Kranti Salvi, 52, doesn’t recall the exact timing she clocked when she ran the pandemic-time virtual London Marathon earlier this month. But is certain she left her husband far behind. “I’m not boasting, but I think it’s okay if you write that I’m way faster than my husband,” says Kranti, among the 51 per cent women participants in the marathon.
Globally, women outnumbering men in marathons and road runs (shorter versions starting 5k or 5-km runs) is a growing phenomenon. This was first highlighted at last year’s Global Running Conference in China hosted by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
Factoring 100 million results from 70,000 road races worldwide since 1986, data divers RunRepeat.com pointed to an important global finding. “In 2018, for the first time, 50.24% of runners were female,” the study said.
In India, however, while women are still far from tilting the balance their way, they have been steadily closing the gender gap.
Vivek Singh, promoter of India’s most popular road race, Mumbai Marathon, says he gets goose bumps seeing this surge in the number of women runners. “From struggling to find any entries for the full marathon in 2004, 20 of the 25 pacesetters at the last Delhi half-marathon were women,” he says. All pacesetters at the last Bangalore run were women.
Bruno Goveas, who worked on Mumbai Marathon earlier this year, says the turnaround came in 2009, five years after the marathon was launched.
Data provided by Procam, which organises some of the biggest races in India, shows there were just 88 full-marathon women runners for the inaugural Mumbai Marathon in 2004. That number increased ten-fold over a decade and in January this year, it stood at 852. The biggest spike in women runners was in the 10k or 10-km event. From 578 in 2018, it went up to 3,909 in January 2020. The half-marathon grew from 420 in 2004 to 2,796 this January.
Delhi’s half marathon too grew over six times from 306 to 2,079 between 2017 and 2019. NEB Sports, which organises the Delhi 42K, notes: “Women participation has increased by 10% over last year.”
The running culture is spreading far and wide.
Kalimpong’s road-running coach, Roshni Rai, 39, has over the years turned several underprivileged young girls into accomplished marathon runners.
For the past several years, Rai has been accompanying her runners to the Mumbai Marathon every January. “Back in 2012, just five of 20 Mumbai-bound marathoners were women. In 2019, half of them were women. This year, of the 15 Kalimpong runners, 12 were women,” explains Rai.
Rai talks about Kalimpong’s big race day to make her point about women getting serious about road running. “Earlier, August 15 used to be about brass-woodwind bands and march-past drills, but now we have 5k, 10k runs in different villages with a prize money of Rs 10,000,” she says, adding Independence Day is now about girls and their dreams of chasing prize cheques and financial freedom.
Besides athletes, middle-aged women looking for lifestyle changes are propelling the numbers. In 2017, there were 192 women runners for the Mumbai run in the 31-40 age group; by 2019, the number exploded to 1,378, according to the Procam figures.
The rising numbers have over the years made it easier for potential women runners, who in the past dreaded running alone on Delhi’s streets in the wee hours or in Mumbai’s Aarey forests.
Nivedita Samanta, running performance coach for Adidas which organised the online 5k run last month, recalls her early days running on Indian roads. After having returned to Delhi from the US in 2004, it was Samanta’s concern for her safety that made her request an elderly autowala to drive alongside her as she trained.
While the Indian road-race circuit is excited about the women numbers, the RunRepeat report slots India, with 19 per cent female participation, among the three most male-dominated running nations.
Iceland topped the gender split table with 59 per cent women while USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia were at 51 per cent.
However, India saw an overall increase in participation from 2008 to 2018. With a growth of 229.68 per cent in the number of marathoners, India was No.1 in the world.
The big positive for Indian women marathoners is the spike in amateur runners. For many, running was simply therapeutic.
Bengaluru coach Deepa Bhat, who has initiated many women in their 30s into running, says, “Because it’s a non-technical sport, you spend a lot of time with yourself… because of the ‘me-time’ it gives us away from work, family, children.”
Then, there’s that added incentive: “You lose weight to look fitter, and it opens up the wardrobe.”
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