Ram Viswanathan: ‘We want to take running beyond the English speaking people’

Ram Viswanathan, one of India’s most prolific runners and charity fundraisers, talks about making the sport more inclusive.

They were little trickles of water that kept disappearing into the earth. A few survived long enough to merge into a stream. The streams turned into rivulets and the rivulets became a mighty river criss-crossing miles of arid lands. Slowly the entire region greened and blossomed. The little trickles of water had transformed the landscape.

Chennai Runners co-founder Ram Viswanathan in action. All images courtesy chennairunners.com website and Facebook group.

All images are courtesy chennairunners.com website/Facebook group/Mr Ram Viswanathan.

Seven years ago, a 44-year-old Ram Viswanathan had returned to Chennai from USA after completing his higher studies and joining IBM as an engineer. Back in the west, he had discovered inline skating and was looking to continue this recreational fitness hobby in India too. “The roads were terrible. My son suggested over the dinner table that I try running instead,” Viswanathan tells us over phone.

Following his son’s advice, Viswanathan started jogging around his Alwarpet neighbourhood. He came across two like minded souls— K Harishankar and Vidyuth Sreenivasan. All three were senior level professionals, and used to run early in the mornings before getting caught up in the daily grind and humidity that a working life in Chennai brings.

In other parts of the city, independent joggers could be spotted on the roads stretching through Anna Nagar, T-Nagar, Besant Nagar and Velachery.

Viswanathan, Harishankar (aka ‘Hurricane’) and Vidyuth wanted to bring together all these runners on a common platform— to exchange notes on where to run, when to run and what routes to take.  In 2006, they created a mailing group that soon became “Chennai Runners” (CR) where the small but passionate running community in Chennai could co-ordinate running in groups, as they believed it to be much more enjoyable than running solo.

One of the early initiatives of CR was to encourage longer distance running via the ‘East Coast Road (ECR) Run’ along the scenic stretch from Chennai to Puducherry.

The East Coast Road Run

The East Coast Road Run

Encouraging intra-city running

In time, the simple question of ‘where to run’ turned into a larger movement on how to promote running within Chennai and not just on the outskirts. This led to the creation of chapters or groups within the city. Currently there are 19 such local chapters, with attractive names that seem inspired by sports franchises: Pettai Rappers (Alwarpet), Tower Twisters (Annanagar), Bessi Flyers (Besant Nagar), and Vibrant Velacherry.

Through all these developments, the number of runners joining the community kept increasing and slowly crossed 1000, from its initial three founding members.

The motto of CR is powerful in its simplicity “do more…start running”.

With hordes of new joinees, the local chapters had to be further divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels to accommodate the differing expertise of individual runners. To ensure that new runners approached running scientifically— under the right guidance on proper running technique, stretching, sleep and nutrition— CR launched The Rundown, a classy private circulation journal in print “for runners and by runners”.  This is “India’s first and only running magazine” and regularly features interviews with influential business professionals and celebrities such as Gul Panag, about their passion for running.

Stretching the ‘before’ and ‘after’ to running

Stretching the ‘before’ and ‘after’ to running

Perhaps CR’s biggest coup was organising Chennai’s first full international marathon, the Wipro Chennai Marathon (TWCM) which will see its third edition in December this year. The event is held in three categories: full (42.2 kms), half (21.1 kms) and the 10k run, besides other smaller exhibition runs to raise awareness on a variety of social causes. The second edition of TWCM last year saw as many as 10000 participants register and Mr Viswanathan had the honour of flagging off the half-marathon.

Soles for Inclusivity

Beyond promoting running within the urban populace, Vishwanathan is also passionate about spreading the health message to smaller towns in Tamil Nadu. “As of now running is still largely done by English speaking people in Chennai.  We have started sponsoring runs in places like Tanjore, Kovai and Kumbakonam.” A recent initiative of theirs called “Extra Miles” provides shoes to runners from rural backgrounds. “Most professional runners switch shoes before they are fully worn out. So we collect these shoes, which are still in usable state, and ship them to promising runners in places like Salem and Tanjore.”

Women runners who are an integral part of CR

Women runners who are an integral part of CR

More women running

Their continuing goal is to increase women participation in running. “Running is a democratic sport. But there is still a social taboo against women runners in India. Although the no. of women runners has gone up, it is just a fraction of the potential female participants. If there are 10000 runners at a marathon, why can’t 50% of them be women? That is the one thing I feel the Indian running scene can learn from the west.” Viswanathan knows what he is talking about, having run at least a marathon a year since he started seven years ago, across India, Europe, North America, South Africa and Japan. “Our cities also need to earmark more open spaces for recreational activities.”

The Banyan Tree Philosophy

The steady growth of the Chennai Runners initiative— 2992 members in the open group —has come from its inherently inclusive “banyan tree” philosophy, which stresses that the density of the outgrowth is more important rather than a powerful central trunk. As stated on their informative  website, anyone can become a Chennai Runner. All one needs to do is join a local chapter or a neighbourhood club, and gain access to their digital assets that include mailing lists and social media properties.

No doubt, the success of the CR initiative stems from the very natural act of running itself. It is the simplest form of exercise and the foundation for most physical activities. Running increases metabolism and strengthens the heart. It doesn’t require any special space or gadgets. You can run anywhere, anytime, alone or together.

So can other Indian cities learn from Chennai’s example?

It sounds simple enough. We just need to start putting one foot in front of the other.

On Two Feet covers runners’ tracks – from tips and trails to stories of how running has changed lives for the better and how running helps people give back to the community.

Lawyer by degree. Independent writer by profession, with a soft spot for stories on Indian basketball. Co-creator of ekalavyas.com, India's first and only basketball news website. more


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Lawyer by degree. Independent writer by profession, with a soft spot for stories on Indian basketball. Co-creator of ekalavyas.com, India's first and only basketball news website. more

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