Pratibha Nadkar (Photo: courtesy Pratibha)

Road races have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19. Lockdown has meant challenging times for those who counted on races to win prize money and augment their income. For them, racing wasn’t just recreational running; it was part of livelihood.

Amateur runner Pratibha Nadkar had a cracker of a running season over the past six months. According to her, of the 28 events she participated in, she secured podium finishes in her age category at 26.

For Pratibha, the prize money translates into a a few months of reasonably good earnings. She depends mainly on prize money to survive. A resident of Mumbai, Pratibha started running little over three years ago. She started with runs over five and ten kilometers and then gradually progressed to longer distances. She followed a hectic training and racing schedule until the lockdown to combat COVID-19 forced her to stop running on the roads. Confined to her tiny quarters in a settlement in Chembur, Mumbai, she now follows online training sessions. “ In terms of money, I am comfortable for the next two months. I do not want to think about the scenario of an extended lockdown,’’ Pratibha said early April 2020. Even if the lockdown ends she could be staring at challenging times for there will be a time lag before races commence afresh.

Pratibha was a middle-distance runner during her school days at Ahmednagar. She ran distances of 800, 1500 and 3000 meters. “ I went up to national level but once school was over, my sporting activity came to a halt,” she said. Post-school days, Pratibha came under family pressure to get married. The resultant marriage ended in separation as her husband was an alcoholic. “ We separated when my son was barely 11 months old,” she said. Many years later her husband passed away in an accident. Left to fend for herself, she had to look for employment as house help. She later joined a troupe as a singer and did some stage shows to complement her income. Subsequently, she took to running and started enrolling for races. Quite often, she finished on the podium with corresponding monetary gains.

“ As stage shows began hampering my training to run, I reduced my appearances at shows. Also, stage shows started to dwindle. My focus shifted to marathon running. It was my only means to earn money,” Pratibha said. At the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Pratibha ran the 10 km-race and finished third. Three weeks later, she ran the 10 miler at the Maharashtra Police International Marathon and finished in second position. “ I don’t have any sponsor. I pay and register for the races that I participate in. Many times, there was tax deduction in the prize money,” she said. She is hoping her 20-year-old son finds employment. “ There are some jobs that may open up due to the current COVID-19 outbreak,” she said hopefully.

Sabhajeet Yadav, a farmer from Dabhiya, Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, supplements his farm income with prize money earned from marathons. He has been podium finisher in his age category, multiple times, at TMM and other leading events. At the 2020 edition of TMM, Sabhajeet secured an age category silver in marathon. He confines his appearance to a few key races where his chances of age category podium are healthy. Contacted in early April, he was busy with the harvest of his wheat crop. “ Once the harvest is completed, I will have to store the surplus produce at home as the mandis (markets) are closed due to lockdown,” he said. “ It will be a while before I step out of my village to participate in marathons,” he said.

At Vikramgad, a little over 100 kilometers away from Mumbai, Dnyaneshwar Morgha was in the same boat. He is a regular podium finisher in the open category in the half marathon and shorter distances. Prize money augments his earnings from agriculture. Thanks to the family owning land, which they cultivate, they had enough to sustain through the lockdown. But selling agricultural produce in the market like before had become tough due to lockdown. The story was slightly different for Panvel-based runner and regular podium finisher in his age category, Kamlya Bhagat. He said there wasn’t much he could get from his patch of farm land. On the bright side, he was getting a small salary from the school he worked for. But there was prize money won in the months before lockdown that he hadn’t yet received. “ With no races now and for the months ahead, it will be tough,’’ he said.

Elite runner Jyoti Gawate will be short of earnings this year as several key marathons have been cancelled. At the 2020 edition of TMM, Jyoti had finished second among Indian elite women. Being an elite runner, her prize money is higher than that of amateur podium finishers. But even as she stares at a tough year ahead, there is prize money earned last year that is yet to be received. According to her coach, Ravi Raskatla, Jyoti was overall winner among women at a marathon in Mohali in 2019. The organizers have made no effort to pay the prize money of Rs 200,000. He said there is worry about the absence of earnings from running events, both in terms of unpaid dues and how the months to come will play out. He coaches a team of athletes, some of who secure podium finishes. “ Jyoti has been supporting some of these athletes,” he said.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Like Pratibha, Sabhajeet, Dnyaneshwar and Kamlya, there are runners, who participate in events with the aim of making a living from podium finishes or use the additional earnings to complement their regular income. For them, the lockdown and the way COVID-19 has derailed a whole running season is felt the same way others who lost jobs or had to temporarily shut down businesses experience difficulty.

Seema Verma, a resident of Nalasopara, a distant suburb of Mumbai, is largely dependent on earnings from podium finishes. Abandoned by her husband some years ago, she worked as a domestic help for many years, before she commenced recreational running. The sport and its races was avenue to claw her way back into the daily game of survival. Past mid-March 2020, everything changed. By then COVID-19 was firm reality in India; the nation slid into lockdown. “ I never thought I would be in this situation. I cannot ask anyone for help as the scenario is bleak for all,” she said.

Given India’s harsh summer, the marathon season ends in February. It resumes in June (under normal circumstances) after a hiatus of three months with events designed around running in the rain. “ But, there are many small running events that are held through the summer months. They offer prize money of Rs 2000-5000. That is of great help to runners like me,” she said. All those summer races have dried up thanks to COVID-19. Early April, Seema was confined to her house and spending time on household work apart from working out indoors. “ I don’t think there will be any races for a long time. We may see some races towards the end of the year,” she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Towards the end of 2019, the domestic racing calendar was one of plenty. Mumbai based-race organizers You Too Can Run, has a database of annual running events. That alone showed approximately 1300 events in India. There are more. With lockdown caused by COVID-19, runners in hibernation and races cancelled or postponed, the optimistic time frame to recovery currently spoken of, is six months. Realistically, it could take longer for normalcy in the racing environment. “ It may be a long haul,’’ Sunil Shetty, senior runner who is also associated with NEB Sports, said. Additionally, at least one industry official said that like most sectors, the business around running may need to become lean to cope with the troubled times. It is a measure of direct impact. There is indirect impact as well.

