The world is, literally and metaphorically, finally up and running again. Since the end of September the world’s biggest marathon races such as the Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Chicago, Boston and, most recently, the New York City Marathon on 7 November have been held. All of them were open to general participation and elite contestants from across the world, complete with cheering crowds along the race route. Runners from India were also among the thousands who crossed the finish lines at these races.
At home, running events are also slowly staging a comeback following a lengthy hiatus due to the two devastating waves of covid-19. While some small events have already been conducted successfully in smaller towns and cities, India’s big running events are set to return in December with the Goa River Marathon on 12 December. This will be followed by the Hyderabad Marathon on 19 December, the Chennai Marathon on 2 January and the Spice Coast Marathon in Kochi towards the end of January. Sources have confirmed that the promoters of the Tata Mumbai Marathon are in discussions with Mumbai authorities to bring back the event as soon as it is feasible to do so.
Runners in India have had no race to participate in since March 2020 and they are eager to return to the start line, says Dinesh Heda, part of the race team at Vasco Sports Club, which organises the Goa River Marathon. “Runners have missed the atmosphere and friendships that a running event brings along with it. Many runners actually stopped training because they didn’t have any events to train for. They want to line up beside their friends at the start line like they used to,” says Heda, himself a longtime runner.
Shopping malls, cinema theatres, gyms have all been permitted to reopen and function at 50% capacity. Playgrounds and turfs have all reopened to the public and local sports events have also returned. “Everything is almost back to normal. Even weddings are happening. Why not running? Running is a participative sport and it takes place in the open. Trying to be active is a challenge in India and running events give people a goal to train for,” says Raj Vetcha of Hyderabad Runners, which organises the Hyderabad Marathon.
It is not just runners, race organisers and promoters who want the events to return. In Kochi, Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, president of Soles of Cochin running group, which organises the Spice Coast Marathon, noticed a similar enthusiasm and willingness to hold the race during his meetings with the city’s police commissioner. “Our current police commissioner has had experience with the Mumbai Marathon while he was posted there. He has been as enthusiastic, if not more, as us about our race,” says Kanjilimadhom. Heda senses an eagerness on the part of Goa officials to bring back the event, and, along with it a greater sense of normalcy among the public. The only thing authorities wanted was for organisers to have a sound and scientific covid-19 protocol for the races, says Heda.
On a cool October morning Simta Sharma, 33, lined up along with 500-odd people for a 10km race in Panchmari, a popular forest resort town in Madhya Pradesh. She was relaxed and smiling behind her mask as she limbered up for the race ahead. There was no nervousness or fear of catching covid playing on her mind. “One of the preconditions for signing up for the race was a vaccination certificate. Also, it was a small race so it never got crowded. I like running, I want the races,” says Sharma.
To put runners like Sharma, as also health officials and authorities, at ease, is what race organisers are aiming for. They have been working with independent doctors as well as health officials and civic bodies to come up with an effective covid-19 strategy. “The minute we started thinking about conducting the Chennai Marathon 2022, we took the relevant government departments into confidence,” says VP Senthil Kumar, race director of the event since 2019. Kumar was also running the show in January 2021– the first and only mid-pandemic big race that was open to public participation since the covid-19 outbreak. Despite being permitted to go ahead with 2,500 runners, Kumar’s team conducted the race with just 1,000 runners keeping in mind the pandemic prevalence at the time. “The first stop then, and always, was the government. Let’s face it, without their support, security arrangements and traffic permissions for an event with thousands of people won’t be possible,” says Kumar.
Since they were going ahead with a public sports event in the middle of the pandemic, they had to be extra careful and consult the health officials as well. Back then, a team of doctors oversaw all preparations, bib distribution, the race and the finish too. A week after the race, all runners were sent a questionnaire developed by a panel of doctors in consultation with the health department. “We wanted to check if any runner had developed symptoms or tested positive post-race,” explains Kumar. “We had to be extra careful given our new reality because one small mishap would have brought down the entire running community.”
That race predated vaccines so a covid-negative certificate was mandatory; but for the upcoming Chennai Marathon runners will have to be vaccinated. If they aren’t, then they would have to have a solid medical reason for it and furnish a covid-negative report to run in the event.
The Goa, Hyderabad and Kochi events are also open only to vaccinated runners. All volunteers and organisers for these events are also 100% vaccinated. Another pandemic measure that the organisers are taking is to cap the number of participants to 40-50% of their capacity. The 25,000-capacity Chennai Marathon is capped at 10,000 runners while the Goa River Marathon, which sees 10,000 runners on average, is going ahead with just 3,000.
The organisers have also moved the Chennai Marathon out of the city streets and taken it to the Madras Motor Race Club track, where, as Kumar says, they will enjoy the luxury of space to ensure social distancing before and after the race. All organisers are taking steps to ensure distancing is a real possibility and not a mere paper promise to ensure runner safety and avoid becoming a superspreader event. They have opted for staggering wave starts for all categories of races so that there is as little crowding as possible. The Goa event might have 12 or more waves of 150 runners at a gap of 10 minutes. For Chennai, the first wave will take off at 4:30am and the last wave could go out as late as 7:30am. All organisers are also planning to hand out masks in the holding areas pre-race and at the finish line to all runners so that they are masked whenever they aren’t actually running. There would also be designated bins to dispose of masks.
Attention is being paid to every minute detail to ensure everything is as minimal contact as possible at these races. Instead of handing out water at hydration stations, volunteers would line up filled paper cups or bottles and let runners pick them up themselves. After the race, no one will be handing out medals. Instead runners would be directed by proper signage to where they can pick up their medals from the stands on which they would be hung. Food packets too will be lined up on tables and stands at a booth, and runners could pick up their food packets themselves. Selfie booths, if at all, would be limited and spread across the venue or along the way to the race venue like at parking lots. The organisers also plan to discourage runners from hanging around in big groups or for too long at the venue before and after the race.
By bringing events back, says Heda, organisers want to convey the idea that life will go on and races will happen despite the pandemic. Covid-19 is going to be endemic and we cannot stop everything indefinitely, says Kanjilimadhom of Soles of Kochi. And what better place than the start line of a run to embrace our new reality. Get, set, go…
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.