Can you name one Indian Olympic medalist in middle- or long-distance track running? No? Well, no wonder – there are not any. Read here, how Karan Singh wants to change that, dedicating his life to training and raising Indian kids to become future Olympic medalists.
“My name is Karan Singh, and I’m the Head Coach of the Indian Track Foundation in Ooty, The Nilgiris, India. My life’s mission is to produce Olympic champions for India in athletics. I, along with my family, relocated to Ooty in 2018 to start my dream for India.”
This is how 33-year-old Karan Singh introduces himself. What he doesn’t mention here is that he himself ran for professional running teams like Team Run Eugene and Eugene Health and Performance and trained in the United States for five years, winning numerous national level track and road racing titles. Apart from running, his background includes being a post-graduate from Oxford Brookes University (UK), being a state level cricket player, and having work experience with leading sports organizations like Nike and ESPN-Star Sports. We wanted to learn more about Karan and his project…
How did you become a runner in India, a country which isn’t really known for being a country of runners?
I took up running as I was a natural at it and my aim was to represent India at the 2012 Olympics. I was inspired by Steve Prefontaine, the legendary American distance runner. When I started running, I just wanted to run like him and make a difference to the sport like he did. I love running and it’s my passion. It’s so real: you get out of it exactly what you put into it and there’s no mucking around. Oh, and you’d be surprised how popular running is here! Sometimes, I get taken aback by the sheer numbers.
Then why do you think your country hasn’t won any medals at World Championships or Olympic games on track yet?
There are so many reasons, I could write a book. Our entire system doesn’t create an environment to produce those medals. We have the talent and we are slowly starting to see some good performances from Indian athletes at the global level. But we still have to build the right culture for success. The conditions in terms of training, coaching, opportunities and competition from grassroot to national level don’t allow the athletes to excel their sport at a world class level. As an athlete, you want to be part of something beautiful and special, you want to feel wanted. Of course, there must be an end goal and a career path, but most of all, there has to be a positive setup, where you work towards your goals as a team and a family. This mentality often lacks in India.
What was your motivation for founding the Indian Track Foundation and what does it look like?
After my time in the US, I moved back to India with the following mission in mind: coaching young athletes and putting India on the global athletics map. This is when the Indian Track Foundation was born. The idea of the Foundation is to scout, to house, to educate and to train tribal and rural talent from the most interior parts of India and to train them in the name of the Olympic mission. I am very passionate about both India and athletics, which is why I build my whole life around the two. One cannot muck around with big missions and goals like this one. It has to be the biggest driver of your life and comes before even your family (most of the time). This sacrifice is crucial and my wife plays the biggest role in this project, by being so understanding of my unconditioned committment. Me, my wife and my daughter also live together with the 10 athletes (aged 10-15) of our Foundation in one home like a big family. We started this project in 2017 by travelling to remote locations to hunt for raw running talent, before beginning with our full scale operations in August 2018.
You speak about tribal and rural talent. Which tribes and areas are you referring to?
We have scouted our athletes from the Munda and Birhor tribe in Jharkhand and the Siddi tribe in Gujarat. These kids are natural hunters and some are decedents of the bantu and sub Saharan tribes, who were brought in as slaves from Africa by the Arabs and the British. They possess raw natural running talent, giving them great preconditions for becoming future champions.
Is there any scientific evidence saying that members of these tribes are especially good runners?
No there is no scientific evidence to this as, due to lack of know-how and opportunity, these tribes have never come out of their villages. I have seen those young athletes run for myself in their jungles and villages. I base my choices on my observations on ground and I back myself on having an eye for the talent I’m looking for. Our foundation’s head scout plays a very important role in identifying the talent and getting them recruited from the interiors. He is one of the most experienced people in terms of talent identification.
How does the Foundation fund itself and what about education for the kids?
The Indian Track Foundation has a board and, as a team, we raise funds for our project. I use my personal funds too. All our athletes are homeschooled, but we have ties with a school where they go and give their examinations once a year. They study English, Hindi, Grammar, History, Science and Mathematics. As for the teaching person, we have found a lovely lady, who meets our requirements and is great to work with.
You live according to the mantra “Eat, pray, train, sleep, repeat”. What religions do you and the kids belong to and how do you combine the different ones?
Along with my wife and daughter, I belong to the Hindu religion, and my athletes belong to all sorts of religions: from Christianity to Hindu to Sarna’s. We pray together and there is no divide of any kind. We go to church and temple the same number of times in a month and all of us together. In our home we have a prayer area, where we have Gods and Goddesses of most religions in the world. This was my wife’s idea and we all love praying together. It brings us closer together as a family.
Is the Foundation all based in Ooty or do you have training bases in other parts of the country?
The main base is in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India. 2,250 meters above sea level. In addition, we currently have three unstructured village centres, where we scout and recruit our athletes from. I also run a track club in New Delhi called Indian Track Club, where I travel to every 2-3 weeks and spend time with my athletes there.
