Run, CEO, run

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By Corporate India has taken to participating in marathons to beat stress and stay fit. Varuna Verma on executives on the run
  • Published 12.06.11
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They call it the weekly Dandi Run. Every Sunday, at the crack of dawn, 10 people start running from Bangalore’s Cubbon Park. En route, they are joined by a group that comes running from Koramangala. Further down, five runners from Domlur merge in. The joggers run back to start point, making it 30km of running for the day.

“We call it the Dandi Run as people merge at various points, just like Gandhi’s march,” says Rishikesh Basu, head, India operations of wireless technology firm Meru Network, and the brain behind the group.

This group of 20 people crisscrosses through the city every weekend for a common cause — which they call BHUKMP. “Our aim is to run the Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kaveri Trail, Mumbai and Pondicherry full marathons every year. We train together,” says Basu. Another thing that the group has in common is their professional background — all of them are senior managers in software and corporate firms in Bangalore.

Clearly, corporate India is trading its pinstripes for running shoes. The TCS World 10K Run, organised in Bangalore earlier this month, saw a turnout of 18,000 people. TCS’s own CEO, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, is also a committed marathon runner who has participated, among others, in the London and Boston marathons. Anil Ambani, a fitness freak and a daily long distance jogger, is a keen participant at marathons as well.

At the 10K run, “a majority were IT professionals,” says Aarti Kakatkar, general manager, Procam International, a Mumbai-based sports management company that organised the event. The event also has a section called the Corporate Challenge, where companies could send teams of three employees each. “This year, 19 companies put up 47 teams. This is the highest number logged so far,” says Kakatkar.

When the Bangalore-based runners forum, Runners for Life (RFL), launched a Google group for marathoners six years ago, it got 250 members — all from the city — to sign up. Today, the online community has 9,700 members from across India. “About 99 per cent of the members are corporate professionals. Most are mid-level managers in the age group of 30 to 35 years,” says Arvind Bharathi, manager, RFL.

One event on RFL’s annual marathon calendar is the Urban Stampede. It’s a corporate relay, where four people from a company make a team run 20km. In 2008, 74 teams participated in the run. “In 2010, there were 294 teams. The numbers have shot up so high that it’s becoming hard to manage the logistics of the event,” laughs Bharathi.

Running marathons in Mumbai, London and Paris is routine for Roshini Bakshi. To add more fun to her run, the 40-year-old vice-president of Walt Disney Company (India) plans to do a midnight run in the Arctic Circle next June. “Norway’s Midnight Sun Marathon is known to be mind blowing. It’s on my to-do list,” she says.

Bakshi lives life on the run — as she manages a career, work-related travel and two children. “My days are very packed. But I still take out time to run,” she says, adding that she doesn’t miss her morning jog even while travelling.

If Bakshi ever ran all the way to Bangalore, she’d bump into Bhaskar Sharma on the roads. The 53-year-old director of telecom company Alcatel-Lucent has coined a new term for his annual family holidays. “I’m a marathon tourist. I plan my holidays around marathons,” says Sharma, who is currently chalking out a holiday in Sri Lanka to coincide with the October 2 Colombo Marathon.

Sharma started running to beat stress. “I started a telecom firm in early 2000, which saw bad days during the recession. On the personal front, my children were entering their teenage years. I was stressed,” recalls the director. A friend advised him to do long distance running. “It helped. Running keeps me physically and mentally fit,” says Sharma, who has run 29 marathons, including four ultra marathons — that is, any distance more than 42km — and writes a blog on his running experiences.

RFL’s Bharathi sees a method in Corporate India’s growing marathon mania. “The interest in running has grown in sync with the IT and corporate boom in the country. People began working long hours in sedentary jobs, their food habits and lifestyles changed,” he explains. The lifestyle change threw up new health issues like stress, depression, and the early onset of diabetes and heart attacks. “That’s when gyms, yoga, meditation and running become popular,” says Bharathi.

The avenues for running have also increased along with awareness. Five years ago, five marathon events took place annually across India. Today, it has increased to 25 large and small events. “We have to check with all organisers before scheduling an event, so that the dates don’t clash. There are no free weekends left in the running season,” says Bharathi. He adds that in the last two years, even tier-two towns — including Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Vasco and Patna — have started hosting marathons.

Running is no longer just an activity that corporate executives do at daybreak, before the grind begins. Instead, it’s becoming a part of their lives — as they write books and blogs on running, double as marathon trainers and even quit jobs to pursue their passion to sprint.

When Amit Sheth wrote his book, Dare to Run, he knew who his target reader was. “The book is meant for people like me — over 35 years of age, well-placed senior managers, married, with two children, a hint of a belly and want to run,” says the managing director, SkyDomes India Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai. Published in January this year, the book’s first edition of 5,000 copies is sold out, claims the author.

Sheth saw Mumbai’s first marathon — in 2004 — on television, over a glass of beer. Two years later, he registered for the event, on a lark. “I didn’t last 100 metres. I was out of breath and out of shape,” remembers the managing director.

Despite the bad beginning, he kept running. In 2010, Sheth and his wife became the first Indians to run the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. With a distance spanning 90km — beginning in Durban and ending at Pietermaritzburg — Comrades is considered the world’s toughest marathon. He is currently preparing to run the 106-km Three Cranes Challenge, a three-day run organised in the jungles of South Africa, in February, next year.

When Ashok Nath became chief operating officer (COO) of a management consultancy in Bangalore, he knew it was time to quit. “Professionally, I had reached where I wanted to,” he says. It was now time to pursue his passion for running. Six months ago, the 48-year-old launched a company in the running space — Runny Buddy Sports Pvt. Ltd — that will bring global running training programmes to India. “For every two people who start running, one drops out because of injury, boredom or fatigue. The training programmes will correct these errors,” he says.

Nath’s running company also plans to highlight the lessons that corporate employees can learn from running. “It generates confidence, discipline and gives time to reflect on life and work,” he explains.

If you want to find Daniel Vaz, COO, Batliboi Ltd, on a Sunday morning, head to Mumbai’s Police Gymkhana Club. A certified running trainer, Vaz coaches wannabe marathoners on long distance running, at the Nike Run Club there. The club started two years ago and has 200 registered members. “Most are working professionals,” says Vaz, who has run 26 full marathons.

Vaz — who has been running for a decade — says the sport gives him his daily fix of an endorphin high. “I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t run,” says the COO.

Legions of CEOs and CFOs would second that.