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The Decreasing Loneliness Of The Indian Long-Distance Runner

India's new wave of runners is ready to race. This crowd took off at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon on Nov. 23.
Zheng Huansong
Xinhua /Landov
India's new wave of runners is ready to race. This crowd took off at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon on Nov. 23.

I began running about a year ago. I'd just moved to New Delhi, after living in the United States for 11 years. The stress of the move was getting to me, and I desperately needed exercise.

But finding a regular route wasn't easy. Running on the sidewalk is next to impossible here in Delhi. Every few seconds I had to get off the sidewalk to avoid bumping into a street vendor's cart or a patch of sidewalk claimed by Indian men to pee on.

Then there are the stares. At every street corner there seem to be groups of men whose only preoccupation seems to be staring at women. A woman running on the sidewalks seems to make the number and intensity of stares shoot up.

And of course, running outdoors meant breathing in Delhi's utterly polluted air. Exercising outdoors often feels like a health hazard.

Eventually though, I discovered that the city has some wonderful parks, including a beautiful one that's a ten-minute walk from my apartment. I geared up to make running a regular ritual, even if a somewhat lonely one.

Then earlier this year, a friend who'd also lived in the U.S. suggested we do a 5K race together. Just to force ourselves to run more regularly. When I started searching for a race, I was surprised at how many choices we had: easily more than 100 all over the country each year, from walkathons to 5Ks to full marathons.

I was surprised because 1) I hadn't seen many runners in the city yet and 2) When I was growing up, there were no such races in India. Long distance running just wasn't part of the culture. Yes, there were the occasional morning joggers. Yes, we all had sprinting competitions in school. But the average Indian could not have been less interested in running. In fact, my own personal philosophy was that I'd run only if a tiger was chasing me down for lunch. Why, I wanted to know, had things changed. How had ordinary Indians decided to become runners?

I started by asking Souvik Das Gupta, whom I met during my 5K race back in March. Das Gupta is 27, works as a web designer and took up running two years ago, after watching the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, which draws more than 30,000 people every year.

Until then, he'd always thought of running as something for the naturally athletic. "I'm exactly the opposite of a sports person," he says. But the race inspired him. "So many people are doing it, let me just give it a shot."

These days, Das Gupta runs regularly. In 2014 alone, he's run "at least 10 half marathons, and 3 or 4 10Ks," he says.

He doesn't enjoy the act of running, but "what keeps me going is the crossing the finish line and looking back and seeing oh my god what have I done!"

Then there are those who do enjoy a jog, like Radha Krishnaswamy, 59, who took a nearly three-hour flight from Chennai to New Delhi two weekends ago to run the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon.

Krishanswamy has always been an athlete. She took up long distance running over a decade ago when age started to slow her down. "It became natural. Instead of running faster, I was running slower but longer."

Her motivation for running is that she has a gift and likes putting it to use. "Not everybody can run," she says. "I can't sing, I can't dance, although I wish I could. But I can run."

She says running took off in India about a decade ago. First, running enthusiasts like her teamed up with other runners and formed neighborhood running groups. "When people started gathering together and enjoying it," she adds. "then more people started doing it."

Running also helps connect people at a time when everyone is living busier, more isolated lives. "People work late hours," she says. "When they come home, they're at the computer. Running is a way to do something together."

She has also seen a rise in the number of women running.

"In Chennai, couple of husbands who run with me started dragging their wives to run," she says.

Running has given many of these women, mostly housewives, a sense of freedom they didn't otherwise have. "Even though you're running in a group, at least, you're not sitting at home cutting vegetables or cleaning the kitchen table," says Krishnaswamy.

She attributes this boom in running partly to a greater awareness about health issues due to growing rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and cancer.

Whatever the personal motivation, Krishnaswamy says running couldn't have become this popular without the help of big companies like the Airtel and Standard Chartered Bank.

"The corporate world has played a tremendous role," agrees Rahul Varghese, who runs a company called Running and Living, which organizes smaller-scale races around the country, including the 5K I ran back in March.

"Once the corporate world started pitching in, and movie stars like Rahul Boseand Bipasha Basu started promoting running, people said 'Wait, it's actually pretty sexy!'" he says.

Still, the trend seems restricted to the elite and upper middle class. "Because for people who're poor, their main concern is how they're going to get three meals a day, a roof over their heads," says Krishnaswamy.

Look at the demographic of the participants in races and you see that most people have some money and time to spare. Or look at the stuff that runners use. Running shoes cost at least $50 to $60, still out of reach of most Indians. Not to mention the gadgets — mobile phone arm bands, knee supports and hydration packs that seem part of people's running routines.

"It's still in the early days," says Varghese. "As the market grows, you're going to have products that fit people's budgets."

He may be right. Just as the number of women runners has risen, there may come a time when running will appeal to people from all walks of life. Perhaps they will be able to afford it too.

I'd be happy for the company on my morning runs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.

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