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Why I stopped running marathons in India

A personal account of how a sport once filled with joy and camaraderie turned into a ruthless shoving match for personal gain

At their best, running races can be an extremely joyous and uplifting experience.
At their best, running races can be an extremely joyous and uplifting experience. (Istockphoto)

I enjoy running. I have run at more places than I remember, but my Garmin remembers each one of them. One day I shall go through all that data and reminisce about the cool corners of the world that I have run at, but not today. Today, let’s talk about the races—the very thing that got me hooked to running back in January 2009, when I ran my first half marathon at the then Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. It was pure suffering. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sit on a chair or climb stairs without twitching in pain for three weeks after that race. I promised myself that I would never suffer like that again.

And then I promptly signed up for the following year’s run. The better I got at it, the more races I ran. The more races I ran, the further I pushed myself. I ran my first full marathon in 2012 and I have since run six more. I have lost count of the half marathons and other shorter races I have run. Some decent finishes and emails to the right people also saw helped me become a pace-setter for the Tata Mumbai Marathon four times.

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Since the pandemic hit, there have hardly been any races anywhere. But I had stopped running long before covid-19. I last ran in India in January 2018 when I paced the half marathon at the Tata Mumbai Marathon and haven’t signed up for any race since April 2018 when I ran the Brighton Marathon.

Did I stop being a runner? No, I still run. But I stopped signing up for races. Here’s why.

The first six years or so when I ran about two or three races a year, running was still finding its feet in India. There weren’t too many races. There were a handful of runners. We would meet each other, smile, share a laugh, finish the run, get a meal and a beer and get on with our lives until the registration for the next race would open. Then we’d call or text each other to check who was participating. As the Japanese author Haruki Murakami put it, I wasn’t running “to live longer,” but because I wanted “to live life to the fullest.”

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However, as the sport has grown in popularity in India, that friendliness and sense of camaraderie has been lost to the growing numbers of runners and races. “What was your time?” queries have replaced “well done” and “congratulations”. These rude and intrusive queries start the minute you cross the line. They continue even when you are enjoying a post-race meal with your friends. And they crop up at work meetings too if someone finds out that you “ran the marathon”.

As running marathons became more popular, the incidents of runners pushing or shoving others to get ahead also began to rise.
As running marathons became more popular, the incidents of runners pushing or shoving others to get ahead also began to rise. (Istockphoto)

As running marathons became more popular, the incidents of runners pushing or shoving others to get ahead also began to rise. One year at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon when I was pacing a friend, one eager runner came from behind and shoved me as he tried to overtake. This is aggressive behaviour under any circumstances, and more so because my friend and I were running on the extreme left edge of the course. The shover was quick to shower expletives on us as soon as I protested the push. I still don’t know who that young man with his “do you know who’s my father?” is.

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At a race in Bengaluru in 2015, so determined were the runners (in the thousands) to exit the stadium at the start of the race, that they started pushing and elbowing each other soon as the gun went off. It was so aggressive and chaotic that the organisers had to send a bunch of hefty bouncers to form a circle around a double amputee runner to protect her from being knocked off her blade prosthetics. At the same race, a woman in her mid-40s had pushed herself a little too much and ran out of steam near the finish line. She tried to carry on but her feet buckled under her about 15-20 metres from the finish line. Considering this was just after the 50-minute mark, most age category winners had already sealed their victories and the only thing at stake for runners was a personal record—something, I feel, should not be put ahead of helping a participant in distress. Olympics and international running events are full of stories of world class athletes helping each other out on the track and such videos are shared regularly and get plenty of likes and hearts on running groups. Yet, no one came forward to help me carry this runner across the line until the very last steps.

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Not only was the fun and joy of running races beginning to turn sour for me, I found that a small number of people were actually making the races an ugly experience for many others. I began to see many of my friends putting too much pressure on themselves to finish a race within a target time. The breakdown and sadness that followed was exactly opposite of what running is supposed to do. And then there is the constant barrage of emails from the organisers of over 3,000 races in India, since I am a part of the “running database”.

Despite all this, I have made some excellent friends the world over while running. I cherish them. They, and many others, have kept me going through these uncertain times. I still run, just not in races. But perhaps I am not completely done with running races just yet. After all, I need to return to New York to run that beautiful marathon once again and trot to the finish line at the Central Park without cramping.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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