“ RUNNERS HAVE TO LEARN TO COEXIST AND YET STAY DISTANCED’’ / THE NEW NORMAL WITH BHASKER DESAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This is an article by invitation. Bhasker Desai, 68, is a Mumbai-based businessman and amateur runner. He has been in the US since mid-March 2020. Amid COVID-19, states there have had varying degrees of lockdown. In California, where Bhasker is at present, there is a shutdown; not a complete lockdown. At this blog’s request, Bhasker wrote in of running’s new normal as experienced there; he also applied his mind to imagining how the new normal may play out in Mumbai.

I am currently in San Bernardino County, southern California. This state has a shutdown but not a complete lockdown. One can venture out any time for a walk / run apart from drive down to pharmacies and grocery stores. Wearing mask and keeping safe distance of six feet is mandatory when out to pick essentials. But there are no such specific guidelines for runners who have access to trails, roads, sidewalks and parks, which they share with walkers and cyclists.

I go out for a run, twice a week; each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour. I run solo for I have no runner friends here. I see very few runners out and about. When I do find someone, it is usually another solo runner. There are walkers too, out for fresh air. They are typically seen in pairs, group of friends and quite often, a family of adults and children. Most of them wear masks. Where I live, I have yet to see runners wearing masks. I suspect they must feel uncomfortable wearing a mask and running. The mask gets wet from breath and sweat; breathing becomes tad difficult.

May 10, 2020: an empty street in San Bernardino County, southern California (Photo: Bhasker Desai)

In general, people wear masks when out. So I am unsure how welcome to others, the sight of runners not choosing to wear one is. After all, we do huff and puff more than them and that does not help alleviate the concerns of these times. However, every time I see passersby, I make sure I am more than ten feet away. I even jump to the edge of already empty roads (very few cars are out), let people go by and only then, get back on to the path. Some people wave to greet or show approval. When you are greeted so, for a moment it feels like old times! It reminds you of times when people joined you to enjoy the camaraderie; an unexpected running partner had for a short distance. But alas times have changed. For now it is only a smile and we move on safely, away from one another. The new normal sucks but it is a reality we must accept and not flout till this phase gets over…hopefully soon.

I think of Mumbai. The city is home to a big number of recreational runners. Personally I don’t see much social inequality in the sport. The running spirit encompasses all kinds of runners, slow, fast, young, old, rich and poor. That should be good news to start with as and when Mumbai opens up again for runners. Even the comparatively disadvantaged runners, we take them along with us to run side by side and support them in different ways. Till such time as COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past and there is a vaccine that cures, maintaining physical distancing (ten feet?) should be number one priority. So, when Mumbai reopens and permits resumption of running, remember to stay apart from each other. No rocket science there, it is the obvious thing to do for safety of self and others.

Solo running or running with a few friends you know are healthy – that may be your new normal. Make it mandatory not to touch one another. No hugs or handshakes to greet (namaste should work) and always, that physical distance. I agree it feels terrible. But self-preservation and precaution are essential in this new order. Seniors (I would say, those above 55 years) should be even more cautious, they should ideally run solo. They are a higher risk group and so should feel nothing bad at being isolated.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Mumbai is a thickly populated concrete jungle. That is its biggest challenge. Its community of runners too has grown rapidly. There are few free spaces to tread. There are only few green zones and limited sea fronts for runners to breathe fresh air and feel healthy. And with many people walking side by side, it adds to the crowding. Social distancing for runners in most cities in the US is not such a big challenge. North America has less people, more accessible free space, plenty of parks, running trails, sidewalks and special zones for extracurricular activities. There is no dearth of space to run freely and at the same time, keep physical distance from each other. Mumbai in comparison is no runner’s paradise. I suspect, similar challenges will be felt as regards the new normal in other Indian metros like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Good behavior by runners in Mumbai’s limited free space will be crucial if we are to check the spread of this lethal virus. Life style changes are on the anvil. Get ready to accept that you will not be running free spirited like before in the new normal. We runners are very gregarious and love to chat as we run. We won’t be able to continue that. It’s another change we need to accept to restrict spread of droplets. It means we have to count that much more on self-discipline and resilience to fall in line with the new normal, which Mumbai too must accept. Runners need to keep their ethics and spirits high, stay strong and united. They should not become weak and resort to protest (for space). Good behavior and sportsmanship are required if we are to thrive in the new normal. Where this doesn’t happen, government regulations and dos and don’ts may be imposed with potential penalty to defaulters. Is that the solution? I hope we don’t come to that stage. I hope we shoulder our responsibilities and make the things that provide us joy, happen, so that we live in peace and harmony. Perhaps team leaders, running gurus and running clubs like Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) can lead the way to formulate runners’ ethics and influence right behavior through proper guidelines. Runners have to learn to coexist and yet stay distanced. Notwithstanding what others can suggest, in the end, it will be the individual’s inner calling. So, this compliance is something we have to generate from within.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The other challenge in India will be for organizers of running events. Big ticket events like Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – may have to take a back seat as participation in numbers like 30,000 and 40,000 can break down physical distancing and be a threat to human safety. Besides, till such time as they develop a runner-friendly mask, wearing a mask and running more than five kilometers may be irritating; you end up with a sweaty, smelly face cover.  Forget big events, even small ones with 500 to 1000 runners may prove unacceptable unless some solution like split timings for start or large enough space to run (we can’t imagine such luxuries in Mumbai) or some such impractical unfriendly way of going about organizing a race is evolved. Nothing comes to my mind except that for some time, let running events be on the back burner in big cities. In smaller places, far flung semi metros and towns, local small events can be a reality with just a few runners. In the end, running for us amateur runners is about health and happiness. So no world lost if for some time we don’t race and get another PB! I hope and pray that vaccine comes earlier than projected; a vaccine that cures and allows us once again to breathe next to our fellow runner.

(The author, Bhasker Desai, is a Mumbai-based businessman currently in the US. The write-up was edited by Shyam G Menon.)

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