Events have costs. A lot of these costs are met by sponsors. Sponsorships are typically part of a company’s marketing and image building budget. COVID-19 has arrived with warning of recession to follow. During recession, marketing and advertising expenses are among the first outgoes to be slashed by companies. Will every race organizer find sponsors? The situation is compounded by only informed guessing possible right now on how runners may re-emerge from lockdown. How much would COVID-19 have affected their appetite for mass participation events? Ashok Nath, Bengaluru based-runner, coach and mentor, felt that runners would welcome the return of road races, including new safety guidelines to adhere to. But their response would be proportionate to how safe the overall environment appears to be. Post lockdown, should any city suffer relapse to outbreak of infection that would be a concern for potential participants. Point is – if an organizer assumes the risk of meeting the costs involved to host a race and then ends up getting the cold shoulder from runners, it can be hurting.

Same goes for holding events in truncated format. For instance, post lockdown and still in the shadow of COVID-19, it would theoretically seem easier for authorities to approve an event with limited participation. Or say yes to a full marathon because that discipline typically sees limited participation (and is therefore better handled in scenario of cautious recovery) unlike the more popular shorter distances like the half marathon and less. However, it is the shorter distances that earn money for event organizers. Given costs to recover, truncated event is a bit like permission for airlines to fly with fewer seats on offer per aircraft. And just as that may translate to higher ticket cost, a major running event with sub-optimal participation may see altered fees unless the whole model sustains by some other means.

As COVID-19 spread worldwide, major international marathons were cancelled or rescheduled. Races that rescheduled came up with dates for fall 2020. Something similar is expected in the domestic calendar. Season specific events like monsoon marathons, may get cancelled if their windows are not deemed safe. From the rest, some may attempt dates in winter. Under normal circumstances, the fall season is a busy period for running in India. When rescheduled races land up in the same period, it could end up a tussle between the big events and the small ones, with the former likely favored by runners. Result – we may be in for a churn or what industry calls it: consolidation. “ Even ahead of pandemic, several races on the domestic circuit fell in what could be called the C category. In the months ahead, they will be the most vulnerable,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani of You Too Can Run, said. Enquiries with industry showed that most race organizers in India lack insurance cover for their event. “ Some of the big players take it. I would imagine that only about 10 per cent of races are insured,’’ an official in the know said. Not everyone agreed with the specter of consolidation. One race organizer said that in their quest to avoid crowding, runners may wish for a variety of options.

Then, there is the issue of event architecture in times scarred by COVID-19. A major development in the wake of pandemic has been social distancing. Marathons involve a large number of people. Most marathons have a couple of points where physical proximity happens. All races start with a holding area. While holding areas can be big, permitting people to spread out, the countdown to race’s commencement usually sees bunching of runners. The bunching happens because runners seek advantageous positions. At the end of every race, past the finish line, you are typically greeted by a couple of choke points. Runners get bunched while collecting their medals; they also get bunched when collecting their refreshments. Another concern is hydration; in fact, how aid stations operate. With COVID-19 protocols emphasizing hygiene, they will come under the scanner. Recyclable plastic water bottles may find fresh lease of life. It is also possible that runners may be encouraged to bring their own water (water bottles / hydration packs) in the early phase of events revival. Clearly, responsibility to keep participants safe will be heavy on race organizers. “ It will be a new environment at least for the next one year,’’ Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon, said.

Flashback / pack of elite runners from the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The larger question all this inspires is – when will conditions be suitable for the old confidence to return? At the time of writing, some states had just extended lockdown to the end of April. It is too premature to predict anything. “ There are matters of much greater priority for authorities to address before their attention can be sought for events like marathons,’’ Ashok Nath said. Two people we spoke to mentioned July end as earliest likely period when an assessment of the future may be possible. But even then, it isn’t enough that runners and race organizers feel hopeful. A lot rests on when authorities are ready to issue the statutory permissions every marathon requires. “ That is the important question,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani said. Much before running events, the world will have to reestablish its comfort with schools, colleges, offices, shopping malls, theaters etc. Further, as Sunil Shetty pointed out, major marathons are possible thanks to the support from other sectors like railways, civil aviation, long distance buses and hotels. They make it possible for many to participate. If these sectors are not fully operational it will leave corresponding impact on the participation at events. In a conversation featured in the post Lockdown & Me on this blog, Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, amateur runner and CEO of sports nutrition company, Fast & Up, had highlighted the cautious herd behavior that may characterize how events around running, revive. Meanwhile, TCS World 10K, the first major road race rescheduled in the Indian calendar following COVID-19, has been moved to September 2020. Roughly six months from now, that appeared the optimistic time frame for gradual revival in most people’s mind. By then more indicators would also be available for a clutch of major international marathons have been rescheduled to the September-October-November period.

Finally, there is a point, very valuable in an oblique sense. During crisis, we withdraw to what we actually are. If what we are includes the active lifestyle, the chances of its return are brighter for even authorities would imagine supportively. In today’s India, despite the virtues of active lifestyle, it is clearly minority. On March 27, 2020, in his open letter to the athletics community, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, was spot on when he said, “ we should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’ Events are the business end of running. Before planting the seed to grow a tree, nurture the soil.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)