Business Today
The endorphin junkies

Fund managers, bankers and corporate honchos of Mumbai are putting on their running shoes. Here is why.

It is a lazy Saturday dawn like any other in Mumbai. At a quarter to six, the trains and roads are empty but for loud milkmen and some blearyeyed drunks.

The Mahalaxmi Racecourse in the heart of the city is high on energy. Endorphins, to be precise. What on earth are endorphins? Endorphin or endogenous morphine is produced by the pituitary gland at times of stress or strenuous physical activity like running. It also gives runners like Sandeep Kothari the quintessential "runner's high".

Make no mistake, Kothari is no junkie. The 40-year-old manages the domestic equity funds of Fidelity. Three times a week, at the crack of dawn, he and his wife Prachi head to the racecourse to pound the grass.

"It is a good way to get your endorphin high," says a beaming Kothari. "It is also a great way to beat stress." Kothari regularly clocks 12-13 hours a day at the office. A regular participant at the Mumbai Marathon, which is held annually on the third Sunday of January, the Kotharis run as much as 45-50 km a week as they get closer to the marathon on January 16, 2011.

At the sprawling 325-acre racecourse, the Kotharis are not the only ones giving competition to the horses. In a small patch, nearly 50 middle-aged people are cooling off after their daily run. The group is a headhunter's delight as there is more senior talent on that piece of land than at a management convention.

"It keeps me active throughout the day," says Jagdish Kumar, perspiring profusely, and clearly on the crest of a runner's high. When he is not running, Kumar, 48, is overseeing the happenings at STAR TV as president of its south Indian operations.

So, what has got busy professionals like Kothari and Kumar waking up with the larks and running? It is a group called Striders. Founded in 2004 by two former professional athletes - Praful Uchil, 39, and Deepak Londhe, 36 - the group has over 225 members who assemble at nine places in Mumbai.

"Almost 75 per cent of our participants are in the age group of 40-45," says Uchil, a former 800-metre sprinter who has represented Maharashtra and his university in that category. Most of Striders' members participate in the Mumbai Marathon, which as an event has been drawing more and more corporate participation.

Companies like TCS and Cadbury, which sign up their teams for the marathon, have also tied up with Striders to train their staff. The group charges its members about Rs 4,000 a quarter and Rs 18,000 a year.

And the members have no problems coughing that up. "It is a great experience to meet so many people from such diverse backgrounds," says Atul Bhatia, 49, who heads Research and Development at Cadbury India. He has just completed a year of running with the Striders. Bhatia says that running has made him far more disciplined.

  • Do not start running long distances immediately.
  • Concentrate on strengthening your joints.
  • Do not aim for a full marathon (42 km) if you have just started.
  • A half-marathon is good enough.
  • Do not treat a marathon like a race.
  • Always warm up.
"It has come to a stage when it has stopped being a pain. Running is a calming experience, thanks to Striders," he says. Thanks to referrals like these and a sound training system (all Striders trainers are athletes), the membership has doubled in the last two years.

"We have two centres in Chennai and are about to start a new one in Bangalore and Nashik," says Uchil, who also points out that finding coaches is a problem. Currently, Uchil and Londhe are employed with Life Insurance Corporation and the Mumbai Port Trust, respectively, where they got in through a sports quota.

Uchil says the group is not making enough for both the founders to make it a fulltime profession. "Maybe, in a year or so," says Uchil. Guess Striders' marathon has just started.
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