It is 4.30am at Napier bridge and at least 3,000 people are waiting behind the start line of the Decathlon 10k run on May 7. Adrenaline-filled chatter punctuates the loud drum beats. Under a moonlit sky, I stand behind pacers holding the 70-minute flag, praying that my feet do not get stomped on. The least I want to do is to begin the run injury-free.
The race is flagged off at 5.06am. One hour and 16 minutes later, I have completed my second-ever timed run. Three hundred metres later, I cross the finish line into Besant Nagar’s Olcott School. “Medals are over. Come next week. Take a 360 degree selfie video though,” I am told.
The video line stretches at least 400 metres and has more people than I saw at the start line. The photo booths with ‘finisher’ tags also have long queues. The Internet community strongly believes in the axiom “pics or it didn’t happen,” so when I finally get mine, I post online “10K done”.
Vijayalakshmi Swaminathan, founder, UNIS, a running group in Chennai, says that this need to post on social media has been an important reason for the rise of the running community in the city. “People want to talk about the fact that they are running now. Many organisations are conducting small runs — usually between three and 10 kilometres — and providing medals and goodies. These have also attracted people to the sport,”says Viji, as she is known in the circle.
On a quick drive by any arterial road in the city before 6am you will spot several runners with swanky sports watches, shoes, and headphones, all while huffing past quiet walkers before Chennai’s searing heat sets in. Seasoned runners are convinced that the numbers are only set to increase.
Watch | Tips to begin running
“About 15 years ago, five of us, began running on the roads because we grew tired of the treadmill at our gym. At that time, our route was limited as we ran from one lamppost to the other on Besant Nagar beach,” says Rekha Sudarsan, founder-member of Dream Runners.
When neighbours and friends heard about the group, they joined too. “This is how Dream Runners began. We now have 12 chapters with 600 members in total in areas including Anna Nagar, OMR, Velachery, Medavakkam and T Nagar” she says.
Rekha believes that many people have now taken to running because there is a lot of literature about the sport now. “People understand how to supplement the activity with weight training, hydrate adequately and remain consistent,” she says. She adds that the Chennai Corporation has made several roads car-free until 6am, encouraging more people to walk or run outside in the mornings.
Naga Sayeenathan who runs with Pettai Rappers, one of the 18 chapters of Chennai Runners, attributes the growth of running to the proliferation of running communities which help people achieve basic consistency. Each of the chapters of these communities are divided area-wise.
The Alwarpet chapter which Naga is part of is their oldest and has around 119 runners who step out four days a week. He adds that the rise in the number of marathons and runs regularly conducted in the city has also aided in creating interest in the sport.
The two major marathons in the city — the Chennai marathon conducted by Chennai Runners and the Dream Runners Half Marathon — have each seen radical growth since inception.
Dr Lakshmi Sundar, president, Chennai Runners, says that their organisation has conducted 11 editions of the marathon so far. “The first edition held in 2012 saw around 6,000 participants; the fifth had around 12,000. Our most recent one in 2023 saw 25,000 people. There has been an exponential rise in the number of registrations for half and full marathons in the latest edition. It was also the year where we saw the largest contingent of women participants in the full marathon category,” she says.
Rekha from Dream Runnerssays that rookies who wish to run might find the sport daunting. However, several communities are welcoming new comers and have detailed mentorship programmes for novice runners to build consistency, endurance and pace. These sessions usually go on for about one-and-a- half hours.
Deepak A Chari (58), is practising to take part in his first five kilometre run in 40 years, he says. “The Couch to 5k programme by Chennai Runners lets us walk, run and jog at our own pace. Senior runners mentor us through the process,” he says. There is focus on diet — a balanced meal with a portion of protein, fibre and carbohydrates. They also ensure that muscle building takes place for holistic fitness with inclusions of yoga as part of their training.
“Weight loss is only a part of the process now,” says Lakshmi. She says that several first-timers ask if being over weight is an impediment to running.
“That is not so. I had body image issues when I began. This changed when I began running but most importantly, I discovered that I could breathe better. Running improves cardiovascular health and helps release endorphins, flooding the mind with happy chemicals.”
She adds that once people join running groups, they end up becoming part of a large community. “Our members end up volunteering together. Around 300 runners from our team are certified in providing first aid, helpful during accidents. The community also ends up becoming a place where people find friends,” she adds.
Running is not all about exercise. It is also about the conversations and enjoying the morning sun or the cool evening breeze, says Rekha. She adds that it also becomes addictive. “People want to set new benchmarks for themselves and cross new distances.”
She has only one piece of advice for those who want to begin — “Trust the process because anyone can run.”
Hit the road
Chennai’s running groups have chapters in different parts of the city. To join, write to them or contact the chapter heads at:
Some places that runners frequent are Marina beach, Besant Nagar beach, Anna Nagar Tower Park, YMCA, Nehru Stadium and Anna Salai.
The next biggest running events in the city include the Dream Runners Half Marathon on July 16 and the Kalaignar Memorial International Marathon on August 6.
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