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Marathon high: India’s road running culture spawns big business

Passion for road running across Indian cities has built a huge enterprise, setting the cash registers ringing for organisers -- of big races such as Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), and small events -- and sports brands

other sports Updated: Nov 18, 2017 23:27 IST
Navneet Singh and N Ananthanarayanan
Navneet Singh and N Ananthanarayanan
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Airtel Delhi Half Marathon,ADHM,Delhi Half Marathon
Despite pollution issues, around 13,000 runners are expected for the 21km main race of the Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) on Sunday, an indication of how deep the passion has gripped the running community in India. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

Despite the national capital battling severe air pollution, thousands will ignore dire health warnings and line up for the Delhi Half Marathon on Sunday.

Around 35,000 runners across age groups will be at the starting point at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium before dawn, 13,000 of them to tackle the main 21km race.

Organisers Procam International, a Mumbai-based event management company, acknowledges concerns over the poor air quality, and many could be wearing face masks. But it has little doubt Kenyan world marathon champion Geoffrey Kirui and Ethiopian distance running queen, Almaz Ayana, will keep their date with the Gold Label race of the world athletics body, IAAF.

The organisers have tied up the logistics and the elaborate security that would be required, including permissions that are needed to shut down central Delhi for traffic on Sunday morning. All this means calling off the event, or even moving it, is next to impossible now.

And, of course it makes little business sense.

India’s marathon men and women
  • Men: Progress has been slow. The late Shivnath Singh clocked 2:16:22 to finish 11th at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The Services runner improved it to 2:12:00 at Jalandhar in 1978. India’s current leader, T Gopi, clocked 2:15:25 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, finishing 25th. He showed consistency, clocking 2:17:13 at the London World Championships in August. Kheta Ram achieved a personal best of 2:15:26 at the Rio Games and won the Mumbai Marathon among Indians at 2:19:51.
  • Women: Asha Aggarwal was the first Indian to break the three-hour barrier, clocking 2:48:51 at the 1985 Jakarata Asian Track and Field meet. The diminutive Delhi runner improved it to 2:40:26 in 1991. Kerala’s OP Jaisha broke the national record after 19 years, clocking 2:37:29 in the Mumbai marathon in 2015. She slashed it to 2:34:42 at that year’s Beijing World Championships. UP’s 3,000m steeplechase specialist, Sudha Singh, also came under the national mark in the 2015 Beijing worlds, clocking 2:35:35 to qualify for Rio with Jaisha. In January 2015, she had timed 2:38:21 in the Mumbai Marathon.

In a country with competitive sports nowhere near world standards, amateur runners go from spectators to participants in the winter months, testing fitness and achieving personal goals. While most of them will be happy ‘running to lose’, it’s win-win for the industry.

Appetite for road running is growing at such pace that recorded races alone are touching 900 annually in India. Organisers of the Delhi Half Marathon say 225 of them are in northern India, with 120 held in and around the capital.

Road running was estimated to be a $1.4 billion business in the US in 2015, with the running shoe business alone said to be worth around $3 billion. No consolidated figures are available for India and organisers are reluctant to give profit figures.

And unlike Running USA, a non-profit body run with US Track and Field involvement, absence of a coordination agency means it’s free-for-all in India.

But the business is buzzing. This year’s entry fee for the Delhi half-marathon is close to Rs. 1900. That should net the organisers over Rs. 2.3 crore from the main race alone. Add sponsorships and feeder races and it is a bonanza, though 10% of the $275,000 prize money goes to the athletics federation, AFI, as sanctioning fees.

Procam are the pioneers, who have staged the Mumbai Marathon since 2003 while the Delhi event began in 2005. Its success has opened the floodgates and mass involvement provides a ready market.

Smaller organisers are more enterprising. While big ones close entries within days or weeks, registering for a race online is enough for invitations to the smaller ones flood the inbox. Some even offer ‘early bird’ concessions! Procam officials say after facing challenges in the early years, it now makes healthy profits.

“There has been an exponential jump in the number of races since 2014,” its CEO Dilip Jayaram told HT.

Runners are willing to spend on branded shoes and apparel, and stay loyal to their brand. “Brands were told they had to be relevant at the point of sweat,” Jayaram said. A nutrition company for instance must take the insulin-dependent runner into account, he explained. The drinking water provider can get the runners’ trust with advice on the hydration required.

Newer entrants have latched on to the template for organising. The New Delhi Marathon to be run in late February by Bangalore’s NEB Sports has the status of national meet with the AFI making it a qualifying event for international competitions.

The swelling number of runners is also an evolving breed, making the job easier for organisers. “They are fitter, more knowledgeable and disciplined (in terms of preparation) now,” says Jayaram.

The pollution will be a challenge on Sunday, but effluent-treated water mixed with salt will be sprinkled along the course to create a ‘dust-free tunnel’ for the runners.

Former international marathoner, Sunita Godara, who organises races in Delhi and is a coordinator for elite Indian runners, said it is a profitable venture.

“Road running sells like hot cake these days,” she told Hindustan Times. “It has become a big product. If a promoter charges Rs 1000 as entry fee, only half the sum is spent, which includes the cost of the timing chip (price from Rs 150) and refreshments.

“There is nothing wrong if someone is making money (30-35% profit) as the product is directly linked to a healthy environment.”

Running clubs have helped feed the races. There are at least 20 in Delhi and NCR. “There is new breed of athlete who is slow but takes pride in completing. There are some races for lifestyle runners; they don’t want to push hard, but enjoy the activity,” Godara added.

In the initial years, the AFI opposed its track athletes competing in road races, fearing injuries and disruption in training. Its stance has eased while hefty sanctioning fee is paid by big races organisers.

AFI president, Adille Sumariwala, said: “The road race circuit helps promote awareness. More and more people are talking of fitness, and it provides a strong base for athletics.”

Sumariwala feels Indian runners have much catching up to do. “There are only 10 to 12 good marathons in India and the new generation of runners is yet to get hooked to the distance. But things are changing.

“People are now talking about fitness. When I was a teenage athlete in the early 1980s and wore track suit, people used to make fun saying a clown has come,” Sumariwala, a former international sprinter, added.

Though foreign runners hog the limelight at big meets, participation by top Indian athletes is vital. Meenu Kumari, an international 10,000m runner from Uttar Pradesh, says poor athletes like her are benefitting.

“There was a time when I had to depend on others for shoes and running kit,” she said. “From 2016 to 2017, I earned over Rs 4 lakh in prize money. Some top runners make between Rs 10-15 lakh in a season.”

Asha Aggarwal, the first Indian woman to run the marathon under three hours, said: “A lot of people are suffering from some ailment or the other. They have taken up running as it’s the cheapest form of exercise. You just need a pair of shoes.”

The passion for running also means more competition among organisers.

Nagaraj Adiga, CMD of NEB Sports, which organises around 10 events, is unfazed by competition. “Our races are more runner-friendly, so they are growing,” he said.

Private race organisation is not without hitches. Nutrition packets past expiry date were found in the goodies given out by the Delhi race organisers in 2013. The organisers have now stopped the practice of giving out goodies.

Inaccurate course measurement and not sanitising the route with enough timing mats can also hurt credibility. Jayaram says they use anti-cheat cameras to match every bib number with the face after the race before handing out certificates.

The lazy Sunday morning is fast going out of vogue.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 23:27 IST