Do you have fellow coaches or do you coach all by yourself?
I coach alone and am currently training my assistant coach who is also the warden and the leader of the group. She’s a 19-year-old tribal woman whom I have handpicked as my right hand for all ground components. She manages and oversees areas like cooking, cleaning, training, studying, personal issues , etc.
What does your training philosophy look like?
My philosophy is based on understanding the individual both as a person and as an athlete. The training is therefore absolutely tailored to each athlete. That’s what I learnt in the US: this can’t be a one stop programme where everyone just does the same thing. Some of the sessions are in group formats, but within those sessions, each athlete and group is working according to different guidelines and structures (see video of a group session below). I further believe in long term development and on the importance of quality. Every session has to have a purpose. I don’t see the point of going into a session without a plan or without excitement. The training has to be a mix, especially for young and developing athletes. Their body needs to recover, they need to be preserved and not at risk for overuse injuries. But most importantly, they must have the time of their lives! Enjoying the sport is key, along with having a strong work ethic. We do 2 high-intensity sessions a week. Shorter and Longer sessions vary depending on the programme. Both short and longer sessions can be either easy or tough, depending on the athletes’ mental and physical structure. But we mostly do short sessions, as the kids right now are not ready to do high intensity long sessions. Generally, our workouts last for 2 hours and we train twice a day. From the age of 13 onwards I start focusing on distance-based running but I always keep in mind that developing athletes primarily need to build up a good base level and that their range of distances in this initial stage should still be rather wide. All my athletes will specialise in events from the 400m and above.
Are there any alternative sessions too, like biking, for example? And what about strength training, running form drills and coordination?
We do a bunch of stuff. We do biking sometimes when recovering from injury. We work on motor skills, basic strength, flexibility and speed. We also do running based coordination and drills (see examples in videos below). The Kenyan and the Ethiopian drills are fantastic for runners! You see, running is the purest sport in the world. The talent and the raw material we have in the Indian Track Foundation is made for running. But you have to build up the right structure. Like you see with so many of the top athletes, once the structure is strong, they are like machines. However, this takes immense patience and perseverance.
How often are the kids checked medically and by whom?
Each athlete is pre-checked before entering the ITF home. All tests from HIV to TB to Malaria and other blood tests are undertaken to check if they are carrying any infections or injuries. A full medical check-up is done regularly. We have doctors we can call and we have ties with hospitals here in Ooty, including with a physio.
What about competitions for the kids?
There are some track and field competitions, but not as many as we would like. My athletes are currently preparing for their first competition season. We have three district and state level competitions coming up and a few local track meets that we will be participating in this summer. Our grassroots structure for opportunity and competition isn’t like it is in the states or in other countries. But we are slowly getting there.
For what specific reasons did you choose Ooty as the location for the Indian Track Foundation?
Most importantly, we chose Ooty due to the humble place it is in itself. Other than that, it is just perfect in terms of weather conditions. We have temperatures between 18-25 degrees Celsius most of the year. The sun is out during the day (just the right amount) and it gets a bit chilly at night, but we never have snow. June-August is the rainy season, we sometimes train indoors during that time. Overall, it’s a brilliant place for training. Of course, its altitude (2250- 2300 meters above sea level) was an important factor as well. The kids have to get used the elevation first, as they come from sea level locations. It takes a few days to get used to the altitude. But the effects of the altitude on training and development are so huge that I cannot put them into words. My athletes ran their first local track competition last week and they were so strong, they completely surpassed my expectations. Especially when you start training at a young age in such an environment, the effects are enormous. It’s not very complicated, in order to become an Olympic medallist, one must start at a young age, live a simple life, a happy life and work hard in a conducive environment.
Have you heard of Gjert Ingebrigtsen, father of the three fast Norwegian Ingebrigtsen brothers? He also started training them from a young age…
Yes, of course, I have heard of them. They are brilliant at what they do. But I believe, apart from developing athletes from a young age, our philosophies are different. Coach Brother Colm, the Irish missionary who settled down in Kenya and has produced numerous Olympic and world class athletes is one of my biggest inspirations as a coach. His art of coaching, the way he approaches each athlete’s talents and needs from a young age – he was one of the reasons why I decided to move to Ooty and to start this project.
Are you happy with how your project is going so far? How many of your athletes do you think will be competing in the Olymics in the future?
I had a vison. But the present situation surpasses all of my expectations. I am proud of the fact that we have managed to find these awesome kids and to create this great structure and environment. I don’t think something like this will be attempted by many! As for the Olympics, our targets are 2028 and 2032. I cannot put a number to it, but I believe we will have multiple athletes competing at the Olympic level in the coming years. 2024 is probably too early. But you never know, nothing is impossible….
Edited by: Marion Aebi