When Delhiite Rupa Abraham’s husband came home one day and told her he had signed up to participate in the Airtel Dream Run to raise funds for his organisation, she decided to join him as well. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run the whole distance, as 7 km did seem pretty long, so I started training,” says Abraham. “I’d run around the colony everyday, which was about 4 km. Initially, I couldn’t do the whole thing in one go, but I kept making progress, which encouraged me.”
Finally, the day of the race arrived, and Abraham prepared to realise her goal. “The place was jampacked,” she recalls. “There were all kinds of people, some in crazy costumes, others endorsing products, and once we started running, it was amazing to watch the sea of humanity in front of me. I never thought the turnout would be so enormous.” Abraham successfully completed the run, leaving her on a high. “It took me about an hour and 15 minutes, which might not be great, but which left me with a real sense of achievement. I’ve been running regularly ever since,” says Abraham.
See how they run
Like Abraham, a growing number of people in India have been discovering the joys of running – either solo or in groups. “Running is a simple sport that anyone can take up and it’s very egalitarian because all you need to get started is a good pair of running shoes,” says Rahul Verghese, who started ‘Running and Living’ – a movement that aims to introduce people to this sport.
Like Verghese’s endeavour, a number of running clubs have sprung up around the country over the last few years to actively promote running as a sport. These often have no age limit, cater to runners from different levels and one can find them in most big cities.
‘The Hash House Harriers’, with followers all over the country and abroad, for instance, promote running as a fun activity. Other clubs like the Chennai Runners and Runners for Life, have a more serious attitude to running. Another noteworthy club is the Bangalore-based Runner Girls India club.
“This was started by Sabine Tietge,” explains Meher D’Mello, a member of both Runner Girls India and Runners for Life. “One of its programmes was the ‘Couch to 5 km Programme’ in which Sabine quite literally got women to get off their couches and start running.”
Cutting a dash
During the week, the clubs organise runs early in the morning, when roads are clear. Beginners start with running 5-10 km and gradually work towards achieving longer distances. But this is not about exercise. There’s a lot more to running than just that, say fans.
“It’s also a great way to meet new people and have fun,” says Running and Living’s Verghese. Members of the Hash House Harriers generally unwind with a drink or two after a run. They also have a sort of ritual called ‘icing’ (sitting on ice after the run). “You have to have a sense of humour to be a part of the Hash,” says Ketki Shah, who has been a member since 1994. People are also expected to refer to each other by their Hash nicknames. “You may be a doctor or a CEO during the week, but on the weekend you’re just a Hasher,” adds Shah.
Hari and Ram, founders of the Chennai Runners, agree. “We come together because we enjoy running but our motives are different,” they explain, adding, “Many do it for the ‘runners’ high’, which athletes describe as a feeling of euphoria they experience after a long run or any kind of demanding exercise. Doctors say that this is caused by increased endorphin levels in the brain. But many members run purely because they love running.”
The Chennai Runners started off with three members four years ago and now have around 500. They meet at 5 am five days a week, and follow a fixed schedule – each day is set aside for a different kind of run; uphill, a longer run, or a shorter one for beginners.
Ask Hari and Ram about what they think is most special about their running sessions with the club and they say, “It is the interactions we have with members both before and after the run, because you learn so much from each other at those times. One gets to learn of different kinds of stretches and techniques. It’s like learning on the job.” marathon madness
Most organisers and members of running clubs are also heartened by the fact that the marathon has come to India in a big way. They agree, that with celebrities like Anil Ambani, Milind Soman and Rahul Bose advertising that they run long distances (like the marathon) on a regular basis, the number of people signing up for this challenge is increasing. “Our journey is slower, but running is only going to grow,” says Verghese, whose aim is to get 200 million people running. “I’m glad that people are taking up running as India is the world capital for diabetes and many other diseases,” adds Ram, who also believes that there is a long way to go.
A mad rush
But running clubs do acknowledge that sometimes, they run into a few hurdles. “We do not have good parks and there is always traffic,” says Sunil Chainani, Hash Master of the Bangalore Hash and also a member of Runners for Life. “Street dogs are also an issue; Ram was even bitten once, but now we have learnt how to deal with them,” adds Hari.
Another challenge that clubs face is motivating members who can’t stay the distance. “Running one five km race does not make a person a runner,” says Chainani. “The Kenyans and Ethiopians are always going to beat us, but we have to try and make running more popular,” adds D’Mello.