On 13 December 2018, it was minus 20 degrees Celsius in the Antarctic and the wind chill made it seem even colder. Six inches of fresh snowfall the day before had made it difficult to walk even a few steps, let alone run. However, 55-year-old Dhananjay Yellurkar had different plans. Having trained for an entire year for the Antarctic Ice Marathon, he disregarded the brutal weather and plodded on to complete the second loop of 10.5 kilometres (km), with two more loops remaining.

Wisely, he did not disregard the advice of the race doctor, who recorded an inordinately high blood pressure, and asked him to rest between loops. By this time, he felt his jaw tighten, his speech was slurring, and the voices in his head were screaming for him to stop. Five out of a total of 50 participants had already opted out at this half marathon stage. That’s when the memories of surviving a heart bypass surgery seven years ago came flooding back. These emotions gave him renewed strength, and he pushed forward.

When he finally crossed the finish line, he could barely lift his hands in celebration, but had a smile on his face, knowing he was on course to being among the first in the world to have run marathons on all seven continents, after heart surgery.

Where it all began

Like most other Indians, Dhananjay’s journey in marathon running began at the Mumbai Marathon. In the first edition of the race in 2004, there were 800 registered runners for the full, and 3,500 for the half marathon. This year there were 8,414 runners for the full, and 15,457 for the half marathon. Prior to 2004, I think it would be fair to say that most Indians would not know that a marathon is 42.2km long, and would certainly not contemplate covering that distance on foot.

Legend has it that a Greek soldier, Pheidippides, ran from the plains of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in 490 BC. He ran 42.2km, which became the official distance of a “marathon".

Anil Singh is the founder and managing director of Procam International Pvt. Ltd, the promoter of the Mumbai Marathon. He’s built like a rugby player, which he is, and is not used to taking no for an answer. As a spectator of the London Marathon in 2003, he had an epiphany. He saw 40,000 people of all shapes and sizes participate in the race, and vowed to bring the same experience to India. He told me that “until the end of 2003, there was only one non-timed distance running event. Today, there are over 1 million registered runners for over 1,400 timed events in India, and it’s a $400-million industry". Another benevolent spin-off is 400 crore raised for more than 600 non-governmental organizations by the four flagship running events of Procam International alone.

Why people run marathons

I am reminded of the classic answer George Mallory gave when asked why he was so keen on climbing Mount Everest — “Because it’s there." The answer makes no sense to most people, but to anyone who has ever tried to run a marathon, it’s extremely easy to understand.

Rashesh Shah, chairman and chief executive officer of Edelweiss, has been running marathons for 10 years now. You would imagine that the head of large finance company would be swimming with numbers, 24x7. However, before the sun rises the only number he’s thinking of is 5.38 minutes, which is the pace he needs to maintain to finish a half marathon in under two hours. Rashesh said one of the reasons he runs is, “the social aspect. You meet people outside your business circles, from all walks of life. Running also allows me to fit exercise in my travel schedule. When you run in the early hours of the morning, you get to see a city in a different light".

The popularity of running has grown in all segments over the last decade, but its increase in the corporate segment has been exponential. Today, at the start line of most marathons, you will find a disproportionate number of CXOs belonging to most of the big corporates across the country.

Of course, exercise is well known to be beneficial for health, and it stands to reason that the more you do, the greater the benefits. That’s true, up to a limit. Research has shown that, beyond a point, you reach a plateau and there is no further health benefit. This plateau is seen anywhere between 2,000-3,500 calories expenditure per week in physical activity, which roughly translates to 30-50km of walking or running per week.

In fact, some studies have even shown some possible harm in “over-exercising". Let me hasten to add that this whole idea of excessive exercise being bad for you is a very new concept, with minimal data available at present. In any case, excessive in these cases are usually folks who engage in ultra-marathon training, and year after year are running in excess of 100km per week. In general, these athletes are extremely healthy, but questions are being raised on the cardiac effects of such high volumes of training. In other words, there are certainly huge health benefits in running, but there may be no “added" benefits in running very long distances.

The great equalizer

One of the unique features of the marathon is that it is the only sporting event in the world where one can run with the world’s best in the same race. It gives marathoners cold comfort to know that when they are struggling on the road, so are the elites, except at a different pace. Over the years, the number of women taking up running has increased greatly, and in marathons in India today, approximately a third of the runners are women.

