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Rise of the marathon runner

Once considered the preserve of pro athletes, marathon running is finding fans among many common people. A large number of them are taking to this extreme sport for the sheer joy of conquering their bodies and testing their endurance limits15 Apr 2018 | 1:54 AM

Indians are lacing up and taking to the streets as marathon participation becomes a country-wide rage. As they surge, so do the numbers, year after year.

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Bhanu Pande

Indians are lacing up and taking to the streets as marathon participation becomes a country-wide rage. As they surge, so do the numbers, year after year. Over the last 15 years, marathon, half marathon, long and shorter distance running events have really caught the fancy of the Indian masses. 

What began as a vanilla annual event — the Pune Marathon — in 1983, has seen a staggering growth ever since the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon was inaugurated in 2004. From a piffling two such events in 2004, the annual marathons in the country have grown to around the 1,000 mark, spread across big and small cities, says Vivek Singh, Joint MD, Procam International, which organises Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. Singh, a marathon buff himself, says that “India is in the midst of a running revolution, no sporting activity has grown so fast like the marathon running.” 

A feeling of freedom 

What makes people take to such extreme sport? While the prime trigger for such a running frenzy may be the rising fitness consciousness among people, many also run for the sheer joy of it. And then there are some who even do it just to kill time. 

Rahul Verghese (58), founder, Running and Living Infotainment, an IIM alumni and a former corporate honcho, says he was 40 when he first started running to kill time but soon realised he could run 30 minutes without stopping. He ran his first marathon at 41, while he was working with Motorola in Chicago. Since being bitten by the running bug, he has run 58 marathons across six continents in several countries. Says Verghese, "Running can really unleash the potential of every individual, and that's what's excited me to quit my marketing career of 25 years with corporates like Unilever, Nestle and Motorola, and start something I am passionate about and combine that with my experience in marketing. I have had the opportunity to run in several major marathons — including Chicago, New York City, London, as well as the original — from Marathon to Athens. After my second marathon, I set myself a target to run 50 marathons, one in each continent, including the Antarctic, and also qualify for the Boston Marathon. Since I have reached my target, I have set a further goal for myself.  You live only once! So, life began at 40 for me, I guess. If you love life, you're on the right track.”

For Gurugram-based Gaurav Pant (40), who heads operations of US-based Graduate Management Admission Council in India, it was the feeling of utter freedom that made him addicted to running. He regularly participates in marathons across the country now. Last year, he even flew to Singapore to run the local race because he wanted to do an international race and feel the difference. “Running allows me to set myself free,” says Pant. “Nothing seems impossible when you run freely; it relaxes my mind and strengthens my body.” 

For some, it’s an opportunity to put their body to test as Delhi-based Rahul Kumar says. He wanted to stretch his limits when he first participated in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon at the age of 44, two years ago. “The idea of a personal challenge drove me into running,” he says. Rahul has, however, now moved to shorter races due to health issues. 

In pursuit of unfulfilled dreams

For many others like him, it could be a late realisation and hunger to achieve something that hadn’t been possible earlier, as it happened in the case of Ravinder Singh, a Gurugram-based coach. He says the thrill of conquering the distance motivated him to run the marathon at the age of 42. He has done several full marathons till date. “Human beings need to pursue targets to keep them going,” he adds. “While I liked running even at a younger age, I could never focus on it then, so I picked it up when I could.” 

There are, however, other subliminal triggers that woo many. While marathon is an endurance sport, it brings the best of virtues in human behaviour on the race days, something which is a rarity in our day-to-day lives. One can see the indomitable courage of an old man, probably in his seventies running a full marathon bare-chested in chilling winters. The story of centenarian Sikh Fauja Singh is legendary. 

One can witness compassion during these events, when a participant crumbles down, not able to move any further. Most times a fellow runner, a stranger, will pause, not really bothering about the stop watch ticking by for him, and will motivate the tired runner and pull him along. 

Why India can’t stop running

No wonder in the last five years the passion for running a marathon has expanded to tier II and tier III towns. Today, almost every Indian city such as Rishikesh, Noida, Varanasi, etc. to name a few — has its own version of marathon. Punjab holds Big Punjab Marathon, Half Marathon and Big Chandigarh Marathon. Towns as small as Leh and the sleepy little hamlet of Mukteshwar boast of their own version of annual marathon races. 

As the racing event expands its footprint across the country, it is bringing in more and more people into its folds. EventJini, a Chennai-based software solutions provider for registration, pegs the number of regular and serious full marathon (42.2 KM) runners in India at around 20,000. 

Besides these enthusiasts for full events, there are those who participate in the half marathon (21.3 km) and other shorter distance races followed by non-serious, fun seeking participants. So the cumulative numbers of runners could be fairly high considering it’s still a nascent sport in India. This number is growing at a fast rate. 

“Serious marathon apart, running has indeed become a big fad, but at least it’s getting people out of their homes to engage in some kind of physical activity,” says Sangeeta Saikia, a Delhi-based dentist, who herself is serious marathon buff. She even does longer distance races of 70-80 km. Saikia is currently training for the local marathon in Rotterdam, scheduled for this April. It involves long hours of strenuous exercises and running daily.

In step with celebrities

While the popularity of marathon has been triggered by a rise in disposable incomes matching an increased awareness about fitness, the endorsement by celebrities and presence of stars at such events have also helped to increase the numbers. It doesn’t matter even if these stars don’t run the race. 

Raghuram Rajan, Milind Soman, Anil Ambani, Gul Panag, Naveen Jindal, Rahul Bose et al, regulars at Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (Now Tata Mumbai Marathon), are all distance runners. Organisers understand the pull factor of celebrities who add to the ‘cool quotient’ of these running events. This factor draws in even non-serious, non-regular marathoners in their branded sporting gears so as to be a part of the mega celebration. 

Social media has given this endurance sport a lot of fillip as posing at the finishing line or just getting clicked in action, makes for a great instaphoto op. Uploading images on social media sites adds to the positive feeling of accomplishment.  

So, why is marathon not just about fitness? Well, just about an hour of jogging could bring in similar, if not better, health-related benefits. So what are the emotional drivers that make participation in marathons such a compelling idea? There is a substantial draw due to charity fund-raising linkages which has been well structured by the marathon organisers. Several corporates, institutions and NGOs register and enthuse the potential donors to raise money for a good cause. Kumar endorses this, “I felt good about participating in ADHM as it was also raising funds for a preferred charity.” 

Late bloomers

Interestingly, the rising popularity of marathon in India, challenges the conventional myth that the endurance sport is for youngsters only. However, the ground reality is quite different. Today, a significant section of marathoners is made of people in their forties, says Singh who interacts with a large base of aspirants and veterans. It also shatters the idea that distance running is a male bastion. 

Singh has a fair number of women amongst his trainees today. The report by Eventjini finds there are five older runners for every runner in the twenties for full (42km) and half marathon. As high as 61 per cent runners are between 30 and 50 years age group. Older runners are more consistent and repeatedly return for longer races. These trends apply across genders. “Running a marathon has more to do with mental fitness than physical fitness,” says Saikia. 

In today’s world this could be the best holistic experience for the mind-body-soul that one could seek and stay loyal to. So grab your shoes and run the road less treaded.

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