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Running the Amity Kolkata Half Marathon (7k) 2011

A marathon has been a regular annual event here in Kolkata for at least about six years now. It’s usually held in February. However, this year February came and went and there had been no word from the organizers, Airtel. For the past two months I’d been making inquires to Airtel_Presence on twitter. Here is one which got me a reply:

My next tweet intimating the same was ignored. And since they didn’t keep me ‘potes‘ for a long time and there wasn’t any news release, I surmised that there won’t be a marathon in Kolkata this year. After finishing the Airtel marathon last year, taking the same time as Oprah Winfrey took to run one, and having had another year to train, I was really looking forward to running a marathon again and besting my old time. I read about Amity organizing a marathon of sorts which took place on 12 March. The word marathon is used loosely here. They called it The Amity Half Marathon. A marathon is 42 km long. The actual distance of this race was 7 km. So it ought to be called Amity One-Sixth Marathon, but that doesn’t sound too catchy. So they stuck with the former.
At first, on reading about a half marathon I expected it to be exactly that, half of a full marathon. I called up Amity to inquire about the race. Like a sharp cross-examining counsel zeroing in on a critical point, I asked them how long this race was. I had a feeling it wasn’t a 21 km run and I expected stout denial from their end.

No subterfuge here. I was plainly informed that it was 12 Km, perhaps later they shortened it further to 7 km. They weren’t beating about the bush about the length of the race. Retreat cross examining counsel, enter befuddled editor. I was puzzled why they’d call it a half marathon. Anyway, no sense digging into semantics of the nomenclature of a charity run. Even 7 km is a long distance for many to run. What do I know? Some may still be running. The countdown on their website says Start, but is yet to say Stop. See for yourself:

Getting Started
The Amity Half Marathon was originally scheduled to take place on 5th March. It was later rescheduled to 12th. There were three ways to register:
- Register online and bring a printout of a receipt with you to the venue and collect your number sticker and goodie bag.
- Register at the Amity Campus before the race and collect the stuff.
- Register on the spot and collect the stuff.

The stuff included a medium large t-shirt, a spoon of Chawanprash, Moov, and Soap/Shampoo (don’t remember which). From the point of view of a participant, the contents weren’t too encouraging. Barring the t-shirt, here’s what the contents of the goodie bag seemed to say to me:
Chawanprash- You’ll need the extra energy of this nutritious paste.
Moov- Expect muscle soreness, this’ll help to relieve it.
Soap/shampoo- Good luck breathing. You’ll be running through India’s air pollution capital, accumulating a variety of pollutants on your person. This should help get some of it off later.

The road was flanked on both sides with stalls where runners could register and collect their jersey numbers. There was a good sized crowd here. Although I had arrived an hour earlier, I still doubted being able to register in time, what with the huge lines on every stall. I needn’t have worried. They handled it efficiently and everyone got theirs with time to spare. For those who registered on the spot, they were handed the goodie bag on the spot before the race. For the runners who came alone, this meant having to lug the bag with them while running the race. After distributing the bags for a while, they stopped doing so, perhaps because of this reason. I returned my bag and went about stretching.

The race was to start off at 7 am, according to the website. But at the venue, there was a billboard which put the start time at 7:30. It also introduced a new category, a fun run, distance unspecified if memory serves me right. In spite of this, a few people were under the impression that the race was a 21 km run. The board also stated that those who finished the run under 50 minutes would receive a certificate.

Before every race, I like to relive myself. Lighten the load a bit. Last year I had to do my business in a ditch. This time I knew of the toilet near the basketball courts of Red Road. Basketball to the rescue! The courts were already occupied early in the morning. A heartening sight.

Coming back to the road, I saw two familiar faces. One was a friend with whom I went to college. We got talking and upon my tummy rumbling he considerately gave me his Chawanprash spoon scoop as I had returned my goodie bag in its entirety. The other was a elder gentleman I’ve had occasion to mention earlier. I noticed him while standing in line for registration. I asked him if he had run the Airtel Marathon last year. He concurred and said that he remembered me too. For my part, I wouldn’t be forgetting the sexagenarian who overtook me in a marathon after a good distance. We talked about the race and I got to ask him his age. He’s 62 years old. I know I’ve said it before, I hope I’m still running strong at his age.

The run begins. Or does it?
The beginning of this race was nerve wracking. It went way beyond pre-race jitters. Firstly, nobody would confirm the starting point or time of the race. We crowded at the point where we presumed the starting point to be. Being ever alert to any indication of the race being flagged off, I felt like a perpetually startled fawn. I remember jumping at small noises, my ears peeled for any indication of the start of the race, whistle or gun or whatever. Gradually, two clusters of people emerged on the road. One was at the presumed start line where I stood by with other runners. We knew it was a line because we were kept behind it by Amity people forming a human chain and restraining the runners. Every now and then some over-enthusiastic runners tried to take matters into their hands by breaking out of the volunteer chain to start the run on their own. They were repeatedly reined back in. It looked like the ebb and flow of a tide.

The second cluster was some ways ahead. It included some people and vehicles which would accompany the runners along the run. In the distance ahead, I noticed another group forming. Even without glasses I could make out that some of them were runners, and they were in proper runner’s garb, sleeveless vests and shorts as opposed to the fully clothed people I was standing with. Sickeningly, realization dawned upon me. I was standing in line for the fun run! I frantically ran ahead to get in line for the main race. For the first time in my life, I had to sprint to the start line before a race began.

