I am enormously excited about today’s Running The World post because we’re talking about what it’s like to be a female runner in India! I spent the week emailing with the amazing Preeti and she put so much time and effort into her responses to my questions, it’s been fascinating. As ever, this is just one person’s view and is not meant to be a definitive view on Indian running.
I found Preeti when I googled ‘Indian Running Blogs’ and ended up at the blog of an Indian PHD student based at Stanford, about 10 miles south of me. I asked him if he knew anyone suitable and he copied Preeti into his reply to me, saying she’d be perfect. She quickly replied to say she’d be up for talking and warned me she could talk about running forever. Like that’s ever been a problem! So without further ado, may I introduce you to Preeti.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am an Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering. I teach undergraduate students and have several research students to guide as well. I spent several years in the US during my graduate school studies. We moved back to India in 2002. My husband is also an exercise freak like me and we have a ten year old daughter who hates running ( she loves swimming though!)
How did you get into running?
I have been running a very long time. I was a sprinter in school and college and we trained several months of the year. It wasn’t the most scientific of training routines and anyway I was too preoccupied with studies to pursue running in any big way. In the US I found it very cathartic to get out and go for a run at least during the spring/summer months. I played basketball otherwise (despite being very short! I am only 5ft!). In Boston, during my Post-Doctoral appointment at MIT, my research group ran a charity 5k and that’s when I discovered these ‘races’. In India I was in Mumbai when the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon first began in 2004. I missed that year as I was pregnant but have taken part in that race every year since then, even though we don’t live in Mumbai now.
Moving to Chennai was a big shift, and I initially really suffered with the weather. I continued to do Half Marathons and have been lucky enough to make great friends and meet lots of people running. I graduated to Full Marathons in 2011 and train as meticulously as I can nowadays for races.
I take part in 2 full marathons and an informal local ultra (50km); and at least half a dozen half marathons, every year. I mostly sign up based on the company I will have with me. I have a big group of friends and we run and train together. I run 3-4 times a week and do tempos, intervals, and long runs. I also do strength training – a little bit – and have been trying to swim and bike a little of late. My favorite is the Half Marathon distance though I do enjoy the 50km run we do every december.
This year I ran a Full Marathon at Mumbai in January, a Half & a 10km locally, up to now. I am gearing up for a women only 10k next week and also the Chicago Full Marathon in October, aside from a handful of Half Marathons I will do later in the year.
I am on the organising team of what is called The Wipro Chennai Marathon and we work solidly for 6 months to put up our ‘By the runner, for the runner’ race every December. Our numbers are increasing rapidly and Dec 2013 saw 10,000 runners on the streets, and the feedback was pretty awesome!
Does India have a history of running?
Recreational running is quite new to India I would say. We have our athletes and they of course have been training for years and we have a good track and field culture, but it’s all been quiet till this past decade when recreational running started taking off like this.
How popular is running in India? Is it increasing in popularity?
Right now, it’s nowhere as big as in the west. I would say we are still in the fledgling state. I feel like this type of recreational running that we are talking about started in a big way in 2004 with the Mumbai Marathon. Now, 10 years later, every major city has a full marathon or at least a few half marathons. There are some really beautiful trail marathons coming up in various parts of the country – some real tough ones as well – such as the summer Corbett Marathon or the Leh-Ladakh event which is at very high altitude.
It is becoming really increasingly popular, I myself have seen, in Chennai, which is a relatively ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ city in the South, how crazy people have gotten. In my first race here, there were 100 participants. These days, we have to be real careful how we announce events as at the click of a finger, 500 people will line up and we have the local authorities come in and question us and ask us if we have permissions etc.
It is DEFINITELY growing, no doubt. Number of races, number of running groups, number of people – on all parameters you can imagine.
India is clearly a huge country – do you have any idea if running is popular throughout the country or in specific regions?
Running is definitely the most popular in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Pune. It’s becoming popular in many of the smaller cities as well, and in the rural areas too. The advantage of the cities is that we have access to lot more information and shoes and so on. The advantage of the rural areas is that they have such beautiful vistas.
