The first time India’s long distance foreign coach Scott Simmons met middle distance athlete Ajay Kumar Saroj during a training camp at Bengaluru, the foreign coach was impressed by the calm demeanour of the Uttar Pradesh athlete.
With Saroj training for months under him, the impression stayed the same and Simmons would give a new name to Saroj in his diary. It would read ‘The Silent Monk’ and as the 26-year-old Indian athlete won the silver medal in men’s 1500m final in Hangzhou Asian Games earlier this month, Simmons would once again make an entry in his training diary.
“My first impression of Saroj being so calm and silent made me name him ‘The silent monk’. Luckily the impression has remained the same and that has been Saroj’s biggest strength as a middle distance runner. The same is true about his race tactics and that’s what he showed in Hangzhou. He adjusted to the conditions well and to see him win his first Asian Games medal in a calm manner has made me expect more medals from him at the international level,” Simmons told The Indian Express.
With his father Dharamraj working as a plumber in Kajiani village near Allahabad, Saroj grew up accompanying him to the village ground in the evenings. Youngest among six siblings, Saroj would listen to the track tales of his elder brother Ajit, a 800m and 1500m national-level runner and sisters Shashi and Shastri, both of whom competed in 5000m and 10000m at the national level.
Saroj’s initiation in middle distance running happened at the Meva Lal Inter College at his village before he started training at the Madan Mohan Malviya Stadium at Allahabad. “My father used to take me to the village ground after his plumbing work and show me the village athletes toil hard. My elder brother and sisters competed at the national level and they wanted me to follow them. Pehle pehle toh 300 rupaye ke shoe ki tension rehti thi par ek bar daudna shuru kia toh dimag main bus running chalti thi. (Initially, I would worry about the Rs 300 running shoes.. But once I got into running, I would think about only running at the village track and later stadium). A lot of times, my father would take loans from relatives or my brother would spend his salary on my training,” remembers Saroj.
A bronze medal in 1000m in junior nationals in Lucknow in 2012 meant that the UP youngster was spotted by coach Jaswinder Bhatia and shifted to Lucknow to train under the coach. A fifth place finish in Youth Olympic Games in China in 2014 was followed by a gold in Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Vietnam in 2016. The same year saw him breaking the three minutes and 45 seconds mark when he clocked a timing of three minutes and 44 seconds to win the gold at the Indian Grand Prix in Delhi.
Saroj would record sub three minutes and 42 seconds timings a couple of times in the next two years apart from an Asian Championships 1500m title in Bhubaneswar in 2017. He also won the gold in pre pre-tournament event of Jakarta Asian Games with a timing of three minutes and 43.85 seconds but a fracture in his right leg meant that he missed the flight to 2018 Asiad.
“My target was always the 1500m and I would always think of it as a race to run in stages. My strong part has been the push at the end but that too comes from the planning for the first 1000-1200m. It requires a lot of patience to wait for your chance till the first 1000-1200m and I would read books by Swami Vivekanand to keep my mind calm and to plan my races with a strategic mind,” says Saroj.
While he missed the Jakarta Asian Games, Saroj became the Asian champion in 1500m with a timing of three minutes and 46.49 seconds in Bhubaneshwar the same year. In the last four years, Saroj has won an Asian Championship silver in Doha in 2019 apart from clocking his best ever timing of three minutes and 38.24 seconds this year at the World Championships in Budapest before the Asian Games.
At Hangzhou, Saroj clocked 3:38.94 seconds to finish behind Mohamad Al-Garni of Qatar who clocked three minutes and 38.36 seconds. Compatriot Jinsen Johnson won the bronze medal.
The Indian runners had trained in Colorado Springs prior to the Asian Games and Saroj finds Colorado experience a learning experience. “While we took some time adjusting to the altitude of Colorado which saw us bleeding from the nose in the initial training sessions, it helped our body to adjust to the conditions. The conditions helped us to work on the stamina required for the 1500m race as well the speed required to set the pace in Asian conditions too. I also got to spend some time with two-time Olympic 5000m medallst Paul Chelimo and he stressed the importance of being in a good mental space apart from tactics to win medals at the international stage,” says Saroj.
While Saroj’s best ever timing is not event in the world’s top 100 timings this season with Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen being the world leader with 3:27.14, coach Simmons believes that Saroj can improve further. “1500m is a tactical race and he waits for his chance especially in the last 250m. He is training with 5000m and 10,000m athletes to work on his endurance and specific fitness for the 1500m has make him improve,” says Simmons.
As for Saroj, he is waiting for the Rs 1.5 crore prize money by the UP government to repay his loan in excess of Rs ten lakh for training as well as repaying relatives and building a new home for his parents. “I work in railways and most of my salary goes in repaying the loan amount. I plan to pay off all the debts as well as building a new home for my parents with the money apart from buying some more Swami Vevekanand books,” says Saroj.