Why Long-Distance Running is Like Real-Life Facebook

What it's like to run marathons in Paris, Chicago and Himachal Pradesh. | By Rahul Verghese  
Running a Marathon
Long-distance running can be a great way to take in a new city. Photo: Jochen Tack/Alamy/IndiaPicture

It was midnight in Paris and we’d just flown in from Chicago. My wife was getting ready for bed but I wasn’t sleepy, so I decided to go for a run. Running is a great way to beat jet lag. Besides, I needed to go on a longish run as part of my training for my first marathon later that year, in Chicago. With a map, cell phone, and some money, I set off into the night. The Champs-Élysées was wide-eyed and awake. There were skateboarders and dog walkers and the street-side cafés were buzzing with patrons. It felt like a summer evening at Chicago’s Navy Pier. It was a sight of Paris I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been sweating my way through a training run. It was the first time that I realised that long-distance running was a great way to see the sights.

Twelve years later, I’ve travelled to six continents and participated in 42 marathons and learned that running is a great way to meet people. My organisation, Running and Living, has groups across India where strangers run together in the wee hours of the morning. Along these runs, they become acquaintances, and over many miles, the best of friends. It is always amazing to see the bonhomie when I run with them. You smile at a fellow runner whom you may never see again. You may have a short chat with someone as you run together for a few miles during a marathon, or exchange pleasantries with someone you’ve met at a previous event. It’s a unique aspect of the sport that during and after a marathon, runners are at their most positive, laughing and joking and more. It’s a great, socially uplifting, self-help group.

I always carry a camera with me when I run, and I find that it is a great tool to get spectators to engage with me, have fun, and break out in cheer as they pose. High-fives abound. As my hand meets another, sometimes grimy and sometimes tiny, we are friends for the moment, until the next runner and the next greeting. This genial exchange of gestures doesn’t happen as often in India, though the streets definitely have this spirit during the annual Mumbai Marathon and, to some extent, along the several running routes in Delhi and Gurgaon, which I frequent now.

The relationships forged through running sometimes occur off the track. A few years ago, I found myself in Himachal Pradesh. I was in the remote mountain village of Chitkul, close to the Indo-Chinese border, chatting with a dhaba owner about getting a hundred salted, boiled eggs and four kilos of boiled potatoes in their skins for a high-altitude marathon we were organising.

The dhaba owner and his friends were intrigued by my request and we chatted for a long time. They were friendly and inquisitive about why we would come so far to run, and why they should not remove the potato skins. The salesperson in me was jokingly trying to get them interested in running in the marathon. Kishore, the dhaba owner, promised he would run next year. On the day of the marathon he made sure the potatoes were served without the skin; he wanted the runners to have the best service.

I always wear my marathon medal proudly for a couple of days after I get it (most international marathons give all participants a medal as a memento). A few years ago, soon after running the Chicago Marathon, I was still wearing the medal on a flight from Chicago to Tokyo and ended up chatting with the air hostess about it. A few minutes later, I heard her congratulating me over the public address system. Many passengers joined her in applauding me. I felt odd, somewhat red in the face, but I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear.

Long-distance running for me is like real-life Facebook. A smile means that you “like” someone, a pat or a chat is like a “comment”, a loud cheer is like a “share”. Along the way there are opportunities for photographs, long chats, and interactions on the streets of unknown cities. Introverts mellow, extroverts connect with an ever-expanding circle of friends. Long-distance running gives you the opportunity to interact with a spectrum of people. CEOs, businessmen, bureaucrats, truck drivers, pregnant moms, street kids, diplomats, and villagers are bonded by sweat and a smile.

Appeared as part of the September 2012 issue as “The Long Run.”

Getting Ready For A Marathon Away From Home

• Sign up and commit well in advance.

• Check the terrain and the weather on race day and train for it—heat, humidity, cold, cross country, elevation, altitude.

• If it’s an international marathon, arrive at least a day earlier for each hour of time difference for your body to acclimatise well.

• Take extra layers if it’s a cold day.

• Pack all your running gear in your hand baggage—you don’t want to be stuck running in brand-new shoes in case your bags get mishandled.

• Take along: headband if humid, earmuffs if very cold, sunglasses for sun and altitude. Carry a digital camera for your very own pictures and to make friends.

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