India is on the cusp of a running revolution
India’s running landscape is changing wildly with more and more people taking to marathons and even ultrasUpdated: Nov 08, 2019 13:37 IST
A few years ago, I was invited by the principal of the Bangalore-based school (I studied at the same school) to speak on Careers Day. This would have been otherwise unremarkable (since alumni are often invited to speak at their schools and colleges), had it not been for the fact that I coach people to run for a living. Let me step back a little bit.
I am a 41-year-old Indian male, living in Bangalore. I have been running for about 18 years now. Until about 8 years ago, I had what might pass for a regular career path for urban Indians—an engineering degree, then a job in a software company, followed by a degree at a business school, before eventually ending up in a management consulting firm. After returning from a planned sabbatical (during which I trained to qualify for the Boston Marathon and got into the shape of my life), I decided it was too much fun running and quit my job. I couldn’t have dreamt of doing this, even five years prior. As Joy Bhattacharya writes in his essay in “Go! India’s sporting transformation”, today, it is much easier to project sports as a profession to a parent. It wasn’t always like that.
India is in a bit of a time warp as far as its long distance running is concerned. Our national record for the men’s marathon was set in 1972. Our first ever women’s team for the marathon went to the Olympics in 2016, despite the event having been open to women since 1984. It is widely acknowledged that running caught the fancy of the common man in India, only with the advent of the Mumbai Marathon in 2004. This is despite the fact that a marathon had been organized at irregular intervals in Pune since 1983. You couldn’t fault an ordinary person for not trying to participate in it, if organizers snatched your bib away if you didn’t get to halfway in 90 minutes and also provided boiled eggs as refreshment along the course, as per one unfortunate runner from the early 2000s.
When I was growing up in the 90s, running over a km was something you did as an ordinary person, as preparation for some other sport. It wasn’t a popular sport by itself. Only those who had studied/were studying overseas, especially those in the US, knew of someone who actually ran for over an hour, for fun. There were the privileged few who went to boarding schools or those who went to military schools who did some cross country. You didn’t see ordinary people running for hours in the public parks or on the roads. Forget instant messaging or social media, using the internet to do something about your running was the stuff of fertile imagination.
Today, I count at least three people in my own circle of friends who have run for 24 hours straight. Admittedly I would have more runners in my circle than the average Indian, but they do all keep full time jobs. What happened?
India is on the cusp of something special. The demographic dividend that management consultants and economists, (among others) had beaten to death may finally be materializing. Thus, one can find more than a few hundred people at least, in each of the metros, more than happy to pay for a coach to help them get better at running. It is unlikely that any of these few hundred will represent India at the Tokyo Olympics but that isn’t their interest. Most, if not all, have well paying jobs. Running is just a hobby they are serious about. And that’s true even in these times of an uncertain economy, regardless of whose data you want to believe.
Indians haven’t stopped at running just marathons. The Bangalore Ultra, India’s first ultramarathon, had run through 10 editions, before the organizers stopped organizing it about 2 years ago. The “ultra” in the name of the event refers to distances beyond a marathon distance. Other events have stepped in to fill the gap across the country. In fact, except the eastern part of India, there are running events almost every weekend right through the year. And some of these ultrarunning events are organized on tracks of 400m! Participants willingly run circles (or ovals if you want to be right) for up to 48 hours. At the moment of writing this article, one incredible man in Mumbai is attempting to run 100km for 100 days straight. And this is his second attempt. In his first attempt, he came tantalisingly close to doing so, ending up just about 36 km short of his ‘grand’ goal (10,000km). If this does happen, it will be a record of sorts.
Indians winning running events at the marathon distance or over is not yet a phenomenon. No Indian (resident or otherwise) has won a World Marathon Major (the six marathons of Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and most recently Tokyo) or an Olympic or IAAF World Championship marathon till date. However Ullas Narayana, an Indian origin man currently living and working in Canada achieved a bronze medal in the 2018 International Association of Ultra Running (IAU) 24 Hour Asia & Oceania Championships in Taipei, Taiwan. That’s a worthy exception considering that India didn’t even send teams to global competitions till 2017. Does this mean we will soon see medals at global long distance running events? Don’t hold your breath yet, but there’s a chance you will see more exceptional feats of endurance by athletes of Indian origin in the coming years, especially in ultrarunning events.
The domination of the East Africans in global marathons though is unlikely to be challenged for a decade or more by athletes from any country, let alone Indians. I am among those who believe that the only reason other countries medal in the marathon at the Olympics or World Championships is because they allow a maximum of 3 runners per country in the marathon. One only needs to see the top 10 finishers in any global marathon with significant prize money, to find support for this point. But the lure of prize money could drive a bunch of athletically gifted Indians to take up long distance running seriously, eventually coming up to global standards.
Once that happens, we should see Shivnath Singh’s marathon record set in 1972 go down. And I fully expect this to happen in the 5th decade of my life. That would be quite something to behold considering that I had not even considered even watching long distance running on TV, let alone do it myself, even for fun, for the first two decades of my life.
For the common runner, India’s running landscape is just changing wildly. The first edition of the Mumbai Marathon (unarguably India’s leading marathon) in 2004 didn’t even have 500 finishers. Its 16th edition had over 5000 finishers. While this is still nowhere near the 25,000 or more finishers that each World Major marathon had in 2019, it is worth remembering that each of those cities have had marathons for 30 years or more. We are just about halfway yet. In 2004, there were perhaps 50 organized running events of distances ranging from the 5K to the marathon (and beyond) across India. Today there are over 1500.
The best is yet to come.
((Dharmendra is a running coach, management consultant and freelance writer, based out of Bengaluru. His first book, Boston D party, is available on Amazon))