The latest edition of The Wipro Chennai Marathon was conducted at the end of January this year. Prof. Preeti Aghalayam, the President of Chennai Runners, reminisces about how the ‘Chennai Marathon’ has matured over the years to become the second largest marathon event in the country.
The Wipro Chennai Marathon, commonly known as TWCM, was started with this name in 2012. It is organized by the Chennai Runners, a large voluntary group that has been in place since 2006. “It started with just three members – this is a story that I tell often enough – and today we have around 6000 people across the city that call themselves the Chennai Runners.”, maintains Dr. Preeti Aghalayam, a Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT Madras. Wipro is the title sponsor for the Marathon but the brand ‘Chennai Marathon’ is owned by Chennai Runners.
One Step at a Time
The event was started as a small city-based event for people to test their training. In general, Chennai Runners promotes healthy living and running as a core component of one’s fitness routine. Hence, Chennai Runners looked at conducting a running event in which the entire city community would take part. “We have lots of families that are part of Chennai Runners, constantly encourage beginners to join us, help them with programmes and so on. But we thought that if there is an event – a time to sort of check the box – it would showcase what running is about to a wider city community.”, explains Prof. Preeti.
Originally, it was called the ECR run. The Chennai Runners had a sign-up with one of the resorts on ECR (East Coast Road). Participants would start running at the resort and run down 5 or 10 km, turn back and then have breakfast together at the resort and that was all. It was very simple and relied on the contributions just to cover the breakfast. “Back then, it would be 50-100 people and no traffic closure or anything. We would just run on the side of the road, and there would be a U-turn point. If I wanted to run 15km, I would turn back at 7.5km. One year, we decided to introduce bibs, so we had numbers allotted to each of the participants. We printed these chest bibs – really tiny ones. So, that’s all it was. Then, over the course of time we thought we could do better because the event was growing. We would have new people on the event day come up and say, ‘I’ve tried this, it was fun. I want to continue to do this, I want to make running a part of my life now.’ So, we thought having a bigger event was a good way to get a lot of people into our group in one shot, and also encourage them to go on a path of healthy living for themselves. We also started having a little sponsorship around 2009-10. Gatorade, the energy drink company, came in one year and gave us all the electrolytes we needed. Another year, a real estate group sponsored the bib printing.”, narrates Prof. Preeti.
Now, the members of Chennai Runners had been taking part in marathons internationally and wanted to bring such a thing to Chennai. Ram Viswanathan, one of the founders of Chennai Runners, has always dreamed of having an international marathon in Chennai. There were previously five World Marathon Majors – Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin and New York. Recently, the Tokyo marathon from Asia became the sixth WMM. Prof. Preeti goes on to say, “So it’s been our dream that some day an Indian marathon will enter that list and we want it to be Chennai! Of course, we have a very long way to go, especially as I am getting the feedback from January’s event. So, Ram has always been talking about this dream of his, and every year I believe we get a little bit closer to it. One year, we said that we would make this a timed event. So we had timing chips – the RFID technology for timing chips (used for measuring the timings of the runners) was just starting off in India but, with a little bit of sponsorship help, we were able get a vendor to do this. That was a great experience for the participants. It was new for people that they didn’t have to worry about their timing, and we could issue a certificate stating the exact time in which one finished his race. So, the chest bib was one big step. Then, the timing was another one.”
In 2012, Chennai Runners decided that it was ready to put in a full marathon – a 42.195km measured course. And one of the reasons they were able to take this big step was the confidence arising out of the successful conduct of the half marathon in the IIT campus in 2011. It was entirely in the campus, people ran two loops of a 10.5 km route with OAT as the start and finish point. “After finishing, the runners had a massive fresh breakfast, there were live dosa and omelette counters! People just loved it. So, we felt really confident that we could take the next step to a full marathon because of IIT. Others will also tell you this, I’m not just saying this because I’m biased!”, exclaims Prof. Preeti.
IIT has its share of regular runners, spread across staff, faculty and students. Bindu Upadhyay, an alumnus says, “I started my running journey with a 10km run in the Marg Chennai Marathon back in 2011. The event being free for all students, saw a lot of us lined up at the 10km and 21km start line! I made a lot of new friends with a shared common passion — running. Soon after, Forest Gumps (the institute running club) was born.”
