A sea of runners at the starting line of the second Tata Steel Kolkata 25K, partnered by The Telegraph, on Sunday morning. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
In the first light of dawn on the chilliest morning of the season, Calcutta gave a glimpse of a competitive streak camouflaged by the label "laidback".
More than 8,000-odd enthusiastic faces, most of them from the city or with roots here, converged on Red Road as much to compete in the Tata Steel Kolkata 25K as to contribute to the cause of fitness and charity.
Statistics show how the city stepped it up for the second edition of the Tata Steel Kolkata 25K, partnered by The Telegraph, not only in terms of participation across the main categories but also by embracing the challenges of endurance running.
The number of entries for the 10K race outgrew the other categories with an 89 per cent increase in participation over last year. As many as 2,859 people competed in this race, up from 1,516 in the inaugural edition of eastern India's only accredited road race.
Biswaranjan Das, 35, from Phoolbagan was among those who graduated to the 10K category this year. He aims to do the 25K next year. "Until this morning, I had run only some 5km races. But I was determined to do the 10K. I have a 15K road race coming up and I am confident of running the full 25K here next year," said the IT professional.
Two members of Biswaranjan's family made their running debut. Mother Chhabi did the 2.5km run for senior citizens while wife Sharmistha Chakraborty was part of the Ananda Run.
T.V. Narendran, the managing director of title sponsor Tata Steel's Indian and South East Asia operations, said the number of participants in the 10K almost doubling was a sign of Calcutta's growing interest in endurance running. "Running is getting more and more popular in the City of Joy," Narendran, who runs 24km every week, told Metro after completing the 10K at a personal best of one hour and 10 minutes.
The demanding 25K race wasn't the preserve of the young either. In the field was 58-year-old Austrian Carlos Furthmaier, who currently lives in Santiniketan with his family. "I love Calcutta and when I run this race, the crowd and the sights on either side of the road amaze me. I feel free and start dreaming when I run," said Furthmaier, for whom it was the second year of going the distance.
The 996 entries in the 25K marked a 16 per cent increase over the 857 runners in this category last year.
Many first-timers competed in the 10K. Swaraj Prakash, a Class XII student at La Martiniere for Boys, was egged on by his uncle, who is a regular runner. "When I woke up today, I was a bit nervous. But once I reached the venue, the festive ambience made me breathe easier," said Swaraj, 18.
Ruchi Basu, who did the 10K, said she started running three weeks ago and is already hooked. "I got into running to get in shape. I loved it so much that I don't think I would ever give it up," she said. "It's become like an addiction."
In the top category of the road race too, women stole the show. Winner Sudha Singh, first runner-up Lalita Babbar and second runner-up OP Jaisha all smashed the course record comfortably.
In the men's section, Elam Singh, who had finished second last year, raised the bar and won the race.
Children added colour and chatter to the morning event, many of them chasing each other around on the Maidan while waiting for their races to begin.
Twins Saima and Ishma Tak were part of more than 15 teenagers from the Jungle Crows Foundation in the Ananda Run. "We play rugby. We won't get tired easily," they chorused before running off to join their friends.
La Martiniere boy Shashwat Murarka had participated in the Ananda Run last year and liked the experience so much that he got his Class IX friends Vinay Kothari, Adhiraj Saboo, Ashwath Raj Capur and Arman Sood to join him this year.
Govardhan Das Agarwal, 66, was among the repeat competitors in the 65-and-above age group for the 10K race. He may have dropped a place to finish third this year, but seeing familiar faces from 2014 more than made up for it."There's an air of happiness here and I made many new friends last year. So I have come again," said Agarwal, who started running two years ago.
Companies contributed a large number of competitors that helped increase the charity kitty. "We have raised Rs 50 lakh for 37 NGOs and the amount is likely to increase," said Sonali Mundle, manager of communications and corporate relations at United Way Kolkata, the charity partner for the event.
Additional reporting by Brinda Sarkar and Samabrita Sen