There was a bit of nudging and pushing among the runners to get closer to the start line. At one point I inadvertently stepped on another runner’s toes. Toes, not shoes. He and a bunch of others were barefoot. Although the road was flat, it had some grip like protrusions checkered through it. It takes thick soles to run on that. I’d read about someone breaking a world record running a marathon on a track while wearing a sort of sock like shoe, but this was in another league.

The run begins. Really.

The second group which I spied earlier went about carrying a torch which they placed near the podium. At long last, with nerves frayed and sticking out on the edges, the MC announced “Runners get ready!” The runners were way ahead of him, and they took off before he could say go. As an afterthought, he clapped the clapper to officially kick things off and the run was underway.

This wasn’t a race to hold back in. One ought to run at the fastest speed one can sustain, and then some. I had clocked 7 km in 26 minutes on a treadmill at a comfortable enough pace. I expected to finish this under 25 minutes. Later I read in papers that the winner had finished in 20 minutes. To put it in perspective, I could have had a head start of a mile ahead of him and still end up finishing behind him. My speed seemed like a slow jog compared to his.

Amity volunteers were standing along the route to hand out water bottles to the runners. The directions and distance covered was shown on billboards placed along the road. Most of it was above board.Unfortunately, there were many instances of runners taking shortcuts in plain view of the volunteers with no repercussions.

Yeh runners zaroor Tata Safari chalate hoonge. Apna raasta khud bana rahe thein. I witnessed two such instances:
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In one case we had to take a U-turn coming down from a over bridge. The runner ahead of me opted to take the horizontal line of A-turn instead. That gap was was guarded by the volunteers and they let him pass. Ok, they weren’t guarding as much as standing by to hand out water bottles. But still.

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The second misdemeanor occurred some ways after the first, where the road took a wide curve and some runners went way off road on the inside curve all the way to a separate path parallel to the main road. There was a water point ahead manned by volunteers, and far from pulling these runners to task, a volunteer actually went off road to offer a bottle to those runners.

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The run ends.
Soon enough, the finish line came in view after an intersection. It was a straight stretch to the end zone. There were four runners ahead of me, and none immediately behind and I was thinking last-second sprint. About halfway to the line, one of them began to walk. But when I overtook him he sprinted ahead of the whole group. I did manage to sprint ahead of him and two others before the end, one got away. Funnily enough, about 20 runners may have finished before us, yet we were treating it like a race to the finish. Anyway, it felt good regardless of the insignificance our positions.

The insignificance was further magnified by the reception at the finish line. I was curious about my performance and accosted every Amity shirt in sight asking them for the race results, positions and timings. I was referred to the stalls and from there to the podium where the MC was milling about with other volunteers. There I was told to wait, which I did for about 40 minutes. All the while runners were finishing the race and the conspicuous ones, such as foreigners, kids, old runners and some others were being interviewed by a variety of media personnel. To this date I don’t know my position. There is of course a chance that in my case there was some mix-up and everybody else got their certificates.

After some time, the top three runners were facilitated on the podium. The winner, a Mr. Mondal received Rs. 25000, the runner up was a Kenyan, he got Rs. 20000. Prize for third place was Rs. 15000. After the prize distribution, there was some song and dance from ISKON devotees. They played cymbals and stuff and got the crowd to join them. It was a lively performance.

After that the MC thanked and dismissed us. No word about the results. One group led by a lady told them that her group of kids had traveled for 7 hours from Bihar and she was adamant about collecting their certificates. The MC assured her that all certificates would be mailed. I hope they got theirs.

The volunteers were friendly and eager to help, even if all of them were not fully briefed. Before the start of the race, in reply to my inquiry about the start time and existence of the start line a volunteer assured me that both were in order but also saw fit to mention that it’d be better if I found someone who knows for sure as she wasn’t certain. Not everyone admits ignorance of something they ought to know. Thanks in part to her doubts I was able to leave the group of fun run and run ahead to the starting line of the main race.

The make your own road part of the race seems inexcusable. To be fair to the volunteers, there can’t be accountability without authority. These volunteers may not have been authorized to pull up the errant runners or even note down their numbers. The organizers probably didn’t anticipate such blatant flouting of the norms of the race. But that’s just making an excuse for their oversight, even though they are organizing a race for the first time.

From their website:
“This is the first time that Amity is organising a marathon. We as an education group have a commitment towards society. Also, we have a strong presence in sport. In fact, Amity was the official trainer for the Commonwealth Games. So this time we decided to blend both these facets to organise the marathon,” said Ankita Chakravarty Bhattacharya, associate dean of Amity’s Calcutta campus.

This race was for a worthy cause:
There will be growing pains. In spite of the shortcuts and mystery of results (at least for me), the goal of the race was accomplished. To wit, raise money for charity. Also it was fun to run a race long enough to mask my lack of speed, yet short enough to have a competitive sprint at the end. The atmosphere was vibrant and alive with people of all ages. I’m already looking forward to running it again sometime. And next time, I’ll make my own road too! (kidding{or am I?[yeah I am] Ok, quit the inner monologue and finish the article!}[okie doke])

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