The world under your feetJul 12th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Lifestyle, Opinion, Viewing News
The distinct feel of a carnival hits you even before you enter the Kanteerava Stadium for the Sunfeast 10k event in Bangalore. The roads have been blocked off to regular vehicular traffic. Men, women and children in thousands, dressed in ritual runne r’s attire — dry-fit tees and running shoes — claim the roads with a casual arrogance and freedom they could never dream of on normal days.
As one enters the stadium, it seemingly gets chaotic as the senses get pulled in a thousand different directions at the same time. As the elite band of international professional runners get down to serious business — serious business it is, with the Bangalore Sunfeast World 10K being the world’s richest 10k run with a purse of US$21,000 for the winner — there are all kinds of side shows going on. The high-watt speakers around the stadium pump out bhangra and other foot-tapping numbers, others wear their philosophies on their tees, making use of the publicity and visibility an event like this generates: “Run and become”, proclaims one tee; “Pain is temporary, Pride is forever”, says another; “I ran for a cause bigger than the finish line”, says yet another. There are people running to raise money for all kinds of causes; to educate under-privileged children; to raise awareness against child molestation; there is even a lady dressed like a condom to advocate safe sex…
Make no mistake about it. The enthusiasm — and the hype — are signs that the most individual and lonely of all sports, distance running, has arrived in style in our metros. Marathons are rising in popularity across the country. Procam International, the organisers of the Sunfeast World and Open 10k in Bangalore, also manage the prestigious Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, first held in 2005 and the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon — again, the world’s richest half marathon. Procam’s running races are star-studded extravaganzas. The actor John Abraham is the brand ambassador for the Mumbai Marathon and Deepika Padukone for the Bangalore 10k. An estimated 35,000 people ran the Mumbai Marathon and more than 20,000 ran the Bangalore 10k.
Hyderabad had its first, successful and highly appreciated by the runners, Marathon in 2008. Chennai too had its marathon in 2008 and Puducherry has its own, and extremely well-organised, marathon as well. The “other” distance running event in Bangalore, the Ultra Marathon, is a little different in that runners can do anywhere between 25 to 75km or more depending on individual capacities in a stipulated time of 12 hours. And there are marathons which make use of the diverse landscape obtaining in our country to carve a unique identity for themselves. There is the gruelling Great Tibetan Marathon organised in Leh at an altitude of 11,000+ ft which has been called one of the world’s 10 most extreme marathons. And starting this year, The Great Indian Desert Run will put a limited number of 75 runners through a tough, 250-km race, held over five days that will pit the runners against and expose them to the stark beauty of the Rajasthan Thar landscape.
The popularity, however, is not a sudden, overnight affair. If distance running seems to be acquiring a critical enough mass for corporates to cash in on, it’s largely because the ground work was laid by passionate runners themselves over the years. People like Rajesh Vetcha of Hyderabad, Arvind Bharathi of Runners for Life (http://runnersforlife.com) in Bangalore which organises the Ultra Marathon and the Kaveri Trail Marathon and Ram Viswanathan of Chennai Runners ( www.chennairunners.com ), which organises the ECR runs. Enabled by the Net, these runners have been forming their own communities, helping each other out and doing what they love doing best, organise distance running. The Chennai Runners, for example, conduct different kinds of running on different week days, with a long, 15+ km run done on Sundays. The route is announced on the website and in their googlegroups mailing list well in advance, anyone is free to join them at any point of the course or drop out at any point. The group, with a membership of over 700, acts as a support system for runners, with tips for training and overcoming injuries.
In Bangalore too, Runners for Life (RFL) started out as a mutual support network for runners in 2005, organising monthly runs and helping out each other, says Arvind Bharati. “The monthly runs provided an opportunity for the runners to compare notes and train together. Training with a group gets people more motivated and disciplined. After all, training for a marathon needs to be highly disciplined,” he says. When the existing marathons were found wanting from the runners’ point of view, RFL decided to start their own, resulting in the 12-hour Ultra marathon in 2007. It’s a highly popular event with runners, perceived in the distance running circles as an event organised by runners for runners. RFL has more than 4,000 members today.
