Upon being asked about his decision to run his maiden marathon abroad, Mumbai-based lawyer, Venkatesh Dhond (Venky), responded with the famous saying—“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Except, there is little foolhardy about Venky’s choice. He, along with his daughter, will run the Berlin Marathon in September. One of the largest marathons in the world, it is incredibly flat and the fastest of them all, ideal for even an amateur runner. He merely wishes to finish (“Run, walk, limp, hobble…but complete the race.”), hopes for it to be a 42-kilometre-long bonding session with his daughter, and, once done, plans to enjoy the city’s attractions before taking the flight back home.
Till a few years ago, marathon tourism or ‘run-vacations’ seemed inconceivable, ridiculous even, in India. When Gauri Jayaram founded Active Holiday Company in 2014 to encourage physical-activity-oriented travel, it was a task to even get 10 people to sign up for the London Marathon who did not consider the endeavour a waste of money. “On the other hand, for 2019’s Berlin Marathon, 150 Indians have already registered and 30 are on the waitlist,” she reveals. The running culture in India may be fairly new, but it has been seeing an exponential growth: far more Indians are on the trot today, looking for marathons everywhere from frigid Antarctica to underneath the midnight sun in Norway, whether to compete or complete.
For many, it is as much about the destination as it is about the run. Or roughly a hundred destinations as we see in the case of Upendra Tripathi, who vowed to participate in a marathon a month till he hits the century mark. The marathoning bug bit the Bengaluru-based VP of a tech company after he got bored of the treadmill and decided to replace the conveyor belt with the many exciting races held around the world. His modus operandi: first pick a destination and then find a marathon there. This made his family happy, who not only at times participate with him, but are also guaranteed a vacation every few weeks. Till date, he has run 33 marathons and been to more than 25 unique locations.
While Upendra made the joy of run-vacations his lifestyle, for someone like Sunita Tummalapalli, the first Indian woman to have completed the World Marathon Majors (six of the largest marathons in the world) and run on seven continents, societal expectations and safety as a woman runner became concerns before she could even contemplate a holiday. Despite her family’s support, she says, “Some people commented that I am wasting money on travel and I am leaving my kids alone with my husband.” But she chose to take things in her stride and has now even inspired her husband to run—to the extent where he has completed the World Marathon Majors too. Each trip is now a run-vacation for the ‘run-away couple’ as they like to call themselves.
Fitness, self-achievement, liberation and expression of individuality—it is difficult to speak of marathons without referring to such themes. Milind Soman, heartthrob of millions and someone who has achieved plenty of athletic feats, recently ran the Athens Marathon with his wife, Ankita, and has a sweet experience to share along these lines—“It was a really emotional moment for her, crossing the finish line in the beautiful marble Panathenaic Stadium. And for me, what can I say, I am just another proud husband".
But the real question is, “where to head for a run?” The answer is as simple as ‘anywhere’ and as complicated as ‘it depends’. At the relatively easy end of the spectrum, the Kalimpong Half Marathon takes place in a beautiful hill setting in West Bengal every May and major participants are the Gorkha youth. Advocate Roshni Rai organises it as means to identify talented local runners who she then helps participate in different marathons across the country. Although there are challenges (especially the 14km uphill trail), it is a great starting point for your running adventures. You can stay in nearby teahouses and savour local food and even go for village visits.
When you have gathered some experience, head to the Malnad Ultra. Its founders, a group of independent runners who simply wish to showcase to the world the joy of experiencing the evergreen terrain of Karnataka’s Malnad region, have always encouraged participants to bring along their friends and family. “Even if they [the companions] are not running, we really want them to experience the region,” says Anand Adkoli, a founder of the race. As an ultramarathon (a run longer than 42.195kms), Malnad has three courses: 50kms, 80kms and 110kms, all going through bucolic tea-estates with plenty of nature trails. It promises a proper weekend getaway from Bengaluru—just with a marathon in the middle.
But if you really want to go where the world heads, look no further than the New York City Marathon. The mega event sees over 50,000 individuals cross the finish line, thousands of them having flown in from other countries, as professional and amateur runners put on their running bibs and make their way across the five boroughs of New York City with the crowd cheering them on. “We had 118 runners from India [at the 2018 edition]…nearly doubling the number of the 2017 edition,” reveals a PR representative. Indeed, the joy of having a sizeable contingent of your countrymen to prod you onward in a foreign land is the real spectacle of this race.
Even after you are done navigating most of the global marathoning landscape, the La Ultra may not be the best idea. Founded by Dr Rajat Chauhan, this is no ordinary marathon—“the objective is to create a Tour de France of India,” he says. But here we’re talking about a race in a terrain as difficult and remote as Ladakh and routes ranging from 55kms to a Herculean 555kms. With a cut off time and breaks at your discretion, this really is a test to stretch the limits of the human body. Despite a handful of participations, Dr. Chauhan has seen many underdogs clinch the distance. And once you’ve conquered India’s rooftop, there’s really nowhere higher left to go.
The race ahead
India has finally awoken to the potential of marathon tourism. Future trends, similarly, point to an upward trend. Gauri states, “Marathon running is now replacing beach bumming,” while referencing the many corporations that are promoting a culture of fitness among their employees by offering marathons as a travel incentive. One such company, the pharmaceutical giant GSK, has a programme where employees participate in local marathons and, if they perform well, travel as a contingent to a race at a different destination. This excites a lot of people, who are also able to explore the place. It is also a great leveller, with employees across the hierarchy running in the same race.
An increase in marathon participation has made the role of tour operators like Gauri even more important. “With larger races, the demand always exceeds the supply,” she says. So travel companies like Active Holidays Company go on to pre-purchase slots. Also, most runners would rather concentrate on the run. Therefore, the company overlooks the logistics—including all possible support, transport, refreshments, etc.—and ensures the hotels are nearby the start lines. It also helps form teams and country contingents.
All in all, a wonderful domino effect is in place: people are no longer separating fitness and leisure, or even work for the matter; in fact, all these are made to complement each other. As travellers become responsible, they also become fitter and manage their work better. And then trends like marathon tourism become ubiquitous.