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How India’s long-distance running community coped with the pandemic

Ankita Gaur and Taher Merchant   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On a July morning this year, Taher Merchant, with a backpack containing food and water, set out for a run from his home in Jayanagar, Bengaluru. He ran many laps, amidst traffic, on the lane near his house. He had to be back home before the 8 pm pandemic curfew. In the evening, when he was about to complete the day’s run, a bemused local cop stationed near his house told Taher, “I saw you running when I was having my morning tea. Then, I saw you running when I was having lunch in the afternoon. It’s evening now and you are still running. I hope everything is all right.”

Taher was taking part in the two-day 100-km Oxfam Trailwalker charity challenger to help migrant labourers affected by COVID-19 pandemic. On the first day, he covered 85 km; on the second, he completed the remaining 15 km. The annual charity event is usually held in nature trails in Mumbai and Bengaluru. Due to the pandemic, however, people from many cities walked or ran in their neighbourhoods.

According to Indiarunning.com, a website that tracks running events across the country, 2019 had 1,579 races; the two preceding years also witnessed 1000-plus races. This year, however, most races were cancelled or postponed. Taher, over the last 10 years, has signed up for some of the most gruelling races in the world like the Tenzing Hillary Everest Extreme Ultra Marathon in 2018. This year, his schedule was disrupted. “I usually train in Ladakh during September-October. But I couldn’t travel this year,” he says.

The cancellation of events even impacted the livelihoods of some runners, like Coimbatore-based Vinoth Kumar, 30, who aspires to compete at the national level. “The prize money I get (from events), around three lakh rupees, is a substantial source of income for me to train and buy shoes and other things,” he says. He has not run since February this year. “Had I known earlier, I would have saved up more last year.”

Businesses associated with running events also experienced cash burns. Vasanthan K, director of My Race Timing Solutions in Chennai, which provides time-keeping services, says, “We managed to keep ourselves afloat only because of our good business in the last five years.”

Not tied down

The first few months of the pandemic were the most challenging for runners. They hardly stepped out due to strict curfew measures and a heightened fear of contracting the virus. Yet they found a way to keep themselves active.

The story of an Australian ultra-marathoner clocking 50 kilometres in 16 hours while isolating himself in a hotel room became popular in May. Sundreysh Sarup, 50, knows a few people from his running group in Delhi who adopted similar indoor routines. “Some apartment societies here weren’t allowing people to run even within the compound. So, people were doing laps from one room to another,” he says.

Being part of a running community also helped, says Rajesh Vetcha, 49, founder of the Hyderabad Running Group that organises the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon. “We took our activities online to make sure we were pushing each other,” he adds. The running community organised webinars, online workout sessions and others.

Ankita Gaur, 36, has been running for the past nine years, having participated in the Boston Marathon and Berlin Marathon. The Bengaluru-based runner did not stop this year despite the pandemic and her pregnancy. “I changed my routine, of course. I am extra careful when I run outdoors. I try and go for early morning runs when there aren’t many people around. I don’t do high intensity runs as I used to. But overall, running has made me feel good,” she says.

Participants at the Elite Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020.

Participants at the Elite Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Going digital

As the number of cases surged since February, some race organisers around the world employed technology to conduct virtual marathons, wherein participants ran from different places and recorded the times through an app.

The Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, organised by sporting event managers Procam International, allowed only the elite runners to compete within a spectator-less, bio-secure environment. The rest of the competitors ran the virtual event. Despite the reduction in participation — about 40,000 in 2019 to less than 14,000 this year — Vivek Singh, managing director of Procam, is satisfied with the numbers: “At the beginning of the year, it looked like we weren’t going to have the marathon at all. Considering that, I think this is a good number.” Procam is now preparing its other high-profile event, TCS World 10K Bengaluru, via the TCSW10K app from December 20 to 27.

Many charities also count on these virtual events. Rekha Sudarsan, race director of the Dream Runners Half Marathon (which was also a virtual event this year), says, “We got 3,500 registrations this year compared to the 5,000 we get usually. Since it was a virtual event, we had to reduce the registration fee from ₹1,000 to ₹300. But we still managed to raise funds for frontline workers and beneficiaries in need of artificial limbs.”

Vivek of Procam does not see the virtual marathon as a mere stopgap measure. “It is a top-up. Even after things are normal, we can use this to increase our participation,” he says.

Runners, however, miss the track. “Though running is considered a solo sport, events offer gratification,” says Sundreysh, “You get a high when you meet and compete with fellow runners. Virtual events can’t recreate that experience.” Several agree that long-distance running helped them cope with the pandemic. “The sport itself is such that it makes you mentally stronger,” says Taher. Adds Rajesh, “A lot of people were likening the pandemic to an apocalypse. It’s not true,” says Rajesh, adding, “When you run a long-distance race, three or four kilometres might be bad in between. That doesn’t mean you have to stop running. Once you endure the bad phase, you are good to go again. So, it’s never the end of the world.”

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 5:33:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/how-indias-long-distance-running-community-coped-with-the-pandemic/article33355471.ece

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