Who is running? In the US, the current running boom is primarily led by women, is there a notable gender difference in India?
Right now, or I would say up until now, it has been largely men who are running. Middle aged men mostly. But definitely this is also changing, because more young people and women are getting into this as well. It’s amazing to hear of it being a ‘woman’s sport’ – I hope it will become that here as well. But at this time, it’s dominated by men though there are several of us in this ‘space’ who have carved a niche. There are three Indian women completed the Comrades marathon in the past few years for example and a group of 3-4 women from Bangalore who qualified for Boston this year, and a lady who has been organising these insanely difficult trail races across the city.
Is running popular within specific social classes?
Generally, the bulk of participants are from comfortable economic means. There are a few people who participate for the prize money. In our Wipro Chennai Marathon, we try to help out underprivileged people under a program we call ‘Star Runners’ These are Indian athletes training under various coaches for national and international events, they are typically not very well-off. We help them participate in our race in various ways. They are good – and win the prizes – but not really well-trained enough. I wish we could do more for this class of people, for sure, as they are talented and get lost in the mire.
Let’s talk a little more about women running in India. Do you have any idea about the numbers of women running?
Only 10-15% of the total participants in the big races in India are women. You can definitely quote me on this as I have studied the numbers are least for Mumbai Marathon and our own Chennai Marathon. 🙂 The numbers are on the increase, no doubt, but still we are a gross minority here, sadly.
We hear a lot in the West about the safety of women in India. How safe do you feel when you run?
Safety during training is a big deterrent actually – I did a survey few months ago of many women runners across India, and at least 90% felt that the “Eve Teasing”, hooting, name calling, staring, and even, in some cases, physical assaults were becoming a big problem for women runners who want to train seriously, With our weather and various household responsibilities, we really cannot afford to run through the course of the day and have to get it done early morning or late evenings. Although many of us have ways and means of keeping safe (the easiest being to run with a group – there are many to choose from now), this is a problem that we constantly grapple with.
Currently the awareness on this is very high with the worldwide focus on violence against women, particularly in India. There are many cities, many areas in any city, many times of the year (festivals,for e.g.), etc when it is just not recommended for women to be running alone, that too in a zonked out manner with earphones. Personally, I run early mornings, and stick to routes that I am familiar with. I do run with a group and have a large number of people who are quite happy to run with me on my terms – anyhow we are usually training for the same race, together, on similar plans, anyhow. But I also do run alone when I feel like it.
What do female runners wear?
The cultural aspect comes in also in many ways, primarily with the clothes.I wear shorts and a t-shirt, though I am in the minority in this. Most of the women in Chennai wear capri pants (nice ones from Nike or Reebok) and t-shirts. You won’t see any woman in India running, even if it is the peak of summer, in a sports bra and shorts. That wouldn’t be looked on too kindly, at least not right now, I expect.
Let’s talk racing. How popular is racing?
Racing is definitely on the rise now. It is again nowhere close to as popular among recreational runners as in the west but we are getting there! The Half Marathon and 10k are popular though the Full is picking up steam fast.
Many have timing chips now – maybe 10-15 of them. Both the shoe tie version and the bib version. There are a mix of big and small races. The biggest & most ‘important’ ones are:
- Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon
- The Wipro Chennai Marathon (that’s ours!)
- Airtel Hyderabad Marathon
- Airtel Delhi Half Marathon
- Auroville Marathon
- Running and Living Marathons (several)
- Kaveri Trail Marathon
- TCS 10k Bangalore
I do the Mumbai, Hyderabad and Auroville without fail every year. I been on the organising team for the Chennai Marathon all along so I can’t manage to run it, though I live here. Auroville is super as it’s through a natural forest and inside a beautiful community living space (no timing chip!).
Who organises the races?
The races are organised by corporates such as Procam Running / Life is Calling or by running groups, like us, the Chennai runners. Other groups that organise races are Hyderabad Runners, Runners for Life, Running and Living.
If you could encourage a traveller to do any Indian race, which would it be?
