“Invest in a good sports bra” is what you’ll hear most often from a female runner if you ask for tips as a beginner.
“It is a perfectly sensible piece of information that one might not think of if you have just started,” says Naina Lal, 48, co-founder of Runner Girls India (RGI). Started in 2007, RGI is the country’s first all-women running group, formed by Lal, Sabine Tietge and a group of other runners in Bangalore. “It was at a time when running wasn’t the rage it is now and there were few women who were running,” says Lal. Before the group started, Lal and a few runners used to go for runs together. “We’d get a lot of queries on running from friends and other non-runners about whether we felt comfortable running on Indian roads, and what one must wear and so on,” says Lal.
The friends figured that more women might be encouraged to hit the road if there was an all-girl’s group for enthusiastic runners.
“Where else would you get to ask questions like how to prevent your panty line from showing in your running clothes?” asks Reena Chengappa, 36, who runs My Sunny Balcony, a company that sets up gardens in Bangalore. Chengappa was one of the early members of the group. The aim was simple—chip at the barriers that prevent women from running.
Lal who founded Experiential Travels, a company that organizes cultural immersion programmes for travelling students, recalls the story of one woman who would walk in wearing a sari, change into running clothes and then change back after the run. “Her family was not so accepting of her running,” says Lal. “It was comforting for her to run in an all-women’s group, and within a year, she started leaving home in running clothes.”
In the first year of its existence, the group, now more than 400-member strong, met for a weekly run at Cubbon Park and then proceeded for breakfast. Running was important, but so was the bonding and the friendships that formed.
While most of the original members of RGI now run with smaller, mixed (both men and women) groups, RGI itself continues to mentor and act as a forum for new runners to connect with others. “The social circles and friendships that were created remain strong,” Lal says.
Several women from the group are also long-distance runners. Benaazir Mukherjee, a jewellery designer who ran 50km at the Bangalore Ultra, says though she trained with a mixed group, being a part of RGI helped. “When you are running long distances you need to train for strength and here comparing notes with other women helps,” she says. Kavitha Kanaparthi, an ultra runner and founder of Globe Racers, a company that organizes long (100km and more) runs in remote areas with interesting terrains across the world, says RGI has contributed some of the country’s most enthusiastic runners to the community. A seasoned runner, Kanaparthi is not a part of RGI, but has organized runs for them. On a request from RGI, Kanaparthi is organizing an All Women Ultra in December in Ooty.
RGI’s success inspired women from other cities to create similar groups as well.
Mumbai-based Natasha Ramarathnam, 42, has been running for six years now. “At the start it was a private activity and most of it was done on the treadmill,” she says. In 2009, she got curious about other women runners in India and came across RGI on the Internet.
“Here were these astonishingly amazing runner girls. I almost felt too intimidated to write to them. But I did,” she says. Lal encouraged her to start a similar group in Mumbai, and so Mumbai Runner Girls India was formed in 2009. Members of the group meet every once in a while for a run, “but since it is tough to organize a run in a part of Mumbai that is convenient for everyone, this has become a Facebook group that plays a mentoring role,” says Ramarathnam, a former investment banker who helps raise funds for NGOs now.
RGI plans Girls Only Runs (GOR) in various cities and the information is posted on their Facebook page. “It’s not a big run, but a small group meeting like a ‘women in Whitefield meet’ sort of thing,” says Lal.
To register for the All Women Ultra, visit www.globeracers.com/2013/08/10/952/. For Runner Girls India’s Facebook page, visit www.facebook.com/pages/RunnergirlsIndia-RGI/351786323841.