When I step up to the start line at Bengaluru's TCS World 10k 2019 on Sunday, the 12th edition of the run, I will be more excited than usual. In addition to the butterflies in the stomach, of course. Of the 16,046 runners in the open 10k category, I will be one of 3000 outstation runners - the first time I will be running on unfamiliar roads away from home base in Mumbai. More importantly, it will mark the start of an eight-month-long period that I hope will culminate in my first marathon, at the Tata Mumbai Marathon in 2020.
This run will be my first major milestone since hitting the reset button after my last half marathon, in January. In general, too, the 10km is a significant accomplishment, a stepping stone to bigger things, in the progression of mileage a distance runner believes conquerable. In the words of my colleague Sharda Ugra: "The 10K is respectable, doable, but all the same a serious distance. Something to aim for. It is, wonderfully, a distance within reach."
Started in 2008, the TCS 10k is the third of four races in India organised by sports management company Procam International. Procam's foray into the world of distance running began with the Mumbai Marathon in 2004, when founders Anil Singh and Vivek Singh 'got the inspiration' to bring a big-city marathon to India after attending the London Marathon in 2003.
Anil says Procam were very clear about their approach from the start. The running events they wanted to promote, with regard to the choice of city and signature distance of the event, needed to have a distinct identity and weren't to be comparable, and therefore in competition, with each other. With the first edition of the Mumbai Marathon a success, Procam went to Delhi, where then Chief Minister Sheila Dixit was keen on the city having its own unique event. "So the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, the No. 1 half marathon in the world, was born (in 2005)," Anil says.
"When we finished that we decided to move forward and we took on the 10k, so the TCS World 10k is the No. 1 10k on planet earth. Then we decided to do a fourth event, which is the Tata Steel Kolkata 25k (started in 2014)."
Anil clarifies that his statement about the World 10k is based on prize money, size of field and organizational standards. He makes a similar evaluation of the Mumbai Marathon. "Today the Mumbai Marathon is ranked sixth in the world, approximately," before clarifying that there's no real ranking system among the marathons of the world. Anil's assessment of Mumbai is based on a number of different factors. "It's everything. It's media, it's hospitality, it's prize money, type of field, size of field, promotion, television etc.."
While there isn't an official ranking system, the organisers of road races do vie for prestigious categorisation for their events. IAAF Road Race Label Events are races that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) designates as "the leading road races around the world" and have three labels - gold, silver and bronze. Gold Label events have the strictest requirements, including the presence of an international elite field and a route measured to the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) standard, among several other criteria. Procam's events in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi are three of only 42 Gold Label races of 2019, with labels assessed every year, while the Kolkata 25k is a Bronze Label race.
The presence of the elites - 95 of whom will run in Bengaluru on Sunday - is key to an event's Gold Label status, but it's the thousands of enthusiastic amateurs who create buzz around an event, making it appealing enough to consider waking up at ungodly hours on a Sunday morning to travel to a starting point and run.
According to Procam's participation numbers, from the first edition in 2008 to this year, the number of amateur runners across all categories has increased from 19560 to 24235 - roughly a 25% increase. While that may not seem like a particularly sharp jump, given that it's over 12 years, what's interesting is the breakup within the individual categories. In 2008, there were 6204 runners in the open 10k category, while this year there are 16046 registered runners for the open 10k - over 2.5 times that of the first edition. An extra 800+ participants have registered for the open 10k this year, as compared to 2018. From 2008 to 2019, the size of the 5km majja (fun) run field has dropped from 11669 to 6596. Presumably, those participants have been satisfied enough by their progress in the 5k to take up the challenge of the 10k.
A short time spent at the event expo - usually a large event hall where the counters for collecting racing numbers can only be reached after passing through a maze of sponsors - makes the diversity of this field and their motivations pretty clear. Such as Ankit Gujjar, a 21-year-old final-year engineering student in the city who is going to run the World 10k for the second time. Ankit began running for fitness purposes, has done ten 10km runs so far, and after a personal best of 62 minutes, is eyeing a sub-55-minute time this time.
On the other end of the spectrum is Mala, a 45-year-old mother of two who has been running for over 10 years and will run her 10th consecutive World 10k this time. A combination of boredom and envy inspired Mala to take up running while watching her husband, a marathoner, train at Stanford when based in the U.S.. Her running took off from there and it is now a social activity, a way for her to have a good day out with friends from her running club. Mala has osteoarthritis and despite being in an almost permanently injured state, she says she's definitely going to run for 'sentimental reasons' and is just looking forward to an enjoyable run.
Hearing the story of Mala, as well as those of other runners, such as that of a 37-year-old banker who took up running to lose weight, has now run two full marathons and is eyeing a sub-40-minute finish this time, I can't help but be inspired. I've long struggled with regularity and found it hard to reconcile my desire to run fast, relatively speaking, with the need to take things slow and learn to enjoy running more. After a long internal back-and-forth over how to approach Sunday's run, I think I finally have a strategy - to enjoy my run and not look at my watch.