, coached them in the right way what I learnt in my time in the US. With my experience, I could develop athletes for the country. When I saw the coaching in the US, everything was based on youth development. If I have to sustain, I have to do with the kids, develop a program. I made it clear that I had to work with the youth," he adds.

It was then that he set up Indian Track Club in Delhi. "I started coaching a couple of kids. It went like wildfire around Delhi. A lot of people got interested. In 3-4 years, we had done about 3000 trials around NCR. Everyone wanted to be coached by us," he says.

(The chosen kids are currently in the age group of 10-14 years; Karan’s dream is to see some of these runners represent India at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics)

Moving out of comfort zone 

But, Karan was not actually doing what he had set out to do. And, to achieve his mission, he had to move out of Delhi. He began by scouting talents from near Varanasi in 2015.

"We picked up four boys and a girl from there and brought them to Delhi for three months. But the age-group was 15-19. The whole thing fell apart as there were other issues that were too much to handle," he says.
Karan received a jolt, but he was not broken.

"I did not lose hope. You've got to keep trying. I made a plan, spoke with some of my coaches abroad. I trained at high altitude and got my timings down. You had to go to 2,200m or 2,400m above sea level, go to mountains, sacrifice a lot, got to be with the kids, not like how they do it in the cities," Karan says.

"I needed to get out of Delhi, worked on a plan, travelled around the country in search of talent. I travelled all of 2015 and pretty much 2016 to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand. It was around the same time that people advised me to start a trust to raise funds for the project. That's when we created Indian Track Foundation in Ooty.

"The whole focus was planned with the fixed philosophy of picking up kids not above 12 years and those who have natural speed. We went into the interiors of Jharkhand and got kids from the jungle, convinced their parents to send their kids with us.

"We made a structure with parents. For them to let their kids go, they had to be made to understand the project. By 2017 end, we informed them that in next 6-8 months, we'd take them to Ooty, take care of their education and everything else, and that they are going to be with us for next 10-12 years," Karan adds.

Lack of structure 

Helping Karan in his project is a team of professionals including assistant coaches, sports medicine expert and consultant physiotherapist. His local scouts in Jharkhand also coach kids in the region before they are taken to Ooty for high-altitude training.

Karan insists that the kids will not be dumped if they don't progress in running. "Not all can be successful in running. If not in athletics, we have plans for them in management or coaching. Their education is taken care of by us. Some of these kids have not even heard of college. It is definitely not like use and throw," says Karan.

What irks Karan about the current middle and long-distance athletes is the lack of structure. He says: "It is ridiculous how our country can go at the international level and not even fight for medals. It is not that we are not good enough. I have myself dropped timings, and I was nowhere near some of the best athletes in the country.

"The youth program is terrible, the coaching is terrible. There is no long-term structure. I have a plan for that. Somebody has to start. The only way to do is to get to the ground," he adds.

Karan is inspired by the running culture in the US and also in Kenya. He looks up to legendary coach Colm O'Connell, an Irish who is known to have produced record-breaking long-distance runners in Kenya during his more-than-four decades of stay there.

"In Eugene, kids sweat it out. In Kenya, kids run to school. There is a whole culture. We have to create our own structure in India. Coaches should also have passion," says Karan. "To go to Olympics and win a medal, not everybody can do it. There has to be an environment and the kid has to last it, train with the focus."

That extra push 

And, Karan provides that environment in Ooty. He says that the current scenario in the country is encouraging but requires that extra push.

"Athletics in India has improved so much, especially from the time I was running. People are performing at the international stage. Look at the improved timings in 400m, 800m, 1,500m. For longer distances, we are far off. There are a couple of marathoners but you need to be training at high altitude and in groups.

"The Indian team came to Ooty, the track was not open for them. For the top-level athletes, you need the ground, elevation, everything in a system to consistently train throughout the year. Besides, you also need a coach where the guy can take you to the next level," Karan says.

Karan did think about helping the Indian international athletes, but realised that it was not his bread and butter. Handpicking runners from the interiors of the country and nurturing their natural, raw talent is what is his true calling.
His wards have already started to deliver, surprising Karan at the Nilgiris inter-district meet and winning races. He will send his trainees to the Tamil Nadu state meet. And, as they pick up the nuances of running and are ready for it, he will consider giving them international exposure.

But that is in the long run. "For these guys, the next 4-6 years are important. They have to be the best in the country. Only then can we go there and justify that the kid is capable of doing well overseas," he says.

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