Designer Namrata Joshipura was a bundle of nerves when she reached Boston for this year’s Boston Marathon on 11 October. This was her first race during the pandemic. She had also suffered a brutal bout of covid-19 that had left her hospitalized for more than a week and reeling for two months during the second wave. But soon as she reached the bib collection centre, her nervousness dissipated. She noticed that the organisers were strictly adhering to pandemic protocols, the runners were doing their bit to maintain distance and were wearing masks and that only vaccinated or confirmed covid-negative people were allowed to collect their bibs. At the start line the only butterflies in her stomach were caused by the occasion and not due to covid-induced anxiety. Joshipura says that she would love to run a race in India as well, but that she wants to wait and watch how the first few local races fare.
Delhi-based lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, who has been on the podium of several races before the pandemic, has not attended a single race since March 2020. “The big difference when I return to the start line is going to be the added pre- and post-race stress caused by covid, especially at the start line when runners are packed together like a tin of sardines,” she says.
Marathons and other running events are slowly returning in India. Organisers are doing their best to minimize crowding, while allowing only fully vaccinated runners to participate. They’re also making special arrangements keeping in mind the challenges posed by covid-19, the events’ success. Bhandari plans to do her bit by wearing a mask in the holding area till she starts running. She would carry a mask in her pocket that she would put on once she crosses the finish line. “I would probably be spooked by people being unmasked for long around me,” she says.
Runners signing up for races need to think about what they would do to keep themselves safe and take nothing for granted, says Raj Vetcha, founder of the running group Hyderabad Runners. “You don’t have to lose the personal touch and the emotion that come with finishing a run, have your high fives and hugs but keep the contact minimal. Follow instructions that race organisers issue and stick to the covid protocol. If you are safe, everyone else is safe too,” Vetcha elaborates.
Most big races have chosen staggered starts in multiple waves and runners would be informed about their start times well in advance. Runners shouldn’t come too early and crowd the venue nor should they come late and disrupt other waves, says Vetcha. “There is still plenty of fear. So, small things like wearing a mask, carrying your own sipper and being careful when you spit or rinse your mouth goes a long way,” he adds.
Another long-time runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, who is one of the founders of the Soles of Cochin running group, feels that runners should approach the races with a sense of humility, and adhere to the protocols so that everyone is safe. Be considerate and thank the volunteers, says Kanjilimadhom, as they are risking a lot to make the race possible. He also suggests that, given the circumstances, runners should throw their water cups or bottles in bins, respect the right of way for ambulances, race crew and faster runners, take extra care while blowing your nose during the run or around others, do not camp at aid stations and if you are injured or need a break, move to the side of the race route.
Another big concern for race organisers and runners is the finish line, where typically several friends and family members meet and greet the runners after the race. “The logical and cautious thing after finishing the race is to go back home immediately,” says Bhandari, but she knows that adrenaline will kick in and she would most likely end up hanging out with her friends. “However, I shall be wearing a mask when I do that,” she says. Many races have created designated post-race waiting areas for runners based on their bib number, start time and finish time. Vetcha says runners ought to respect the zoning as it has been done to ensure as much distancing as possible.
In this new reality, the success of the races depends equal parts on runners, who will have to do their bit to make the race safe, casualty-free and not turn it into a super-spreader event.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.