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.)

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