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Run back to 15 February 2004. The first edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon was held that day. Do you remember any other marathon or long-distance running event from that year? Unlikely. Less than 10 years down the line, the running calendar in India is spilling with about 130 events—that’s a race every two and a half days.

“The running phenomenon that started with the Mumbai Marathon has grown into a movement that has spread to the far corners of our country," says Vivek Singh, 46, joint managing director of Procam International, the sports management firm behind India’s most successful running event.

Runners point to various reasons for this rise—increasing urbanization, more awareness about health and fitness and the means to pursue those goals, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the efforts to counter that, and just a general momentum. The more races are organized, the more people get interested in running them. “We are following the same trends that happened in more developed countries a few decades ago," says Arvind Bharathi, 31, business head of the Bangalore-based running group Runners For Life (RFL). “Just that the growth is much faster here."

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The Mumbai Marathon attracts an elite field of runners. Photo: Vidya Subramanian/Hindustan Times

R&L began as a website offering articles on various aspects of endurance running. It moved on to form running groups in various cities, and now organizes 30 races a year, covering cities like Chandigarh and Mumbai, mountain trails in the Himalayas, and forest runs through national parks. Verghese says there are close to 400 running groups in India, and many of them organize their own races.

Arvind Krishnan, an IIM, Calcutta graduate, set up RFL in Bangalore in 2005 as an off-shoot of his start-up The Fuller Life, which specializes in innovative employee engagement programmes. With more than 13,000 runners now, it is the largest running group in the country. In Chennai, Ram Viswanathan, 50, chief technical officer with IBM and a runner who “wants everybody to discover the joy of running", started Chennai Runners in 2006. Rajesh Vetcha, 42, an independent infrastructure project developer with several marathons (including New York) under his belt, started Hyderabad Runners in 2007 with less than 20 members—it has 1,850 now.

Hyderabad Runners organize the city’s premier marathon, the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon, considered by many as the best organized road race in the country, which offered a prize money of 3.15 lakh in 2013. Viswanathan’s Chennai Runners put together the first Wipro Chennai Marathon last year offering prize money worth 3 lakh with podium finishers getting an all-expenses-paid trip to the Wipro San Francisco Marathon. Runners For Life has seven races to its credit—the Kaveri Trail Marathon, Bangalore Ultra and Puma Urban Stampede in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai. Vetcha has started branching off into other aspects of the business as well, tailoring vacations around marathons both in India and abroad. Though Vetcha and Viswanathan say they run not-for-profit organizations, Verghese and Bharathi are clear that they are running entrepreneurs.

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Trail races like the Himalayan Marathon in Kinnaur Valley, Himachal Pradesh, are becoming popular. Photo: Courtesy Running &Living

“Our realities are the same as that of any start-up," he adds. “In fact, I would say RFL and others are really creating a market and an industry which didn’t exist a few years back. We didn’t come into existence because there was a great demand for a running company. We came because we wanted to start a running culture. We are old school entrepreneurs, without the VCs and their stimulus packages. We have built our businesses the hard way."

Verghese, who is working on his goal of running marathons in all seven continents—he has covered six and will run in Antarctica next year—could not be happier with his change in career. “I started running at the age of 40 and it got me to become an entrepreneur," he says. “This is my business of passion."

There are few marathons in the world where India is not represented this year. The “big five"—New York, Boston, Berlin, London and Chicago—see plenty of Indian runners at the starting line. The world’s toughest ultra marathons—the 250km Atacama Crossing, Chile, the 100km Antarctic Ice Marathon, the 89km uphill trudge of Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa—each of these has seen at least one Indian cross the finish line. The Boston Marathon, which has a stiff qualifying time, had four Indian runners in 2011, which increased to eight this year. Comrades had just one Indian participant in 2009, and 38 this year, 17 of whom finished the race within the cut-off time. “To the large sport-loving but unfit population of the country, running is the most accessible path to a better quality of life," Bharathi says. “There’s no need for expensive memberships or equipment. You can indulge in buying gadgets and accessories, or do it with the bare minimum basics. Running is a great leveller that way and therefore an important part of India’s future where we need to carry people from all socio-economic backgrounds."

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The packed starting line at the 0213 Hyderabad Marathon. Photo: Kumar

According to industry insiders, TCS’s sponsorship outlay for the World 10K Bangalore, for which they are the title sponsors, alone is about 4-6 crore, while for the Puma Urban Stampede, the sportswear giant shells out about 20 lakh for each city.

It also makes business sense for these software companies to get involved with such large-scale events in the US and Europe, which are their biggest markets. Of TCS’s $11.5 billion (around 776 crore) revenue in FY13, 52.7% came from the US while 26.6% was contributed by the UK and Europe, says Ankita Somani, IT analyst at brokerage house Angel Broking. Of Wipro’s $6.2 billion revenue, US markets accounted for 50.2% and Asia-Pacific spoke for 11.7% of the business, Somani adds. Wipro also completed 10 years of operations in Australia recently and hence the Sydney Marathon was an obvious choice. “TCS has adopted a smart strategy. It made an early move to associate itself with running events. Wipro realized the potential of associating with public running events a tad late and is now playing catch-up," says Verghese.

But running in India is still in its infancy, and continues to be an urban phenomenon—even though more and more trail marathons and small town marathons like the Auroville Marathon in Puducherry are becoming popular—and that is exactly why it’s so exciting to be part of it right now.

“Now, we need to ensure that this enthusiasm for running is maintained. That is possible only when we Indianize the things connected to running. For that we need an umbrella body," says Vetcha. The body would be responsible for suggesting training programmes specific to Indian conditions, standardize diets for runners based on our eating habits, like rice and roti instead of pasta, for one. For Verghese, India will be a running country when about 10-12% of the total population incorporates running in their daily lives. “That is coming in the not so distant future," he says.

Though running is more visible in cities, a lot of talented runners that Verghese has come across are from smaller towns. “They are the ones who actually win the races," he says.

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The cost of the run

The biggest expenses in a running event are on water, T-shirts, glucose, timing chips and medals for the runners. Depending on the nature of the event and its marketing, a marathon can be successfully held for as little as 2 lakh. The upper limit in India is set by the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. They spent 7 crore in 2004. This year it cost them 15 crore. On an average, the 2013 Hyderabad Marathon spent 1,000 on each runner who participated. The total cost was 1 crore.

Also Read: N. Chandrasekaran | Running teaches you perseverance

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