In 2012, the marathon hosted three race categories for the first time – the full marathon, the half marathon and the 10 km run. In 2012 also, the race started and finished at IIT, but one part of the race was held outside the campus. Runners started at GC and traversed the campus, went out and came back into the stadium for the finish. Again, for the runners and the organisers, it was a very good experience. However, by that point it was pretty big – there were timing mats & chips everywhere, aid stations had to be really well-stocked and so on. Prof. Preeti recounts an interesting incident that happened that year – “I think this was held in November or so (the 2012 edition was held on December 2nd) and there were rains the previous day. I remember around midnight, I got a call from Mr. Ezhumalai, the institute’s Chief Security Officer, saying that a tree had fallen on the race route near Mandak. So three hours before the race we had to do something about the tree!“
However, in 2012, there were 6500 participants which was too big a number for IIT Madras. Hence, from 2013, the race started and ended at the CPT (Central Polytechnic) ground. But, the route still had a slice of IIT for the full marathoners – they ran the last few km of their race inside IIT, got out through research park gate and went to the CPT grounds from the back. But, by then the race had grown to 10000 people, of which maybe 500-600 were full marathoners who went through the campus. “The IIT stretch was what people loved the most that year. We got lots of notes on email and Facebook saying that IIT was really lovely.”, adds Prof. Preeti. After that, however, it was felt that it was untenable to continue inside IIT because with the numbers increasing, the strain on the campus ecosystem was too much. So after 2013, IIT hasn’t been part of The Wipro Chennai Marathon route anymore. The 2014 and 2015 (moved to 2016 because of the floods) races have been held completely outside the campus.
Presenting her views on how the event will evolve over the next few years, Prof. Preeti adds, “Now we’re trying to pitch it as come in December, enjoy the music festival, and get a slice of Chennai as well, through this race route which passes by the historic sights of Chennai. The event has grown really big now – we had around 16000 participants this year. Frankly, this year we were really surprised that so many people came even though we postponed the event by more than a month. In the 10km race alone, there were 10,000 runners. 2016 will be special because within this calendar year, we will have two marathons.”
The Wipro Chennai Marathon has a varied composition of participants – there are women, men, wheelchair participants and there is even a separate category for differently abled children. The number of women participants and participants from outside Chennai has increased over the last few years. The Chennai Marathon is certified by the Tamil Nadu Athletic Association which means that state level athletes are encouraged, allowed, trained to participate in the event and get recognised for it. Prof. Preeti says, “Our route is not yet a certified one so you can’t use it to qualify for some of the races abroad. We hope to get that in the future once our route issues are sorted out.”
10km vs. Half vs. Full
Most of the world’s best running events have only one category, usually the half marathon or the full marathon. For example, in the Chicago Marathon all the 50k participants run the full marathon. When asked whether there would be a change towards this, Prof. Preeti replies, ”As runners of course, we like the half and full marathon categories; it’s something that’s closer to our heart. It’s not that there is any shame in the 10km distance. It’s a great event. I was at Napier’s bridge to flag off the event. It was like a tsunami of the blue TWCM t-shirts. But there’s not much running you can do because it’s jam-packed. From Napier’s bridge all the way to the War Memorial and maybe even further beyond, there’s not an inch of space. It’s like the Kumbh Mela! So on one hand, we wonder whether we should become a serious running event and scrap the junta run (the 10km run). But on the other hand, the energy and the pulse of the populace that you feel in the 10km category is very different. The atmosphere is so very different. It’s really fun and you feel very satisfied.”
She adds,“If you have just the FM or the HM, only a very niche group of runners who know what Gatorade is would participate. By having the 10km category, we’re broadening our base and really doing something that is community focused and a lot more inclusive in that sense. I’ve been debating and arguing with some people, in fact, saying let’s do away with the marathon category! Let’s do the shorter races. People will come out of their homes and take part, people who have never thought of running or fitness. This year, we had Ajay who is an RJ with Mirchi – one of our radio partners – in the midst of the 10km run and the way he could get people behind him and how the crowd responded to him was so amazing. So, we don’t want to lose that. But I think that we’re a little bit conflicted for sure. Maybe we could split the event across two days. We could have the 10km race on one day and the HM & FM on the next day. This year we had very good splits in terms of participation in each category. There were 10000 people for the 10km run, 5000 for the HM and 1000 for the FM. I think we will tread this path for a few more years for sure.”
