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Unique bio-bubbles, open routes, low air quality -- All you need to know about the Delhi half marathon

Participants during the 2019 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, near India Gate, Rajpath. The 2020 edition will be the first distance-running event since the nation went into lockdown earlier this year. Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On November 29, a group of around 60 professional runners, male and female, will hit the streets of New Delhi for the 16th edition of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). It will be the second major sporting event to be held in India since the COVID-19 pandemic began, following the Indian Super League (ISL), which kicked off in Goa on November 20.

Here's all you need to know about the first distance-running event in India held during a pandemic.

The London precedent

As with the London Marathon in October, only the elite runners will be running an in-person race on Delhi's streets.

Since the pandemic began, London is the only one of the World Marathon Majors - which also include Boston, Chicago, New York City, Berlin and Tokyo -- to conduct an in-person race. The Tokyo Marathon was also held for just elite athletes on March 1.

Building the bubble

Like in London, frequent testing and the creation of biosecure zones are key to conducting the Delhi Half Marathon. All participants have been allowed to depart for Delhi only after returning a negative COVID test taken not more than 72 hours before departure. The athletes who are already in Delhi were tested on Tuesday and will be tested again on Friday, with their participation subject to both tests returning a negative result.

The Le Meridien hotel, where the athletes are staying, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where the race begins, will be biosecure zones. The athletes will be put up on the same floor, while their movement will be restricted to their accommodation, pre-identified training areas and the stadium area. In addition, the usual guidelines, such as social distancing, wearing of masks and hand sanitiser use, apply.

The route

Where ADHM will differ from London is in the route. In London, runners were kept in a bubble by having them run 19.5 laps of a loop just over 2.16km long in St. James's Park, with the final half lap leading to the traditional finishing spot on The Mall, near Buckingham Palace.

In Delhi, though, runners will stick to the traditional route, which incorporates landmarks such as India Gate, Rajpath, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Parliament building.

The air quality

The poor quality of Delhi's air, which worsens with the onset of winter, has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. In the past few editions, the race day has been brought forward from its typical late-November slot to October to help ensure better conditions for running. In the time of an airborne pandemic, which has also affected athletes' training volume, the air quality might be more of a factor than usual.

The organisers say they take steps to reduce air pollution on race day, including spraying the course with a mixture of water and an 'ecologically safe reagent', which they claim reduces dust and suspended particulate matter. They also use machines that they say reduce pollution, but the efficacy of these machines has been questioned by experts.

The participants

In the women's field, Ethiopia's Tsehay Gemechu, who set a course record of 1:06:00 last year, will be looking for an unprecedented third straight win. She will face tough opposition in Kenya's Brigid Kosgei -- the London Marathon winner and current women's marathon world record holder (2:14:04) -- and compatriot Ababel Yeshaneh, who holds the current women's half marathon world record (1:04:31).

On the men's side, Ethiopia's Andamlak Belihu, whose 59:10 finish last year was four seconds short of the course record, is also chasing a third straight title. He won't have it easy, though, as the field includes his compatriots Guye Adola -- who is returning to Delhi for the first time since setting that course record in 2014 -- and Solomon Berihu, last year's runner-up.

The elite field also has 28 Indians, including Srinu Bugatha and Abhishek Pal, the fastest Indians in the 2019 and 2018 editions. The women's field includes Parul Chaudhary, runner-up in the last two editions, and Chinta Yadav, who finished third last year.

What about the amateurs?

Virtual runs -- wherein participants register for events, run where they are and log their results -- have been the lifeline of the road racing industry during the pandemic, and the Delhi Half Marathon is doing the same this year.

Amateur runners can register for any of the three distances (half marathon, 10km or 5km). They can compete in the event by running wherever they are anytime between November 25-29, logging their run on the event app. London did the same thing, selling over 45,000 virtual entries that helped make the elite race possible, with over 36,000 reportedly completing the event virtually. Boston, Chicago and New York City also held virtual runs over the course of September and October.

The flexibility of the format has a bit of a plus side to it, according to Anil Singh, Managing Director of Procam International, which organises the event. "At the end of the day there is that five-day option, you have your time to do it, it's in your own comfort zone, it's in your own wherever in the world you may be. The gratification is the same," he said, adding that he is hopeful of managing over 100,000 registrations across the three categories.

What's happening with the other major events?

Procam organises three other running events in India -- the Tata Mumbai Marathon, the TCS World 10k in Bengaluru and the Tata Steel Kolkata 25k.

The World 10k is usually held on the third Sunday of May and Singh said Procam is trying to conduct it in the same format as Delhi on December 20. As of now, the event is listed on the IAAF website as being scheduled for December 20.

The Mumbai Marathon, Procam's first and biggest running event, has always been held on the third Sunday of every January since it began in 2004. That won't happen for the first time as Singh ruled out a January date for the 2021 edition. Singh said he couldn't yet say when it might be held, though.

The same goes for the Kolkata 25k, usually held in February. Singh said the event was supposed to be scheduled for December, but he couldn't yet confirm it. Like the World 10K, Kolkata 25k is also listed on the IAAF site as being scheduled for December 20 as of now.