They arrive at the training ground at 5 am to sweat it out for two hours before school. Read on to find what's getting Mumbai's kids to drop cricket and football and join the running craze
Students of Nitin D'Souza training at Juhu beach on Thursday evening. pic/Rane Ashish
Each day at 5 am, 14-year-old Yash Pandloskar makes it to Juhu beach for a run with coach Nitin D'souza. It's a routine he has been practising for over five years. And one that he hasn't lost interest in. "My parents had enrolled me for cricket coaching, but I didn't enjoy it. I got bored because I had been keen on pursuing sprinting. After I spoke to my father, he found out about our coach and enrolled me here instead," says Pandloskar, a national level sprinter. Last year, he participated in an athletics competition organised by AISM, an inter-school event, where he set a record with a timing of 11.8 seconds for 100 metres.
Interestingly, when Pandloskar started his training, there were only a handful of kids at D'souza's class. Today, he runs with 30 others, who turn up early morning without fail for the two-hour session. The group also includes Pandloskar's 11-year-old sister, Kavya.
Pandloskar's statement about an increasing turnout stands attested, because early on a Thursday evening, we find almost a quarter of the beach filled with children receiving athletics coaching. Even in the harsh glint of the 5 pm sun, it's hard to miss trainer D'souza's students running across the length of the shore clad in bright orange T-shirts. "We have two batches, one in the morning and another before sundown. Since school vacations are on, children prefer the evening slot," says D'souza, who has been coaching kids for 10 years. His youngest student is his five-year-old daughter, Lizanne.
Nitin D'Souza's students receive training at Juhu beach. Pic/Rane Ashish
The dream run
The running boom, which was more or less restricted to adults who would sweat it out on promenades and pavements to maintain a healthy lifestyle and battle illnesses, has now caught the imagination of a younger audience. Priyadarshini Park at Napean Sea Road, Kamala Nehru Park at Malabar Hill and Juhu beach have become fitness spots to train children. Giles Drego, a coach who has been training marathoners for 12 years, feels the craze for running has picked up after the launch of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. "Now, all of India is running. Having said that, most people are not running correct, but the idea has caught on that if you run, you'll be fit," he says.
D'souza, who also trains actor Sonali Bendre's son Ranveer (12), says most often, he's approached by two kinds of parents — those who want to sign up their kids to keep them fit, and those who want them to bag medals. "I had a student who was training with me a couple of months ago. Initially, it was smooth. But, later his parents started hinting that they want their child to break a record," he recalls, adding that the pressure started mounting when they were hardly two months into the training. D'souza then handed them the record book, and showed them the past record of a child who had broken a 100 metre record at eight. "Sadly, after that, the child's name did not feature anywhere in the books. I told the parents that if you want me to train your child, please don't ask me to deliver records. Give me four to five years, I will do justice to your kid," he says.
The Andheri (West) resident, who also organises athletic meets for ICSE schools, says it's common for parents to withdraw the child from training when they notice the child's classmates performing better, and eventually move on to another coach. "You invest in a kid, and then suddenly he stops coming because the parent feels if the child is not bringing medals, the coach is not good enough."
Harish Suvarna, coach director at Goenka Education Trust which runs the Lakshdham High School in Goregaon, feels coaches can sometimes go overboard with training. "Sometimes a coach doesn't understand how much a child needs to be trained. Parents see competition all around them, and want results soon. Coaches exploit them to such a level, they are not able to perform later," he explains. Harish gives us the example of Olympic champion Usain Bolt, who had no record to his name before 14. "If you see his history, there's no prior record or any achievement under 8. Under 8, under 12 and under 14 are developing stages where we can develop a child's strength and flexibility," he says.
Rashmi Harlalka, a Marine Drive resident runs with her daughter, Sia. PIC/Milind Saukar
Catch 'em young
Five, says D'souza, is the ideal age to start. "However, it's important to go slow and make sure the child enjoys the training. Running is essentially a boring sport from the perspective of a child. Kids often crib, so I introduce different types of games and new props like kettlebells and medicine balls to sustain interest," he explains.
Athlete and fitness coach Ayesha Billimoria has been training children in running since 2011. Three days a week, the Khetwadi resident holds an hour-long session that includes core strengthening exercises, stretching, partner work and group activities along with running. "I started classes for children because the need of the hour is to teach, not to tell. Kids need to learn how to run correctly at a young age. Every runner should understand proper breathing, posture and foot strike. If they decide to stop mid-way, it's alright, because the basics will remain with them forever," says the 30-year-old, who goes by the handle @fitgirl.india on Instagram and teaches the art of functional movement to children and adults. Billimoria feels it's a lot easier to train children because they come with less baggage. "Adults have a rigid mindset. Children are more receptive and their muscle memory stays for years," she says.
Shrinking playgrounds in schools and more focus on academics is making parents look outside of school for the required dose of exercise. Rashmi Harlalka, a Marine Drive resident, enrolled her soccer-loving daughter, Sia, with Billimoria a year ago. "When we were kids, running was part of our school activities. Now, because most schools don't have a playground, students don't have the opportunity to run," she rues. The training, she adds, has had tangible results with Sia growing health conscious. "She's more careful of posture and eating habits. It has certainly made her more confident," she says. Seeing the change, Rashmi and her husband, Saket also have started running, and even completed the 21 km run at the Mumbai Marathon this year.
Ayesha Billimoria (in orange) and kids do some strengthening exercises at Hanging Gardens. Pic/Suresh Karkera
No rat race
Of course, where there are runners there will be marathons.
Kidathons that involve 100m, 200m, 500m, 3 km and 5 km races for kids below 15 are not uncommon. Juniorthon, the first organised marathon for children to take place in the city in December 2015, was a product of the growing interest among parents to encourage their kids to take to running. Party Sharty Entertainment, the event management company that specialises in developing sporting events for corporates, would receive several phone calls in a day from eager parents. "Most of them were runners themselves and hence knew the importance of the sport. They would complain that there's no organised racing event for children. That's when we felt the time was ripe," says Khushboo Chauhan, a senior executive from Party Sharty. Held at MMRDA grounds in Bandra East last December, the event saw an overwhelming participation from 3,200 kids between the age of six and 14 last year.
"We decide the distance for a particular age group after adequate consultation with fitness experts and doctors," she says. For instance, the 0.5km is meant for the 6 to 8 age group (1 child + 1 parent), 1 km for under 11, 2 km for under 13, 4 km for under 15.
Ajay Nikam, who is part of a private group that organises the Ghatkopar Marathon, has been conducting a kidathon since 2015. The race is a charitable initiative that supports NGOs like BJ Wadia Hospital for Children, which helps underprivileged children diagnosed with cardiac problems, and GODS (MBA) Foundation that provides care to the disabled. Last year, the turnout was close to 1,500. The 40-year-old ensures that they are equipped to handle emergencies. "We keep a doctor and ambulance on call and professional runners to guide kids," he says.
Manohar Rodrigues, of a city-based non-profit group of passionate runners called the Mumbai Road Runners, says currently, Juniorthon is the only organised marathon for kids, while the rest are held alongside adult races. "For instance, at the Standard Chartered Marathon, there are kids who do the dream run, but they don't get any recognition for it.
Having an event just for kids involves logistical challenges with a small distance to cover," he says.
1,500 Number of children between 5-15 years who participated in the kidathon organised by Garodia Education Trust in Ghatkopar in 2015
3,200 Number of children between 6-14 years who participated in the juniorthon organised by Party Sharty Events at MMRDA Grounds in 2015
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