Thousands of runners brave New Delhi smog for annual half-marathon despite health warnings

More than 30,000 people competed in the 21km race despite almost two weeks of hazardous pollution levels that forced schools to close for several days

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 10:00pm

Tens of thousands of runners braved smoggy conditions for the New Delhi half-marathon on Sunday despite dire health warnings from doctors who called for the race to be postponed.

More than 30,000 people competed in the 21km race despite almost two weeks of hazardous pollution levels that forced schools to close for several days.

The US embassy website on Sunday showed levels of the smallest and most harmful airborne pollutants reached 214 – nearly nine times the World Health Organisation’s safe maximum.

Some runners wore face masks as they jogged through the visible morning haze and complained of side effects from the polluted conditions.

“My eyes are burning, my throat is dry. I have a running nose,” said amateur runner Rohit Mohan, a 30-year-old from the southern city of Bangalore who was wearing a mask.

“It’s been terrible since I landed here yesterday.”

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The Indian Medical Association had asked the Delhi High Court to postpone the event after a surge in pollution levels, which it described as a public health emergency.

However, on Thursday the court said it was satisfied by the organisers’ reassurances that they were doing everything they could to ease concerns, and the race was given the green light.

Most were amateur runners, but there were a handful of world-class athletes including Kenya’s Geoffrey Kipkorir Kirui, winner of this year’s London marathon.

Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia, who won the men’s race on Sunday, said the pollution was “not that bad”.

“We were scared. I thought maybe it was going to be bad. They told us because of the pollution we might not run a good race. But we didn’t feel it that much,” he said after the race.

“I would say it was perfect to run.”

Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana won the women’s event.

Light drizzle in the capital early on Saturday eased the toxic highs of last week, but the smog stayed around levels considered unhealthy.

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As the race progressed on Sunday, pollution readings climbed above 200 – levels at which active people “should avoid all outdoor exertion”, the US embassy warned.

“But here we are running a marathon,” said Ashish Shakya, 31, who for his part decided not to race because of the unhealthy air and watched from the sidelines in a mask.

“Whatever health benefits we get from running are negated because of the smog. I chose not to run because of the health risks.”

Most participants – mainly local amateur runners – seemed unfazed and ran without masks, ignoring the warnings.

“I know pollution is bad and it can affect my health, but I am still participating,” said Sitam, who like many Indians goes by one name.

“I want to send a message to the government to do something for fitness enthusiasts and ensure a pollution-free environment for them.”

Watch: Toxic smog smothers New Delhi

Earlier this month, telecommunications giant Airtel threatened to withdraw sponsorship of the event if authorities in Delhi failed to act to improve the city’s air quality.

Organiser Procam International conceded “that the state of air quality is not conducive”, but rejected calls for the race to be postponed.

The course was sprayed with salted water to keep dust levels down and all traffic was barred from nearby roads.

A 2014 World Health Organisation survey found Delhi was the world’s most polluted capital, with air quality even worse than Beijing.

Pollution regularly spikes across north India and Pakistan at this time of year as farmers burn the post-harvest crop stubble and cooler temperatures prevent pollutants from dispersing.