Delhi got lucky on Marathon Day, but do runners really mind pollution?

Even when the outcry over air quality in the capital was at its shrillest, registrations for the Delhi Half Marathon reached a new high. Here's what runners have to say about pollution as a deciding factor for participation.

Rarely ever would runners anywhere have looked forward to rain as fervently as in the Indian capital over the second week of November. In fact, runners across the country preparing to run the popular Airtel Delhi Half Marathon at the end of the week knew that it was only rain that could save the marquee event that many consider among their most favourite races in the country.

In the end the rain gods did oblige, so that on November 19th, thousands of runners participated in the half marathon on what was perhaps the least polluted day in the city in over a month.

With the furore over the shocking quality of air in the capital during the early days of November, the race came under a cloud, especially when the Indian Medical Association issued warning of a public health emergency in the capital over the level of pollutants in the air. But even as the hue and cry reached a crescendo in national discourse, the event garnered around 35000 registrations, a significant jump over the 2016 numbers.

This naturally raises the question whether air pollution is indeed a factor that runners consider when they prepare for a race. Does it hamper performance? Does it reduce the attractiveness of a race or a destination for a runner?

Pollution gradually gaining currency

Vaishali Kasture is an avid runner from Bangalore and the half marathon this year was her seventh Delhi race. “There’s something in the air, you can always feel that the moment you land in the city. And though there was no smog today, just as I completed my race, I started coughing. I had felt something similar even last year, but having said that, I don’t think this would ever stop me from coming to Delhi. It’s one of my favourite places to run in,” said Vaishali, as she waited to catch a flight back home after Sunday’s run.

Delhi is actually a favourite destination among a large number of runners across India. As far as the event itself is concerned, a meticulously organized race on a more or less flat track, through some of the best and most upscale areas of the city, provides an opportunity for runners to enhance their personal best performances. The sharp media glare on air pollution has certainly led to much greater awareness of the issue and concerns over its impact, but it has not yet deterred a huge number of people from participation.

Rajan Venkatesan, another regular runner from Chennai, distinguishes between runners in this respect. “There are two types of runners I would say; for one, those who look at the sport through a very scientific lens and focus more on the method and long-term impact, while those in the other category run more for the sake of friends they run with and the spirit and belongingness that this fosters. I think the former group are more serious about issues like air quality, and I personally know a few who actually backed out this time due to concerns about Delhi pollution,” says Rajan.

Ramesh, a seasoned distance runner from Chennai is one among them. “The news in the week prior to the marathon was not at all encouraging, including an IMA advisory. But looks like it got better and most people had a very good run,” he said.

Rajan himself went ahead with his Delhi plans but like Vaishali, he too mentions the physical irritants in his throat after the race and the coughing bouts he had. “However, I think it is much more difficult for runners who live in the city. For them, running in this environment is something they do on a regular basis, they are not here just for a three-hour race. I have a friend in Delhi who has to take definite precautions any time that he runs, like wearing a formal training mask every time,” he says.

“Environmental pollution is something we live with all the time. Delhi may have been at the centre of public attention over the last couple of years, but I don’t suppose the situation is much better in any of the cities. So while I have seen quite a bit of hesitation about running in Delhi among some, both this year and the last, I don’t think air pollution is as yet a serious talking point among regular runners,” feels long-time marathoner Parul Sheth, who has authored a book about her life and running experience called The Runner’s Soul.  Personally, Delhi remains a favourite for Parul for its course and the weather around the time that it hosts the Half Marathon.

But if the quality of air is not really a top-of-the-mind concern, what are the factors that do influence a runner’s choice or preference for a particular destination? And how do Indian cities measure up against each other on such parameters? That is another story for another day.

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