MNREGA worker breaks national record in men’s 35km race walk

RACE-WALKING routes tend to be straight and level but Ram Baboo’s long walk to a national record at the National Games was anything but straightforward or smooth. Facing acute financial distress during the Covid lockdown, the 23-year-old from Bahuara village in UP’s Sonbhadra had to dig up soil, as an MNREGA worker, to manage two meals.

The new record of 2:36.32s in the 35-km race walk is the highlight of Baboo’s 2022 season. But at the same time, he recalls those days of manual labour — and earlier, when he worked as a waiter in Varanasi and stitched gunny bags at a courier facility.

Ram Baboo

“During the lockdown, I worked under the MNREGA scheme where I had to dig up soil for various village projects. They take measurements in the area where you are assigned to work and decide on the daily pay accordingly,” says Baboo, a Class 7 dropout whose parents own no land and work as labourers.

And yet, Baboo says it was better than the waiter’s job he had earlier in Varanasi. “People don’t treat waiters nicely. They think of them as lesser humans. I felt terrible at the way people used to call me ‘chhotu’ and other names. I wanted to get out as soon as possible,” he says.

“I used to clean tables, take orders and at the end of the day, clean up. It was back-breaking work and took away whatever time I had for recovery. I would work from morning to late night and then wake up very early for my running practice,” he says.

On Monday, the first thought that came to Baboo’s mind after finishing the 35-km race walk event with the record was that he could have done better. After pulling off a surprise by shaving off almost three-and-a-half minutes from the previous record, the athlete is keen to improve at the Open Nationals to be held later this month in Bengaluru.

“I knew I would break the record because I had trained so hard. I walked 40-km sets in practice so that I feel at ease with 35 km. I am just disappointed that I couldn’t do well. But I’m sure I will reset the record again in two weeks,” he says.

Baboo took up running after being inspired by sports movies. He initially tried his hand at the marathon until he faced a knee injury in 2018. The move proved to be a gamechanger for the youngster who learnt the ropes of race-walking very soon.

But his biggest challenge was scarcity of resources. “I never had a good diet because I couldn’t afford it. My family doesn’t have the resources. We don’t even have a water pump in our house. We have to walk a kilometre to fetch water,” he says.

Baboo, who got an electricity connection at his home just last year, realised soon that he would need to find his own source of income to keep his athletics dreams alive. And that was when he tried his hands at various jobs after 2018.

But just when things were looking bleak for the youngster, he found Army coach Basant Rana who had represented India at the 2012 London Olympics in the 50-km event — after the Tokyo Olympics, the 35 km replaced the 50 km in all major competitions.

“I got in touch with coach Rana and asked him if he could train me but there were Covid restrictions then so no one could enter the Army Sports Institute (in Pune). He sent me workouts on WhatsApp and I used to follow them. I trained alone but under his guidance,” he says.

Baboo shifted to the institute after his silver medal at the 2021 50-km Race Walking Championship but hasn’t yet been enrolled in the Armed Forces with the new Agniveer recruitment scheme in force. “I train as a civilian. But my training, food and accommodation are all taken care of — for now.”

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