Since I had never run even 10km in one go, I signed up for what I thought should be a stretch – a half-marathon. By a combination of interesting circumstances, I did manage to finish that race, along with a few hundred other people. Fast-forward to nearly a decade and a half. I am neither young nor a bachelor, but the rush of my first race has not left me. I have run every Mumbai Marathon since then. And in the latest edition, just two months back, almost 40,000 runners participated in one of the many events that are a part of the Mumbai Marathon. And that mushrooming of runners has echoed across similar events in Bangalore, NCR, Chennai, Kolkata, and other parts of India over the past decade. It is anybody’s guess why India (at least some parts of it) has transformed from a relatively inactive nation to a nation of runners.
In 2004, there would have been two dozen running events at best across India. As of date, there are more than 1,500 running events at distances ranging from 3 km to 100km and beyond. Mid-long-distance running is a mass participation sport and, arguably, a popular one. One possible reason Indians have taken to longer distances is that the sport is kinder to those who want to experiment, with it, unlike others, which require significant skill, equipment and infrastructure. As its aficionados would tell you, all one needs to run is a pair of shoes, and sometimes not even that, as the barefoot brigade would argue. And Indians have taken the lack of public spaces in general, and parks in particular, as one of the relatively minor irritants to pursuing the sport, evidenced by the number of people bravely running on the roads, sometimes with accompanying traffic.
Another curiosity is the age of the average runner in India and the age at which they have begun their pursuit. Unlike most nations, India doesn’t have much of an emphasis on sports in its curriculum. As a result, Indians end up mostly inactive and overweight by the time they hit their late 20s and early 30s. Add existential dilemmas that hit people around this age, thanks to their careers and other life matters, some peer pressure and occasionally, just plain enthusiasm to the mix, and you have a potent recipe to get them to start running, which serves to leave them better prepared for a host of things life throws at them, beyond running.
Admittedly, India poses no threat to competitive running globally yet, but the spread of running beyond just the hotbeds of Bengaluru, Mumbai and the NCR, is heartening. Smaller cities such as Coimbatore, Baroda, Vizag and Satara, to name a few, have thousands of runners participating in their main running events. That is in itself a promising development. When people train and get better at running, their lifestyles get better too, as a welcome side-effect. For a country that has more diabetics than the entire populations of the UK, France, or Italy, that is something the powers-that-be could take note of encourage, by creating more public spaces and green areas. Running events are also a fantastic avenue for doing social good, as demonstrated cheerily by the charity efforts of various running events pan-India. Corporate India has done well to leverage this by engaging its employees and putting some of its profits to good use in the service of social causes. The TATA group of companies, Accenture and Wipro are at the vanguards of this trend.
One area where India is still lagging is the participation of women, which remains at around 20 per cent of participants at most running events. This is in part due to the fact that Indian public spaces are not safe for women running alone, and also due to the heavy-lifting women do in households as homemakers, they are left with less time for leisure than their partners. However, things are changing, albeit slowly. One can hope fondly for a day in the future when Indians get healthier, bucking current trends of lifestyle diseases, opting for a greener mode of transport, and making the country a better place to live in, all of them riding the running wave.