Having such a support system is crucial. Rajesh Vetcha, the man behind the successful 2008 Hyderabad Marathon, recalls how, when he started “running in 2004, it was really difficult to get a partner, share information about running and also have good running gear. It has improved a lot now and through Hyderabad Runners, we do all this. This has helped a 61-year-old do the first marathon in his life. Another 60-year-old managed to do a 52 km Ultra marathon on his 60th birthday.” Efforts like these would have been unimaginable without a support group, he says. Agrees Vishu Shetty, an IT professional in Bangalore who ran the Sunfeast Open 10k in Bangalore: “What made it a good experience was running with like-minded people who also took it as part of their training and made some landmark changes in their lives like quitting smoking.”
Others like Suren Sista of Echostar Sports, the organisation behind the Great Indian Desert Run ( www.greatindiandesertrun.com ), feel that it is important to create a viable “ecosystem” around sports like distance running. Take cricket, he says. “It is a sport that we are very good at, and we do well at it internationally… which leads to a demand for better infrastructure for the sport, and there is money to provide for it… it is a loop that helps feed and grow the sport. Outside of cricket it is individual brilliance, a Vishwanathan Anand, Saina Nehwal, Abhinav Bindra to name three, which keeps the tricolour flying high. Clearly, we do not lack talent. The point is about creating the right inputs, and the right environment. If, as a society, we followed and practised not only cricket but also other sports as well, we would create a demand for those sports, which would lead to better infrastructure and avenues for young talent to practise and hone their skills.” The Great Indian Desert Run itself is an effort in that direction.
A lot of runners doing the Sunfeast 10k felt that the event was a bit too commercialised. A.K. Kaushik, a CRM/customer service professional based in Hyderabad felt that the runners themselves didn’t quite get the respect they deserved, especially after the finish when the organiser’s efforts were not quite up to par. “It’s a shame that something that was so well organised and conducted had to fall apart at the last minute, that we were made to feel more like a hindrance to the organisers just at those moments when we were feeling special about ourselves,” he says. Something like this would never have happened if runners had been in charge of the event, feels Rajesh Vetcha.
Now that distance running has hit prime time, are the corporates running away with the spoils of the hard work put in by dedicated runners? The reactions are mixed from the running community. Says Ram Viswanathan of Chennai Runners, “Some financial base is required to organise anything and to organise events like Sunfeast 10k there is definitely significant commercial consideration. Now, how you balance between commercial considerations and sporting events like this is an age-old question which has a lot of grey areas. Nevertheless, it is important to organise events like the Sunfeast to popularise running in India.”
It is a line of thought echoed by Arvind Bharathi of RFL: “Actually I don’t mind the commercialisation as long as the actual organisation of the event for the runners is taken care of… We need more Sunfeast Open 10k kind of races across India. After all, because of the Sunfeast 10k we had over 20,000 people running in Bangalore last month. At the end of the day, events are what get people enthused about running/training. Running as a sport also deserves its own extravagant events, just like other sports and it’s the only way it will get running into the minds of the masses,” he says. But Rajesh Vetcha has a different take. He points out that the New York Marathon is a multi-billion dollar business enterprise, yet every participating runner feels he is the centre-piece of the effort. “Corporate support is required for mass sports since the government does nothing in this area. Abroad too, they commercialise but then the event and the runners are the first priority and rest are secondary but in India, runners are small cogs in the wheels,” he says.
Yet, one feels the sport will thrive because the events need runners more than the runners need the commercial events. After all, all that a runner needs is a pair of shoes and she is set to go and once one gets a taste of it, it’s hard to let go. Ambar Dev, another IT professional in Bangalore, who went from being a novice runner to a marathoner almost overnight, says he likes running because it enables him to push himself to the limits of his physical and mental endurance. And therein lies another key to the sport’s success. It is the least competitive of sports, where competitors actually help and goad each other to go the full distance. When one is running, one is not competing against others, just against one’s own limits, pushing them, extending them. Much as in life, the battles are all internal, and once those are won, there’s just no stopping you… it’s a whole new world under your feet…