22 Oct

The Indian Way

rachael at mumbai marathon finish line

Surprisingly in cricket-loving India, running is taking off in a big way.  Rachael Woolston describes a fast-moving scene and her own personal experience at Mumbai Marathon ...


Every morning in cities across India, dark shapes move in the dawn light.  Once upon a time, these figures may have just been bus and taxi drivers getting ready for a busy day, but now it’s more likely to be groups of runners.

From Sikh businessmen in turbans and tracksuits conducting a pre-work run meeting, to Indian women, some lycra clad, others in sarees and sandals; welcome to running, India style, where a sunrise run has now become as commonplace as a temple visit may once have been.

Broad Appeal

“When I started running 12 years ago to train for a marathon, running was relatively rare,” explains Raj Vadgama, a former interior designer turned marathon coach with his own coaching business, Xtreme Fitness in Mumbai. “Now everyone is running and I’m busy all day coaching clients, from 60-year-old executives to a 16-year-old boy.” 

While there are no official statistics about the number of recreational runners here, the motivation to run is the same as anywhere in the world; to lose weight, get fit and have a goal. And it is something that fits easily into the day of any urban Indian.

A Country On The Move

“It’s free, so doesn’t cost money and you can do it anytime,” says Raj. “You just have to lace on your shoes and head for the door.”  But why the sudden explosion in interest, enough to prompt Nike to launch free coaching and running workshops in major cities such as Mumbai in 2009?  Money, is the simple answer.

While the Asian subcontinent still has one of the largest number of people living below the poverty line, GDP growth at 8.5% makes it the fastest growing economy alongside China.  And according to The Times of India, per capita income has quadrupled in the last 20 years creating a burgeoning middle class with the time and money to spend on leisure.

“Most of the runners that I know are wealthy professionals,” agrees Roshni Rai, a 34-year-old legal executive who set up Mumbai Runner Girls. “They’re either business executives or married, full time mums.”

The Facebook Generation

With a population of 1.28billion, the internet, particularly Facebook has been instrumental in fanning the flames, helping to tie running communities together from as far afield as Kalimpong in the Himalayan mountains to Kerala in the south.

“I started running nine years ago, and hardly anyone had Facebook accounts so it was hard to find other runners, all the news I got was from a favourite website - runnersforlife.com,” explains Roshni.  “Now, I’m connected to runners all over India, receiving status updates about their training, PBs and new races that are cropping up.” 

It is a grassroots movement, fuelled by enthusiasm with little formal coaching.  In Mumbai, for instance, training for the marathon that takes place every January, is organised by word of mouth and Facebook.  On any morning of the week or weekend in the weeks preceding the event, runners congregate at Nariman’s Point on Marine Drive for a training run.

Refreshment Required

Afterwards, refreshment comes not in the form of an energy drink, but a banana and fresh coconut water, served in its shell from a roadside street vendor.  Alternatively, at weekends many retire to Stadium, a cafe that’s become known as a runner’s hangout.  Here, the breakfast of choice is a spicy omelette, washed down with chai, sweet milky, spiced tea.

And as much as the post-run food is different from the UK, so too is the climate.  “Summer temperatures hit 36O and 75% humidity here in Mumbai, while Rajasthan and Delhi are completely dry,” explains running coach Raj.  “So, we do most of our running during the monsoon, building up miles and working on pace.”

Time To Race

While Mumbai has had a marathon for over 12 years (here, the word marathon is used to describe any race from a 5k to 26.2miles) event organisers are springing up all over India.  You can choose from the Pinkathon series, women’s only 10k races, to obstacle races and full marathons in every city from Kolkata to Chennai. Alternatively, test your limits with anything from a coastal marathon in Goa to a high altitude mountain marathon in Ladakh.

Events are more professionally run now, previously some would not even have water stations but today, you can expect refreshment stations, a race goody bag and medal.  In fact, stumble across a race here and it is like being at a Hindu religious festival.  Everyone comes to watch, cheer and share delicious home cooked food, curry and chapattis wrapped in newspaper.

Whether you enter an Indian race, or track down a training run, the running experience in India is not to be missed.  Super friendly, and the very best way to see an Indian city without being pestered by vendors, behind a window in a taxi or crushed in a train. You may share similar motivations as the Indians that you run with but it will be unlike any running experience you will have ever done before.

Winning Gold in Mumbai

Entering a race in a different country is a great way to explore a culture. The last thing Rachael Woolston expected was to actually win ...

Rachael's medalFew marathons start at 5.40am, but as I warmed-up for the Mumbai Marathon I was glad of the early start with the temperature already at 20 degrees.  India is usually loud, busy and in your face. Yet at the start line, where I was one of a sizeable group of Western runners but one of the few women, all was calm.

As a canvas wall was dropped, signaling the start, there was no pushing, just the soft patter of feet and a cheer as we set out.  The route headed on to the Marina Drive, usually chockablock with traffic but now deserted.  In fact, the first 40 minutes passed quietly until we passed the half marathon runners, who’d started in the suburb of Bandra, passing in the opposite direction, cheeringly wildly.

Turning onto the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, an eight lane bridge linking the suburbs to Mumbai, the sun finally rose, throwing the towering city scraper skyline into sharp relief.  From here it was into the suburbs, passing pavement slums, where dusty children rubbed sleep from their eyes as we passed.  An hour or so later, as I ran back past, the slum was awake and everyone from grandmothers to young babies, were smiling and cheering. 

Children, their bare feet dusty, hair unswept all wanted to shake my hand, in between darting to pick up disused water bottles to sell on to make money from the recycled plastic.  Despite having so little themselves, they were all keen to hand me bananas or biscuits off the refreshment stalls.

The last miles of a marathon are always the hardest but here the atmosphere carried me through.  At the famous Chowpatty Beach, entertainment stages were in full swing.  A young Indian rock band belted out Nirvana’s Teen Spirit, while the Navy crooned soft ballads, battling against the cacophony from the Hindu temple.

Indian supportersTurning towards the finish back towards where we started, the streets were now heaving with cheering supporters.  “Come on, sub four hours,” shouted one woman. 

500 metres, 400 metres, the signposts marked the final distance, as I began to sprint, dashing over the line with a runner from the Indian Navy. 

As I turned to congratulate him, I felt my arm being tugged: “Congratulations, you have won first in the female veteran category.”  The heat, the crowds, was I dreaming? Apparently not.

Despite a relatively slow time of 3:55, I found myself escorted to the holding area with the elite athletes, including the overall winner, Valentine Kipketer of Kenya who’d won in 2:24.33.

Half an hour later, I was presented with a gold medallion on a podium in front of thousands of cheering Indian supporters, sealing what will be forever one of my finest marathon experiences.

Rachael Woolston is a running coach and offers women only running event trips around the world. Full details at www.girlsruntheworld.co.uk