Finisher’s medal from the 2021 Chennai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anil Sharma)

After months of no mass participation events and amateur running in general weighed down by the restrictions of lockdown, the New Year kicked off with a scaled down version of the 2021 Chennai Marathon held as scheduled early today morning (January 3).

“ The event went off quite well under the watchful eyes of officials,” V. P. Senthil Kumar, Race Director, Skechers Performance Chennai Marathon 2021, said. When asked about the number of runners who actually participated in the event, he said tallying that number would take a few days. Following the onset of lockdown in India in March 2020 and its subsequent phased relaxation, the 2021 Chennai marathon was the second major running event to put feet on the ground after the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) of November. However while ADHM’s physical race was a competitive elites-only affair held in the safety of a protective bubble, the Chennai Marathon was non-competitive, open to amateurs, conducted on a motorsports racetrack away from the city with COVID-19 safety protocols in place and capped to a maximum participation of 1000-1500 runners.

Among those who ran in Chennai was Bengaluru-based amateur runner, Thomas Bobby Philip. A regular podium finisher at the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), he currently runs in the race’s 50-54 years age category. “ I didn’t find any of the safety measures in place intrusive,’’ he said when asked how the Chennai Marathon experience felt, compared to those from pre-pandemic days. He said that when he first heard of the event in Chennai and the return to some form of event-based running it promised, he was certain that he wanted to participate. “ It was a relief,’’ he said of event savored after months with none on runner’s plate. Bobby finished the full marathon in 2:57:12, which was better than his previous best timing at TMM – 2:57:40, registered in 2018. “ I don’t compare these timings as the conditions and circumstances are different,’’ Bobby said.

The Chennai Marathon followed the 3.4 kilometer-loop of a race track and atop the benefit of that contained environment, was also utterly pleasant for a barefoot runner like Bobby. “ The track served up one of the best barefoot running experiences I have had so far,’’ Bobby said. The course was fairly flat. According to him, the others from Bengaluru who got sub-three hour finishes were “ Tilak, Devi Shetty and Vinuth.’’ All of them belong to Pacemakers, the training group anchored by Coach K. C. Kothandapani. “ There were around 150 runners for the marathon, which started at 4.30 AM. You had to report to the venue 15 minutes ahead. Safety protocols were followed well and in the holding area we had circles marked on the ground for each runner to stand with adequate physical distancing from the other.  Government officials were present to make sure that protocols were followed,’’ Bobby said.

According to Anil Sharma, member of Chennai Runners, the organizers of the event, the idea of holding the 2021 Chennai Marathon began getting discussed – including with the authorities who would be granting the required permissions – around October 2020. The proposal was to hold an event with all COVID-19 protocols in place. The race track at Irungattukottai also offered a location outside city limits. “ The authorities were supportive,’’ he said.  Anil, who participated in the half marathon, provided an overview of the approach to the event. The first priority, given the times and conditions in which the event would be held, was to get a grip on the potential number of participants. It had to be manageable so that chances of infection may be limited. “ We introduced some restrictions including timing-based eligibility to participate. It ensured that those who registered were keen on running,’’ Anil said. Additionally participation was capped at a maximum of 1000-1500 runners. Bib collection was set for the day before the event and prior to collecting the bib, those registered and turning up had to get their temperature checked and provide a declaration that satisfied a checklist related to COVID-19.

On event day, upon reporting 15 minutes prior to the start time, there was another round of temperature check to secure entry. Masks were to be worn till the commencement of running. “ We had people on loudhailers frequently reminding participants to maintain physical distancing in the holding area,’’ he said. Volunteers also checked the same. Government officials were present to monitor the proceedings. On the 3.4 kilometer-race track two aid stations were made available for the runners. Post run refreshments were served in packets that the runners could pick up themselves; the same went for medals, which were hung on stands and could be picked up. There was a medical team and ambulance available for any health emergencies. “ We were a bit concerned about the race track ambiance because it offers no shade. The full marathon takes some time to complete and the half marathon was starting roughly two hours after the marathon had commenced. There was a chance of running in bright sunshine towards the concluding stages. Luckily, the day stayed cloudy,” Anil said. 

It is understood that at least one other major race organizer had a representative at the venue to observe the Chennai event, widely seen as an icebreaker for the slow return of road races. In December 2020, industry officials had mentioned that besides the 2021 Chennai Marathon there was an event in Hyderabad too slated for January.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This report is based on telephone conversations with the people spoken to.)     

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