This was to be Kiran Matre’s season—the year he made his mark on India’s booming distance running circuit. Matre is just 18, but he has already known great tragedy; both his parents took their lives, as did his grandfather, when their crops failed in the drought-prone Parbhani district in Maharashtra.

When Matre discovered running in school, it changed his life. It also became a source of livelihood. After winning school-level races, he began to make his mark on the domestic race calendar last year. His big paycheck came at the 2019 Hyderabad Marathon, where he won the Elite Men’s 10K race. At the 2019 Pune half marathon, he finished third in the 10K, leaving behind more well-known runners from the Army, and talent scouts took notice. Matre was targeting bigger competitions, more prize money, and perhaps landing a government job this year. All of that was put on hold by the pandemic—Matre is yet to put on his running spikes for the season. “I don’t know whether there will be any marathon this year because of coronavirus. It’s all gone,” says a dejected Matre. “I ran close to 25 races last year and earned around ~1 lakh in prize money in total. I look after my family (two younger siblings) through the money earned from marathons. This season I am still to run a single race.”

Matre’s season was to start with the TCS World 10k Bengaluru race in May. The race has now been moved to November.

India’s packed running calendar has taken a massive hit from the pandemic. Of the roughly 1400 distance races organised in India every year, around half have already been cancelled or deferred according to Indiarunning.com. But the real challenge lies ahead—most of major races happen between October and February. What will be the fate of the Delhi Half Marathon in October? Or the Kolkata 25K in December? The Mumbai Marathon in January?

The Indian running industry is valued at USD 400 million, but it may not have legs to stand on this year. Professional runners, who depend on these races for their livelihood, are distraught. Running coaches are finding it difficult to find work too, and race organisers are bleeding.

Outdoor running in itself is considered safe, but hordes of people running in close proximity is just the kind of thing that cannot happen in the midst of Covid-19.

Some of the biggest marathons in the world—New York City, Berlin, Chicago and the 124-year-old Boston Marathon—have been cancelled this year. The only Major that is bravely sticking its neck out is the London Marathon (Oct 4). Elite runners from across the globe are expected to flock to London to try and make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.

Procam International, the company that organises the Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata marathons, is planning staggered races with limited entries. All these races are still officially on, and first up would be Airtel Delhi half-marathon, scheduled on Oct 18, subject to the government giving a go ahead.

“There are many scenarios which we are working on. The two big ones are restricting the field size and having staggered race timings. And there will be various other smaller standard operating procedures to make it a safe bubble for people to run,” said Vivek Singh, Jt. Managing Director, Procam International.

“Of course, no marathon can happen without government support and support from the authorities. It’s a big challenge. But it must happen, for the sake of the city and the country. We’re going to have SOPs.” Singh pointed out that the marathon movement in India has given long-distance athletes a lifeline. “Suddenly, they are earning lakhs of rupees and making headlines in newspapers,” he said.

Runners’ plight

A barren season would be devastating for the marathon runners, says Surender Singh Bhandari, a distance running coach and the holder of the national record for Men’s 10,000m. “The road racing circuit gives opportunity to battle hard for the top spot. The prize money earned on the circuit enables the athlete to spend on diet and other basic things.” Matre’s coach Ravi Raskatla fears an exodus of professional runners. He has 16 trainees who come from nearby areas, stay at a rented accommodation in Parbhani and nurture dreams of government jobs and India colours.

“By this time we are ready with our boys to travel to different cities of the state. India’s running circuit is strong enough for professional runners to sustain their families,” said 49-year-old Raskatla, a former state-level runner.

“The boys are mentally disturbed with no races in front of them,” said Raskatla. “They are thinking about what they should train for. Most of them are from economically weaker section. They will have to take up small jobs and running will take a backseat. With such uncertain times, who knows if they can return again.”

It’s not just young runners but also established ones suffering from this uncertainty. Among Raskatla’s trainees is Jyoti Gawate, who has been on the circuit for over a decade and won the 2017 Mumbai Marathon among Indian women elite runners. She ran in four big marathons last season and earned Rs 8 lakh in prize money.

I don’t have a job. Marathon money is everything for me,” she said. “Every race is important for us because it gives us financial backing for the next race.”

Nashik’s Monika Athare, who participated in the full marathon at the 2017 World Championships, says most athletes are extremely tensed about the situation right now. The 28-year-old made a comeback at the 2020 Mumbai Marathon earlier this year after losing out on the entirety of last season due to a knee injury.

“Most runners in marathons come from small villages. It’s a long struggle to get there itself, and involves a lot of sacrifices,” she said. Our earnings are fully dependent on marathons. I have already lost a year due to my injury. I went into depression in that period. But I have bounced back. I desperately hope that the marathons happen.”

Marathons are not just about runners, there is an entire ecosystem that supports races. According to Procam, the Tata Mumbai Marathon alone has an impact over Rs 250 crore on the city in terms of revenue and employment. “15,000 people came in from outside Mumbai last year to run the marathon. There are so many different aspects—hotel rooms, shopping, charity, employment, etc,” said Singh.

Raising money for charitable causes is also a major part of races—the Tata Mumbai Marathon raised Rs40.7 crores for philanthropic causes, and the Delhi Half Marathon Rs 12.77 crores last year—and this too will be hit if there are no races.

Many organisers have been quick to embrace the concept of virtual racing; when the Comrades Marathon in Durban was cancelled, participants competed in a virtual race, running from the safety of their locations and cities and logging their timings online.

Sanjay Mangla, founder of running company Tuffman which organizes 11 running events, says they have shifted to virtual races. “We organised a virtual run in the first week of July and the response was good and now we are having the second run next month and hoping to have more than 2500 runners registered. “In Covid times, the biggest challenge is to keep our brand alive and keep the runners engaged.”

Procam has announced an initiative called Sunfeast India Run as One to support those who have lost their livelihood due to the pandemic People can walk, run, jog or simply register and donate.

Virtual races will keep the industry afloat, feels Dilip Jayaram, who runs DJ’s Acquizen which organised an Ironman event in India and a marathon in Mumbai this year.

“With running clubs, you can maintain physical distancing and ensure people follow the usual hygiene and health protocols, said Jayaram. “As a consequence, what will increase is virtual running. You can even mirror course similarities, go uphill as you clock miles. This, however, does not include the athlete who would run the Indian circuit to make a living. They have been severely impacted by this.”

With inputs from Navneet Singh & Dhiman Sarkar

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