The evolution of the Mumbai marathon is evident not just in the numbers of people wanting to run, but the seriousness of the race itself. Slowly but surely, the lighter, fun element is seeping out of the event and runners are becoming earnest. Earlier, it was the 7-km Dream Run that had people jostling each other, as there was no elbow room to pump those arms.
Ouch! Move you slowpoke! Now, 21-km registrations open and close faster than you can say ‘marathon’ and runners are moving into 42-km’s hard, brutal, unforgiving territory. Which means like all these experts say: a culture of running is trickling down slowly (like a bead of sweat perhaps?) into the city. Ah Mumbai, you have always had a large heart, looking at charity figures. Now, you have sole too.
A distance of 21-km or 42-km is the perfect stage for making any kind of statement – personal or political - and marathon followers can certainly see plenty of placards for different causes on the way. Several years ago, an enthusiastic 21-km runner had a small branch of a tree with leaves pinned on to his back to promote the green cause.
Only things got a little out of hand when the branches started brushing other runners running alongside, to their irritation. In 2011, the eighth edition of the race one saw the delhifrontrunners, a queer running and walking group, which has queer members, straight people and supporters who want to show their oneness with the community; Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representatives running the half and full marathons respectively, to reinforce the message: we’re here, we’re queer. Get used to it.
The Bandra to Worli Sea Link (BWSL) became part of the 21-km and 42-km marathon route since 2010. Amateur runners will remember the forgettable first time on the Sea Link, as there were no water stations on the 5.6 km course. Surrounded by water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink, the parched runners panted through what was supposed to be the Kodak moment of the race where hordes of photographers converged to catch the Kenyans and Ethiopians silhouetted against a rising sun, beams glancing off the sea, as they ran through the Sea Link in a blink, or was it a wink? Hmmm what’s the difference? Speed guns on the BWSL? They should catch the Kenyans for the African Safari surely breaks the speed limit.
African athletes have become synonymous with the Mumbai marathon, their effortless running style, speed and grace is breathtaking to say the least. Ever since these elite runners have started coming to the city, there has been more awareness about that side of the world, a trickle down effect of having them in the city. In 2008, at the post-marathon press conference where winners face the press, the Kenyans were asked a few questions about the deadly violence in their country post a disputed presidential election.
At that time elite athletes’ coordinator, Ian Ladbroke had stated that two Kenyan athletes were unable to come to Mumbai because of the violence there. Champion Kelai admitted that, “athletes are training with a divided mind. The concentration is definitely affected.”
Talking about Ladbroke, both he and race director Hugh Jones have become a January Mumbai fixture, being associated with the event for years now. One sees Ladbroke on an official two-wheeler riding pillion while the race is on. He once shouted, ‘chai, chai… let’s have some chai’ as a joke to amateur runners on the 21-km course. Both Caucasian men now must have surely imbibed a little bit of Mumbai after their numerous visits here. If you want to be truly Mumbai, make that cutting chai, Mr. Ladbroke.
One outstanding feature of the Mumbai marathon has always been the huge spectator support on the route for the marathoners. But sometimes Mumbai outdoes itself. The city got a shot in its running feet from space too. In 2010, astronaut Sunita Williams, a marathon runner herself, spoke from the NASA office in Texas via telephone to this reporter and wished Mumbai luck for the marathon via this paper. “For all Mumbaikars on the start line today I say, you can do it. Go for it, Mumbai,” Suni as she is known, had said.
Being mobile takes quite a different meaning for the not-so-serious on the marathon route. Some runners are seen talking exhaustedly on their cell phones half-way down the course informing friends and relatives about their progress so far. “Abhi tak main Haji Ali pahuncha hoon” (I have reached Haji Ali) they would say into their cell phones as the energy sapping gradients – the ones leading to Prabhu Kunj, Lata Mangeshkar building and the Babulnath flyover – loomed ominously. A marathon is one place where one can be truly happy being over the hill.