One of the benefits of running as an exercise is that it allows you to achieve a high level of fitness, while putting in fewer hours per week compared to lower-intensity activities. Sheran Mehra, 44, is executive director of DBS Bank, and is just two short of finishing the six major marathons across the globe—Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo and New York. According to her, running keeps her “focussed and balanced while juggling multiple priorities of being a mother to a teenager, and a marketing professional".

Like many others, I used to say, “running is the new golf", but that was when it was restricted to the metro cities. I was speaking to Pitchumani Venkataraman, or Venkat as he is known in running circles, and he told me that “a few years ago only the big cities had marathons, now there is a demand for a running event, in a new city every weekend".

Venkat’s is an interesting story. He used to run several BPOs till he had a heart bypass surgery at the age of 57, after which he took up long-distance running with a passion. After running more than 20 marathons, he decided to convert his passion into his business, and set up YouTooCanRun.com, a registration platform and an enabler for distance events. According to him, Aurangabad hosts more than a dozen big events, Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu has two, and several other places, for which we would need to look up on a map, host events on a regular basis.

Safety concerns

Dr Rakesh Sinha was a famous laparoscopic surgeon and gynaecologist in Mumbai who regularly ran the marathon. In December 2016, he collapsed on a training run, and sadly passed away, due to a cardiac arrest. Every time, there is an incident like this, it causes great concern among the family members of runners.

In 2012, a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled Cardiac Arrest during Long-Distance Running Races. This looked at the incidence of cardiac arrests in marathon and half-marathon races in the US from 2000 to 2010, and included 10.9 million runners. In that entire period there were 59 sudden cardiac arrests, of which 42 were fatal. While statistically, these numbers are extremely small, each death is devastating to the family. To reduce this risk one needs to take care of pre-participation health check, paying heed to warning signs while running, and appropriate medical facilities available during races.

The Badwater 135, calls itself “the world’s toughest foot race", and for good reason. The race covers 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, in California, US. The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 85 metres (m) below sea level. The race finishes at 2,530m, the highest point in the contiguous US. Death Valley is an ominous name for the start point of a race, and more so since it’s run in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. To make matters worse, one has to pay thousands of dollars to participate and entry is “by selection only".

Raj Vadgama, is the lone Indian in the fray for this year’s event on 15 July. Raj, 52, is an interior designer, who like many others had now made long-distance running his passion and his profession. After doing his first 100km run on a hot August day in Mumbai in 2011, Raj became obsessed with covering even longer distances, culminating in his acceptance at the Badwater 135 this year. Like Raj, there are a few thousand runners across India for whom the 42.2km of the marathon are not challenging enough, and have now entered the world of ultramarathons.

India has undergone an epidemiological transition a decade ago, and now chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer are the leading causes of death, as opposed to infections in the past. Most of these conditions have physical inactivity as one of the major risk factors. Hopefully, as more people get “infected" by the running bug, we will see an improvement in long-term health and a decline in these health conditions.

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A participant runs with a Tricolour at Bandra-Worli Sea Link during Mumbai Marathon 2019.
A participant runs with a Tricolour at Bandra-Worli Sea Link during Mumbai Marathon 2019. (PTI)

How you should get  started

For most people, the thought of running even one kilometre (km) is daunting, let alone a marathon. The good news is that the first step to any successful running programme is walking.

Begin by walking for 30 minutes. Gradually increase the pace and time until you are able to cover a distance of 5 to 6km in an hour. Keep doing this until it feels easy.

When you are comfortable walking briskly and want to step up the pace, simply add in a few short runs into your 60-minute walk.

As you get more accustomed to running, increase the running segments gradually. Eventually you should be able to run for 40 minutes continuously.

Today, running groups are mushrooming all over the country. The largest group, Striders, now trains over 5,000 runners spread out over 13 cities across the country.

I spoke to the group’s co-founder, Praful Uchil, who on a lighter note told me that “running has gotten so popular across the cities that in the early morning even the street dogs make way for the runners".

Aashish Contractor is director of sports medicine and rehabilitation, Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre. He has also been medical director of Mumbai Marathon, 2004-14, and is a 3:40 hour full marathoner.

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