Mumbai Marathon

On 27th January 2013 by Rachael Woolston

Running is the last thing that many would associate with India. And yet this year, the Standard Charter Mumbai marathon celebrated its tenth anniversary, attracting over 40,000 runners across four distances, a tenth which ran the full 42.2kms.

As one of the largest cities in the world, the roads here are usually gridlocked, the soundtrack of the city honking horns. Add to that, the fact that the temperature hits 32 degrees by midday in January, and it explains the need for a 5.40am start.

Not that I was feeling appreciative of this fact at 4am when my alarm went off.  This gave me enough time to force down muesli, shake the security guard awake on my hotel door, and jog the dark, quiet streets to the start line at the magnificent Gothic style, Chhatrapati Shivali Terminus, now a UNESCO world heritage site and the busiest train station in India.

If you’ve ever been to India, you’ll know that where there are lots of people in a confined space it is a bit unruly.

Not so at this incredibly well marshalled start area at the Azad Maidan, an area for sports in central Mumbai, another of which includes the Oval Maidan which is packed with cricket teams from sunrise to sundown.

Not surprisingly, considering that CST was the scene of open gunfire and grenade attacks in the 2008 bombings resulting in the deaths of 58 people, there was a security check before entering the Maidan including a bag check.

Fortunately this was seamless and I was soon in the holding area, with banks of Portaloos and a serene atmosphere.

Most of the runners in the marathon at least, appeared to be men, a group of distinguished looking Sikh men in trainers and turbans warming up in one area, and large numbers office teams. There were Indian women, all decked out in Nike, not a sari in sight.

The handful of Westerners all sported hydration packs, compression tights, training watches or all three.

With water stations at every kilometre, I’d decided not to run with my hydration backpack in a bid to be lighter and cooler. Madness for potentially the hottest race I’d ever run?

That’s what I’d begun to worry about but a last minute panic had resulted in my being offered a weight lifting belt when I’d asked for a hydration belt in a sports store so I had no choice.

With ten minutes to go, a final rope cordon was released and everyone charged towards the ‘starting pens.’ Except there weren’t any despite the fuss when  you register about the need to provide a certificate of a past marathon time in order to place you in the correct pen.

I was relieved as I’m a sub four hour runner and had been assigned six hours and over. While it was great for me, when the Mumbai marathon begins to attract bigger numbers this unusual lack of Indian officialdom will create havoc.

As it was, the ‘pen’ amounted to another patch of grass cordoned off by a canvas wall. On the dot of 5.40am, this fell away and everyone surged forward cheering. It was then a five minute jog to the actual start line and once I ran over the start pads, the race was on.

The Mumbai marathon is unlike any race start I’ve ever experienced. No pushing or shoving, just the soft patter of feet, as I ran down what is usually one of Mumbai’s busiest roads. Now it was silent, the still dark, the air warm with just the hint of a breeze.

From here it was on to the exclusive Marina Drive, which is where Mumbai’s residents come to run, meditate, walk their dogs or do yoga before work. There were entertainment bands beginning to warm up but it was still peaceful as we ran past the famous Chowpatty Beach.

About 8kms in, I glanced up to see the towering, 27 storey ‘apartment’ of Mukesh Ambani. Worth 2billion, it has roof top helipads, a cinema for 50 people and even a snow room when the temperature gets just too hot. A few miles later, as the sky lightened, 50 migrant workers who’d spent the night sleeping in the tower block they were building hung out of the tenth window watching.

The first 40minutes of the race were pretty quiet until the half marathon runners, who’d started in the suburb of Bandra began passing in the opposite direction, all cheering their support for us.

While the sky was light by this point, it was not until I turned onto the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, an impressive eight lane bridge linking the suburbs to central Mumbai, that the sun rose fiery red, throwing the towering city scraper skyline into sharp relief.

I’d been torn about whether to run for a PB or take pictures. The sunrise decided it and I stopped for the picture, one of many along the route.