Travellers would enjoy the Mumbai (Full & Half) and Delhi (only Half) marathons I think, as they are corporately run and you get to see these two cities. Ours is an up and coming race but we have lot of heat and some real challenging humidity – so it would be challenging! There are some beautiful races up north in the country that I haven’t personally attempted.
How expensive are races?
They are not very expensive in absolute terms (max. : $30-$50 per registration – which usually comes with t-shirt, finisher medal, online certificate, timing chip, etc. . But it is definitely something that the lower economic strata would think twice about.
What trends are becoming popular in Indian running circles?
I think triathlons and duathlons is now fast picking up steam and growing in popularity here.
Trail Running is growing hugely in the US. Is that the same in India?
Yes, it’s not booming per se, But lot of people are keen on rural and trail runs. Auroville is the oldest trail run and is very popular in running circles. It’s not a challenging trail in terms of terrain – it’s just uneven ground – pebbles and roots – not hills or anything.
Locally, some of the guys training for Comrades this year have been exploring some insane sounding hills and other areas. Some day I will check it out (these are small, invitation only events) and report back to you! 🙂
Where do Indian runners buy their gear – and what brands are popular?
People tend to buy their running gear at general sports stores as opposed to running specific stores. Nike, Reebok and Adidas apparel is the most common and for shoes, it’s Asics, Nike, Adidas and Vibrams…and some barefoot runners. There is reasonable gear available for women right now (it wasn’t so even as recently as 3-4 years ago). Many of us do end up buying stuff when we travel abroad (which also tells you about the economic class of people running!). Garmins are also popular.
Who are the running heroes in India?
Interesting question. We have a handful of Indian elite athletes who win at races. We mostly have separate categories for Indians vs. Foreigners else the African athletes who come over take all the prizes. They are somewhat known.
Some of the women who have recently done super well are well known. Roshni Rai is a Comrades finisher who also organises a group of underprivileged athletes from her hometown to participate in races, she is known. Neera Katwal is a fitness expert/coach in Bangalore who is enormously successful and a podium finisher often. Vaishali Kasture is a banker who is a Boston Qualifier this year. Timtim Sharma is a young girl who is running really strong and fast these days and even beating the Indian athletes. Kavitha Kanaparthi organises these tough marathons with her company Globeracers. Rahul Verghese organises several marathons in North India. Ash Nath and Kothandapani are coaches and speedy runners
Don’t forget Milind Soman – a famous male model and runner who organises Women Only running events under his brand ‘Pinkathon’. (Cat’s note – check this link out, it’s amazing). These are shorter races – 3, 5, and 10k that are becoming very popular. He is a big heart throb (though old- think George Clooney !) but very dedicated. In fact Pinkathon Chennai is next weekend. I am one of his city ambassadors so am on Facebook so much these days!!
Cat’s note: Preeti celebrated her birthday last weekend with a run, a cake and the aforementioned gentleman. I like this girl’s style!
What do Indian runners use to fuel and hydrate when running?
There is a big movement towards natural foods – bananas, dates, oranges – though lot of us use Gu gels and chomps. For hydration, Gatorade and its local variants are popular though most people are thinking about home-made natural versions with honey and lemon and so forth.
How does social media fit within the Indian running community. Are Twitter and blogging popular?
Twitter and Blogging are somewhat popular. But the biggest trends seems to be that all groups have Facebook presence and like billions of photos of every single training run ever run are uploaded and people tagged everyday!!
If I landed in your city, where would you send me to find out about the local running routes, group runs, and local races?
Without doubt, the Chennai Runners Facebook group!
And finally…what is the best thing and worst about running in India?
The best thing? It’s a great way to meet people! Everyone in the running community at least here in Chennai, is really uncompetitive and sweet. It’s almost like hanging out at a friendly neighborhood bar !
The challenges? Infrastructure is the problem in most cities. Roads aren’t great, first of all, and unsafe many times. Traffic can be crazy. Pollution can be very high. No ‘beautiful vistas’ accessible in easy driving distance. And of course safety is a great challenge for female runners.As race organisers the thing we struggle most with is getting permits to close roads for traffic so we can conduct our races or even identifying reasonably running routes to traverse 21 or 42 kms and be convenient to runners.