“What do I talk about when I talk about running?” If you’re bestselling Japanese novelist and ultramarathoner Haruki Murakami, you raise questions existential in nature. But Indian sprinting enthusiasts keep their thoughts grounded, musing on the best ways to beat traffic, pollution and stray animals. If you’re a female runner, the last category includes those out to cop a feel.
Running as a sport has taken off in India. According to Vivek Singh, joint MD of Procam International which kicked off the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon run in 2004, today there are over 100 recognized distance races in India. However, urban infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its popularity. Those training for marathons face several hazards daily. Last month, The New York Times reported that international athletes competing in the Delhi Half Marathon had difficulty breathing because of smog; earlier, in October, Bangalore marathoners took a train to the finish line after their pace car got them stuck in traffic.
“Where are the spaces to run?” asks Preeti Aghalayam, a professor at IIT Madras who has been running for the last 12 years. Parks across most cities aren’t much use to those whose average weekday run is 10 km. Sandeep Srivastava, a Delhi-based runner, calls it “mind-numbing” to train for a 20+ km marathon in a park. “Four rounds of the park next to my house is 1.2 km.I’d have to do almost 80 rounds,” says Srivastava, a management consultant who participated in his first marathon in 2007.
Residents of coastal cities like Chennai and Mumbai have the option of running on the beach or beach front, but the humidity can be sapping. Plus, they have to dodge morning walkers.
Which is why most Indian marathoners are, by default, road runners.”We’re okay with asphalt, tar, concrete, even cobblestones,” says Aghalayam. What they run into is a different story . “Bus and truck drivers are the worst; they see us but they won’t stop,” says Suresh Pathi of Jayanagar Jaguars (JJ), one of Bangalore’s oldest running groups. Pathi’s group, which has mapped routes across Jayanagar, starts at 5am and winds up by 7 am to beat traffic and pollution. Unless you have access to a school, college facility or stadium, it’s tough to do interval, strength training and track workouts, all important for long-distance runners, so JJ members carry their own equipment — ladders, hurdles, steppers, etc — in their cars.
Having a facility in the vicinity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a step up — Srivastava, a Mayur Vihar resident, says the infrastructure that came with the Commonwealth Games is being abused. The CWG village track, which surrounds a football field, is blocked by players relaxing at off-time. “How would they feel if I sat in the middle of the field during their game?” he asks. The cycling track from Akshardham to Noida is overrun by bikers and even cars driving at breakneck speed, making listening to music while running a dangerous distraction. “Why ask for infrastructure when the attitude of people using it has gone from bad to worse,” says the 50-year-old who is often greeted with jeers like ‘Hey tau, how to lose weight?’ and ‘Ghutney aapke theek hain?’ Aghalayam says that women on early morning runs are most vulnerable. “Men come on two wheelers and squeeze your butt as you run. Recently, a friend was teased by a bunch of young guys on a bullock cart,” she says, recommending running in groups, sticking to familiar, well-lit roads, going against the traffic and being clearly visible in bright clothes as safeguards.
Stray dogs, cats and even monkeys, if you’re running in shaded areas with a water bottle in hand, are a menace. On the flip side, encountering a swift deer is inspiring, says Aghalayam who often runs on the IIT campus. Pollution literally has Srivastava in tears. “Crops are burnt on the Yamuna belt where I run. For the last year-and-a half, the sweat from my forehead running into my eyes burns like someone has put acid on them. I have to keep stopping and washing my eyes with water,” he says.
Despite the hurdles, no one’s hanging up their running shoes. Enthusiasts have found solutions and silver linings -Aghalayam says training in humid conditions helps ace races in drier towns while Srivastava has a way to maximize results from park running. “One round clockwise, the other anti-clockwise to use all your muscles,” he says. And while runners who’ve participated in international marathons come away impressed by daily running conditions abroad, Aghalayam, for one, wouldn’t trade tracks. “There is still an innocence to the Indian running fraternity that you won’t find in the US, where people are more focused on meeting personal goals. Here, we don’t mind if you finish five minutes ahead. We’ll still take a selfie together at the end.”