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Meet Harmilan Bains: India’s New Middle Distance Queen

Harmilan Bains wasn’t sure when she crossed the finish line at the 2021 Open National Championships in Warangal. “I had to check twice to ensure that I had really clocked 4:05 (4 minutes and 5 seconds) and not a 4:15. Then folks came up to me and started congratulating me, and it is then that it hit me. I had broken the national record,” says the 23-year-old middle-distance runner from Hoshiarpur, Punjab. 

A 19-year-old record had fallen. Sunita Rani’s record of 4:06.03 set at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan had been broken by Bains (4:05.39). Harmilan’s mother, Madhuri, had coincidentally won a silver in the 800 meters at the 2002 Asiad and had competed against Sunita Rani back in her day.

Her father, Amandeep Bains – a former national champion – shouted from the stands, asking her to go easy in the last stretch since she had a comfortable lead. But Harmilan, who had paced herself till the last 30 meters says she saw the figures 4:00.00 on her watch and decided that one last push was worth it to try and break one of Indian athletics’ long-standing records. 

Severely unwell with a week to go for the championships and unable to train with spikes, Harmilan wasn’t about to let anything get in her way.

“Life as an athlete is short and unpredictable. The record was in my sights, and I didn’t know if I would get another shot at breaking the record,” says Harmilan.

Life as an athlete is short and unpredictable. The record was in my sights, and I didn’t know if I would get another shot at breaking the record.

A student of her game

A conversation with Harmilan reveals that she is one of the new generations of Indian athletes, who are obsessed with their sport, extremely detail-oriented, and dissects every minute aspect of her disciplines (800 and 1500 m). Numbers come naturally to the 23-year-old who holds a Bachelor’s in Physical Education from the Punjabi University, Patiala.

“We (Indians) aren’t great speedrunners and are mostly limited to endurance running when it comes to the middle distances. But I studied the best 800 m and 1500 m athletes in the world and they do 52, 53 seconds for the 400 meters,” explains Harmilan when asked why she started running the 400 meters.

It wasn’t long ago that she had a best of 59 seconds in the 400 meters but she realized that she’d have to shave a considerable chunk off this time to go faster in the initial laps of the 1500 meters. This increased speed – she now has a personal best of 54 seconds over 400 meters – allowed her to win the 800 meters as well at the 2021 Open National Championships.

She followed traditional running advice for the longest time until she decided to take a closer look at her body and the gaps in her preparation. 

“Everyone, including mummy, used to say pull hard in the last 200 or 120 meters. When I was at camp with PU Chitra and Lili Das, they used to lead the way and I used to try and keep up the pace with them. I was always a very good finisher but the conclusion was that I ran a very slow first 2 laps. I understood that if I don’t run a 54, 55 in the 400, I can’t do 1:01, 1:02 in the later laps,” she says, breaking down the science of 1500.

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Had she heeded the words of her first coach, it was possible that she might not have run the 1500 altogether. She was told that she was overweight at which point she dropped from 54 kg to 49. However, she found that she had lost some power in her limbs post the weight loss.

After she started training under the tutelage of Suresh Saini, she went back up to 54 – a transformation different from her previous self, giving her a ‘runner’s body’ in her own words. This was more muscle, as her body fat percentage dropped 11%.

The 1500 is as much a tactical race, and not about pure speed as the shorter distances. Harmilan was not used to setting the pace and instead opted to close races strongly while shadowing the leading pack for the majority of the race. It was the Khelo India 2020 games where being the strongest runner, she had no option but to set the pace, breaking Chitra PU’s Games record. It was then that she realized the need to work on her own strategy.

“Conventional wisdom can only take us so far. We have to study the world’s best athletes,” she said.  

Harmilan then goes on to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the top three women’s 1500 meters finishers in Tokyo – Faith Kipyegon, Laura Muir, and Sifan Hassan. 

“Faith has an amazing burst of speed over the 400, Muir’s specialty was the 800 and Hassan dropped down from the longer distances,” she sums it up.

Conventional wisdom can only take us so far. We have to study the world’s best athletes.

Beginnings 

Being the daughter of two middle-distance runners, running was chosen for her before she chose it. “I was told by my parents to try athletics. I used to be 1st or 2nd in my class so I did not think about taking up athletics. I participated in a village meeting where I came second and that was the start,” says Harmilan.

Moving to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus in Dharamshala was a big shift. Her father had initially wanted her to pursue her training at home but she quickly realized that she needed better facilities to improve herself.

“The one who supported me throughout was my grandfather. He would sign my report cards even if I had poor grades. He used to say ‘she’s my queen, she can do anything,’” said Harmilan. As a tribute to her grandfather, the athlete has named her Instagram handle ‘the_.queeen_’.

Having athletes for parents can become overbearing sometimes. 

Harmilan would find no respite after training sessions because her parents insisted on discussing her races and training regimes at home. It was coach Saini who helped her push back against her parents. “My coach and I had initially told my parents that I was focusing on the 800,” she reveals.

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She is also aware of the difficulties that female athletes have to face in India. On bringing an avocado back home on one occasion, a neighbor had told her mother that it was a testosterone-rich food and ‘only boys should consume it’.

The recent media storm surrounding Neeraj Chopra hasn’t escaped her attention either. “There are (media)people telling him that the one who marries him will be lucky,” she said. “We, as athletes, are lucky if we win gold. That is the only thing that matters to us.”

We, as athletes, are lucky if we win gold. That is the only thing that matters to us.

Next targets 

After missing out narrowly on qualification to the World Championships, she has her aim on next year’s Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, apart from the Asian Indoor and World Indoor Championships. The Commonwealth Games will be a much tougher affair with Tokyo silver medallist Laura Muir expected to be a part of the field.

For Bains though, the aim is to do even better in the 1500 and go under 3 minutes and 55 seconds. She will also be a part of the World University Games in Chengdu, China, and is aware of the 4:01.32 – the world University 1500 meter mark set by Paula Ivan in 1987. Given that she has shaved nine seconds off her personal best in the last 2 years, it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that she could threaten Ivan’s record.

Like all athletes, the next Olympics in Paris remains the goal but Harmilan is not getting carried away. “We all have to push ourselves but we can only perform to the limit of our abilities,” she signs off on a wise note.

For this 23-year-old though, the feeling is that she has just started scratching the surface of her abilities. There’s a lot more to come from India’s fastest middle-distance runner.

We all have to push ourselves but we can only perform to the limit of our abilities.

READ: Neeraj Chopra – India’s Pride, Tokyo’s Delight

ALSO READ: Durand Cup 2021 – What Makes Asia’s Oldest Football Tournament So Special

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