Coming off the bridge at Bandra, a suburb favoured by the trendy, creative set it still has it’s fair share of pavement communities like anywhere in this city of contrasts.

Migrants come to the city looking for work, and many must first live on the streets before they can even afford to move up and get a place in a slum.

moving up and getting a place in a slum.

Manywere bewildering rubbing sleep from their eyes as they saw us running past.

It would be simplistic to assume resentment between those who eat to keep from going hungry and those eat to fuel a race. But an hour or so later as I ran back past, everyone was up, from grandmothers to young babies, smiling and cheering. All the girls wanted to shake my hand only to dissolve into fits of shy giggles when I did.

For many within the poorer communities, the race also presents a money making opportunity.  As swiftly as we threw away water bottles, they would be swept up by a dusty, barefoot children ready to sell on for recycling.

And talking of water, hydration was not an issue. Water was in plentiful supply, along with biscuits, bananas, sweets, chocolate, and energy drinks containing salt.

The downside? Having to go the toilet twice. Amazingly, there were clean Western style Portaloos even with running water in the taps.

With five miles to go, the elite runners who had started two hours later swept past, close enough to me to feel their draft.

The last miles of a marathon are often the hardest, your legs feel like lead, things begin to hurt that have never been painful before. But somehow, in Mumbai the atmosphere pushes you along.

At Chowpatty Beach, two men in their sixties were doing the splits to entertain the crowds. While along Marine Drive, the stages were in full swing.

There was a young Indian rock band doing covers of Nirvana’s Teen Spirit, the Indian Navy crooning soft ballads and the techno stage, all just a few miles past a Hindu temple, with its pealing bells.

Turning the corner back towards CST, the streets were now heaving with supporters, cheering, whistling and screaming.

Come on, Sub four hours,’ shouted a woman, clenching her fist.

500metres, 400metres, well-marked signposts spelled out the finish and I began to sprint, dashing over the line with an Indian runner from the Navy. I was about to congratulate him when I was suddenly pulled to one side.

Madam, please stay here, you have come first in the female veteran category.’

What?’ I laughed. The heat, the crowds, was I dreaming? Apparently not.

Despite a relatively slow time of 3hours 55mins, I had come first for women over 40, and I was escorted to a holding area where I sat with the elite athletes including  overall winner, Valentine Kipketer of Kenya who’d won with a time of 2hrs 24.33.

To say it was one of the most surreal moments of my life is an understatement.  Only to be surpassed by standing on the podium being awarded a heavy gold medal in front of an audience of thousands.

On the way back to my hotel, as I walked  the streets everyone wanted to shake my hand from the hawkers selling mobile phone accessories, to the balloon wallahs, men who sell balloons bigger than the average child to Indian tourists at The Gateway to India.

It no longer mattered that I was racing in a foreign city on my own. The entire city celebrated with me, including the staff at my hotel, although I did have to keep telling them that I hadn’t actually won the entire race.

To say the Mumbai marathon is an experience is an understatement, even without the surreal ending.

If you want a unique look at Mumbai, then don’t miss this race. You will never forget it, for the views, the people and of course, the fantastic recovery food.

 

Goody Bag: from muesli to orange juice to SPF 50 face cream and bizarrely, anti-acid potions.

Recovery food: Masala Dosa, a lentil pancake as thin as paper, filled with curried potato and served with coconut chutney and sambhar

Recovery drink: Fresh coconut water

Celebration cocktail: don’t miss the bar at the www.tajhotel.com.

Stay: SeaShore Guest House, Coloba, basic but super clean and friendly Telephone +91 22 2287 4237

Essential info for registration

For next year’s date and entry visit http://www.procamrunning.in/scmm/

DO provide a link to a previous race time to ensure you are given the correct race entry

DO ensure you are in Mumbai the day before the race to pick up your bib. They don’t send them.

DO stay close to central Mumbai. An early start time will ensure more sleeping time.

 

 

 

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