Sunday, December 18, 2011

Running in India - The Public Perception

There are those who run and those who don’t. It’s been almost two years since I retrieved my dusty trainers from the back corner of my shoe rack, cleaned them and went for my first run. And this single act opened up a new world for me.  And that was the day I became a runner. It did not matter that I hardly knew the technical details of the sports - What type of clothes to wear or shoes to buy, whether I should take walking breaks when running and how many kilometers I should run to avoid injury and lose weight. All that knowledge would come later but on that day, I just wanted to run. And that’s all it takes for any person to become a runner. No need to spend money on equipments or enroll in pricey coaching camps to master the sport.
         Running has given me this opportunity to change and influence lives of a few people for the better. I have had people who I have never met message me asking how they should go about preparing for their first 10k or half marathon. Once during one of my long runs in Hyderabad, a company watchman decided that he had had enough of watching folks run and joined me for a mile or so running in his uniform and sturdy boots. Forget the health benefits of running for a moment, the joy you get when you run your first mile is something to behold.
        Most things in social science can either be explained or blamed on perception. And how society perceives running is going to determine the future of the sport in India. Here are a few of my interactions with society as runner:

  • The incredulous looks that folks give when they see runners with water belts, GPS watches and fancy gadgets huffing and puffing when common sense dictates that they take a break. The first thing I learnt on taking up running is to ignore these looks and comments like “Why do you have to put themselves under such pain?!”. No one becomes a long distance runner without pushing past perceived limits of pain and endurance.
  • An overweight constable in Bangalore once warned me that my running shorts was too short and asked me to wear full length track suits during running. I pretended not to understand Kannada and kept running.  Some people lack the imagination to think of a world beyond their own. 
  • A few folks from the forest department in KBR Park terming runners as a nuisance to walkers and warning the Hyderabad Runners group that they would arrest all of us if we ran as a group. We raised our voices and aggression to match theirs and dared them to arrest us on our next run there. Of course they backed off and nothing happened on our next run.
  • The print media in India is currently enamoured with this concept of ignoring all news-worthy stories and focuses mainly on sensationalization of trivialities. And everything is fair game for reporters/journalists without depth and understanding – check articles like this and this. I do hope that such couch potatoes with half-truths and inadequate journalistic skills do not turn the general public away from the sport – but such hope is misplaced. People are influenced by what they read and unfortunately such shallow articles always hurt the sport. This is the most difficult and insidious of the issues that runners have to deal with. I have had relatives and friends read up some random article on the internet and advise me to take up a “normal” hobby like gardening or walking.  
  • I have run quite a few marathons and mostly found lukewarm response from the general public to marathons and other running events.  In an international marathon like say New York or London, people come in droves to support runners. Of course the sport is still in its infancy here. In comparison, Mumbai Marathon draws good crowds and public support but whether they come out to cheer runners or drool over Bipasha Basu is anybody’s guess. We are not there yet but someday the crowds will come for marathons. Until then we might have to make do with Bips...
  • For all the talk about India being a modern society, it is not easy for women to take up running in our country. Even when running in a group, women are subjected to lewd comments and unwanted advice. I recently attended a workshop by an ultra-marathoner/tri-athelete named Anu Vaidyanathan who began her presentation with a question somebody had asked her when training for a triathlon – “Why don’t you go get married?”  Unless attitudes change, it is very difficult to ensure women take up long distance running either as hobby or a passion.
        One of the first things I learnt in my corporate life - The world does not run on truth, it runs on perceptions. Likewise with the sport of running. And one of the things we can do for running is to be its ambassadors. Let's motivate a few folks to run. Let's tell them the story of how running changed our lives and get them to join the local running club. Let's convince them that if they run today, it does not mean a painful knee replacement surgery down the line. Above all, let's be the change that we want to see in the other person – Let's run...