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Running a Half-Marathon in One of the World's Most Polluted Cities

In New Delhi, a group of runners used an assortment of gear to run a race through an air quality crisis that blanketed the city in smog.

An army of masked men and women take to the streets equipped with high-performance gear and gadgets capable of reading hazardous weather conditions. Though they may sound like a band of superheroes, they're not. They're the running community of New Delhi—one of the world's most polluted major cities.

For months, many of them trained for New Delhi's half-marathon, a fixture of the Indian capital's November calendar, which was held on Sunday.

Air quality levels in the city hit crisis levels almost two weeks ago, and authorities were seemingly unable to effectively respond. Many racers struggled to decide whether to hit the road. Ultimately, some 30,000 turned out to participate despite the smog.

The Crisis and the Dilemma

The World Health Organization's maximum daily standards for levels for PM2.5 and PM10—two dangerous air pollutants—are 25µg/m3 and 50µg/m3 respectively. At times this month, numbers surged into to the 500-1,000µg/m3 range in Delhi. Inhaling this air was likened to smoking around 50 cigarettes a day. Since then, Air Quality Index figures have been less dramatic, but still remained high, largely fluctuating between 150µg/m3 and 400µg/m3. On the day of the race, the level was close to 200.

Still, many members of Delhi's passionate running community weren't dissuaded. Ashmeet Kapoor's participation in the event was a long time coming. The 32-year-old founder of an organic food company had his sights set on running in 2013, before an injury forced him onto the sidelines. It wasn't until this year that he was able to resume serious training, and for the past three months he's been waking up by 6:30 every morning to run in Lodi Gardens, one of Delhi's most iconic parks. Though the pollution crisis has given him pause, Kapoor ultimately decided to stick to his plan of running in Sunday's race as part of his build-up to Delhi's full marathon in February. "There will be some impact [on my health] for sure, but it's a tradeoff between that and doing something that you've been training for really hard," he said.

The decision to pull out of the event was easier for Sangeeta Saikia, even though she had participated for seven straight years. Saikia's 14-year-old son started running regularly this year, but when the smog hit, she found herself telling him to stop. Saikia soon decided she had to lead by example. "He obviously will say, 'Why can you be outdoors if I can't be?'" she said.

Saikia hopes the air will clear in the coming weeks so she, like Kapoor, can properly train for February's full marathon. Normally she runs 50 kilometers a week. But lately she's been restraining herself from going on long runs. When she tried it on a day where the level of PM2.5 was near 500, "I came back and really regretted it," she said. "I felt really guilty about going out. Thankfully, that day I was not running with my son." Since then, Saika has found herself stuck inside most days, habitually checking PM2.5 levels online. If she sees a number under 300, she quickly gets ready for a run. Such conditions are still 12 times above international standards. But since they are just below the threshold for "hazardous," Sakia sees it as a win. "Very unhealthy is the new healthy," she said, making light of official air quality categorizations.

Backlash Against the Half-Marathon

Even before this month's smog started garnering international headlines, the Indian Medical Association was calling for the half-marathon's cancellation. "High PM2.5 levels can increase [blood pressure] and can also increase the risk of acute cardiovascular disease such as heart attack [and] stroke," the group said in a November 4th statement. The IMA later urged the Delhi High Court to postpone the event, but their request was denied. Meanwhile, the event's lead sponsor, the telecommunications company Airtel, warned it may not sign on for future half-marathons if appropriate actions weren't taken to keep runners safe.

Organizers termed calls to stop the event "misplaced," and pledged to undertake a slew of measures to mitigate the risks for runners. These included installing 150 mist fans at the runners' holding area, setting up six medical stations, and rinsing the route with wastewater mixed with salt in an effort to avoid kicking up dust.

Many runners, of course, took precautions on their own. Nakul Butta, who oversaw the training of more than a dozen runners for this year's run, moved his sessions indoors when pollution levels spiked.

Just weeks before the race, Butta's runners were left feeling cooped up, running with masks on treadmills and questioning whether they should still participate in the half-marathon. Butta helped them weigh the pros and cons, but he left the final decisions to them. "I give people options.... They're all adults and have to make their own call," he said.

Other members of Delhi's running community were less conflicted.

"I haven't felt anything, actually," said 24-year-old Suresh Muwal, a master's student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. With the exception of a single day, Muwal continued running outside throughout the worst of the smog, and never even wore a mask. "I was listening to my body only," he said—ignoring the warnings.

Muwal is aware his decision could have long-term health effects, but he isn't overly concerned. "If we choose something as our passion, then we shouldn't have to compromise on it," he said. "Going to Mount Everest can also be harmful. It's one of the deadliest places. But if you choose it as your passion, you do it."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.