Spirit of Chennai
The Chennai Marathon has a different tagline every year. This year’s was ‘Spirit of Chennai’. Last year, everything was tagged ‘There is a runner in you’ as inclusiveness was what Chennai Runners was trying to achieve. While this is still the message — being inclusive, being community focussed, getting everybody into running and being compassionate to every single pair of feet — this year was special. Prof Preeti elaborates, “Our race was originally scheduled for 13th December. A week before that, with the floods, it wasn’t even clear when the city would come back to any state of normalcy. We had no hope at that point of time of going ahead with the event. Of course, it was amazing to see how quickly things came back almost on track. If we had pushed, maybe we could have had the race on the 13th, on a smaller scale. But we felt this race is for enjoyment, and that wasn’t the time for enjoyment. On Dec 6th, we announced the postponement because that was when we finally got back online. Then, we said let’s not lie back and chill because our race isn’t happening. Let’s do something for the city. We went to the Corporation Commissioner’s office to see how best we could help. We are fit people, spend time outdoors, don’t mind sweating and spending long hours in the sun. One of the things he told us was that there was enough relief material. Could we help with cleaning? We put together some cleaning activities. Of course, now I feel we could have done a lot more. On Dec 13th, we had a citywide cleaning campaign instead of the race. Cleaning meant getting to the muck, segregating it and transporting it to the appropriate places. We had people coming all the way from Bangalore to help with the Chennai Runners cleaning activity! When saw all this, we thought it was important to recognize it. Hence, we gave this edition the tagline ‘Spirit of Chennai’.”
On the social front, TWCM partners with the United Way of Chennai to ensure that runners have an opportunity to run for charity. They get onboard various NGOs after scrutiny. An automated online process for donating funds to NGOs has been put into place and this year, nearly 25 lakh rupees were raised in donations and around 35 NGOs benefited from it.
Chennai Runners has also instituted two programmes to help the underprivileged. One of them is the ‘Star Runners’ programme for rural Tamil Nadu runners. One would not believe how little access they have to shoes or clothes or even advice on how to train. A number of these runners are identified through various contacts. They are very good athletes and usually win the podium positions. In the context of Chennai marathon, their accommodation, travel and registration are paid for by Chennai Runners. This year a three day camp was organized for them which included some expert lectures, a yoga day and a special dinner. There is also the ‘Extra Miles’ program wherein gently used shoes are collected and given to runners. Prof. Preeti describes, “If there are 100 km more on those shoes, they are willing to get those 100km out of them, which sometimes we aren’t. I think that these are some small things that we are doing. We want to do more – have a genuine scholarship for them. We do sponsor their registration, travel and accommodation for other races like the Mumbai marathon but these are all small things. What one needs is, if he has to become an athlete, that all his everyday needs have to be taken care of. One can’t be working as a plumber the whole day long and then go participate in a marathon the next day. Maybe, we could have a scholarship for them and set up an institute for them with genuine trainers.”
Another social aspect to the Chennai Marathon is the ‘Run for Fun’ for differently abled children. Around 100 special children are invited to take part. Prof. Preeti says, “The children love the experience of being in the start arch and finish arch and particularly the medals we give them. The run is short (1-2Km) but we try to give them as real an experience as possible.”
Running the Show
What makes the Chennai marathon different from most running events in the country is that it is totally organized by the running community and there is no professional organising company involved. The Wipro Chennai Marathon 2015 ran on the back of around 1800 volunteers, most of whom were tapped from Chennai Volunteers, Chennai Runners and the Chennai Trekking Club. Bindu says, “Volunteering for this edition was my way of giving back to the running community. It gave me a small glimpse of what goes into organising the second biggest marathon event in the country! Having run a lot of races, this is hands down the best race, the best route and definitely a reason for every Chennaite to be proud of.”
Prof. Preeti elucidates, “We do everything, literally. As the President of Chennai Runners, I flagged off the race, helped very briefly at an aid station, did crowd control, checked the race result timings and at the end of it, picked off some trash off the ground too! We have an event management group called Showspace that works with us, sponsors partners etc. But the buck stops with Chennai Runners. And for us the most important thing is the runner. So it is for the runners, of the runners and by the runners. And the runners really appreciate the famed Chennai Runners hospitality. We wait for the last runners to finish and garland them with medals ourselves. Last year we ran out of medals suddenly. And we mailed the medals to each finisher. Of course they were unhappy when they didn’t get them at first, but when they received them, they were really grateful. So I believe that that is what is unique. We understand the needs and hearts and minds of runners, being runners ourselves. Our first goal is that the runner should have a unique experience. In the Mumbai Marathon, everyone gets a medal but there’s no garlanding. You go to a little kiosk – it looks like a TASMAC window – and they pass you a little packet with the medal in it. I don’t feel loved at all.” In closing, Prof. Preeti says, “I think we have room for improvement everywhere but everyone on the road running the race knows what our heart is.”