Running as a sport has caught on in a big way in Indian cities with the creation of runners’ groups, sharing of resources and at least one eponymous race hosted by every big city. Now, with the temperatures having dropped in most parts of the country, running fever is at a high.
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Bengaluru just hosted the 10K intencity run and earlier in November, the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon saw a great response despite the initial uncertainty caused by the alarming levels of pollution in the capital region. In an earlier article, we discussed how air quality, though traditionally not a big talking point among runners, is emerging to be a key concern, though it has perhaps not yet reached a point where a majority actually considers pollution to be a deterrent.
That aside, what is it that makes a city a runner’s favourite and how do our cities measure up against each other?
The joy factors of a race
The level of pollutants in the air may not constitute a core deciding factor for many runners yet, but they all unanimously agree that the weather plays a key role in determining the enjoyability of a run.
Though most of the big races are usually organized around the time that the city experiences its best climate, the smaller local races are often challenging in cities like Chennai and Hyderabad where heat and humidity combine to pose very difficult conditions.
Preeti Aghalayam, a professor at IIT Madras and active member of the local group “Chennai Runners,” mentions how there is always a fair bit of trepidation among runners practising for the Chennai Marathon, usually held in the first or second week of December. “Chennai is not its normal hot and humid self at this time of the year, but we are always concerned about the rains and if the streets are going to be waterlogged,” she says with a laugh.
Preeti has run in almost all the metros in the country (with the exception of Kolkata) as well as in Hyderabad and Mysore. She has also been a participant at the World Majors in Chicago and London. Like most runners we spoke to, Preeti avers that every city has its own appeal. She does say however that both in Delhi and Bengaluru, the pollution is palpable.
The other important factor that runners place a premium on is efficient traffic management. Rajan Venkatesan of Chennai, a seasoned and passionate runner, says, “Mumbai and Delhi have really got this figured out. In Mumbai, traffic is halted for as long as six hours, while in Delhi it’s around three hours. How traffic is managed in and around run times makes a huge difference to us as runners, and the bigger organisers like Procam ensure that this is taken care of. There are a number of factors that affect this of course, including the negotiations and financial dealings with municipal bodies.”
He also mentions that Bengaluru scores the least in his ratings of running destinations in terms of traffic management. This is also confirmed by author and long-time marathoner Parul Sheth, as she recalls occasions when runners actually had to stop to make way for traffic in the city.
The greenery and picturesqueness of the trail matter too, in terms of adding to the sheer joy of running. Sangeeta Shankar, a Chartered Accountant and writer who has participated in various runs in the country and abroad, including in Pahalgam, Kashmir, says, “The beauty of a trail or the greenery around may not be something that is a real differentiator, but it does add to the experience and makes a run more pleasurable. Pahalgam was a treat in that respect and it just helped that the purity of the air was so striking and palpable.”
In terms of the actual difficulty of the trail, most runners agree that Hyderabad, where the course runs through flyovers and elevated, hilly terrain, presents the greatest challenge.
Hydration points, toilet facilities, crowd management at the starting and ending points, all present important factors adding to the popularity of races and running destinations, and inevitably cities like Mumbai and Delhi, with more professional organisers having stronger financial muscle, fare better on these counts.
Every city has its own point of pride though. In Chennai, for example, where races are still largely organized by running groups and volunteers, a lot of attention is given to reduction and disposal of waste generated during the events.
“In Delhi, the organisers were distributing small Bisleri bottles at the hydration stations. There were around 30000 runners today and if you assume that each consumed around four such bottles on average, that’s a whopping 120000 plastic bottles thrown out over a three-hour period. In Chennai, therefore, we take great pride in the fact that we’ve switched completely to recyclable glasses,” said Rajan after concluding the Delhi Half Marathon on November 19th.
Another city which has seriously taken on the task of sustainable waste management and disposal during and after its races is Bengaluru. With the help of NGO Hasiru Dala and members of the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT), organisers and volunteers are putting in extra efforts to ensure that racing events in the city go green.
A long way to go, infrastructurally
Enthusiastic runners may rate cities on the basis of individual factors as above, and also on their particular emotional links with a city. But Indian cities in general have a lot to work on if they wish to really aid runners in the pursuit of their passion.
Amit Bhatt, a Gurgaon resident, is a relatively new entrant to the running community but that has not stopped him from running eight half marathons in as many months. Also, as Director, Integrated Transport at WRI India, he is very well-versed on the subject of urban infrastructure.
“Running as a sport poses a huge challenge in our cities. Firstly, there is the novelty of it. Move beyond a few cities, and people will stare at you if you are just practising on the roads. There are no sidewalks, hardly any green cover, or trails for runners. Look at Gurgaon; the air quality is alarmingly poor, visibility in the mornings is low, especially during winters and there are hardly any continuous footpaths for you to run on. So you run on the roads, and the traffic not only makes it difficult but actually poses a risk,” says Amit.
Amit’s point is especially pertinent when one considers that a runner’s life is not about running a few disjointed races, running is a lifestyle. You may or may not choose to run in a particular race in Delhi or Mumbai or Kolkata, but what does your city itself have to offer you as a runner?
Mumbai – where the heart is!
At the end of it all, though, there is one thing that brings a majority of runners together — their choice of Mumbai as an all-time favourite. The Mumbai Marathon is the oldest formalized race in the country and one of the best-organised.
“Mumbai gives you the feel of running in any global city; the track is cleaner in general and the part of it that goes along Marine Drive is beautiful,” says Vaishali Kasture, a regular runner who lives in Bengaluru and Mumbai. But what earns the latter that special soft corner in the runner’s heart is the way that it comes together to embrace the event.
“The participation of non-runners and the pride that they take in a race hosted by their city boosts the morale of runners quite a bit. In Chennai, this seems to be lacking to some extent and I have seen many citizens, who are not a part of the run in anyway, disgruntled over traffic being held up because of it,” says Preeti of her home city. And that is where Mumbai stands out.
Rajan describes how, as the course passes through some of Mumbai’s best residential areas, apartment communities voluntarily set up small stations to provide water and other support to runners. “At a particular juncture in the course, near Pedder Road, there is a sharp incline that is quite difficult to navigate; It makes all the difference to us participants to see the crowds gathered there, cheering us on,” he says.
As more and more people take to the sport, one hopes that our cities will also become more supportive and conducive to the joy of running. And that there will be a time, when no one has to think of pulling out of a race for fear of what it might do to his lungs.