MORE than 30,000 dedicated runners braved toxic levels of smog to take part in the Delhi half marathon on Sunday, despite the air pollution being eight times than the safe maximum.
Organisers decided to go ahead with the race, ignoring warnings from the Indian Medical Association who warned of “disastrous health consequences” if they proceeded.
Some athletes complained of side effects from the polluted conditions which worsened as amateur runners – the bulk of Sunday’s competitors – huffed and puffed around Delhi’s smoggy streets later in the morning.
“My eyes are burning, my throat is dry. I have a running nose,” running enthusiast Rohit Mohan told AFP (via The Guardian). “It’s been terrible since I landed here yesterday,” said the 30-year-old from the southern city of Bangalore who was among the minority donning a mask.
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Others complained about the use of the masks, that also restrict breathing.
“It’s obviously much harder to breathe, so you’re not doing your best here, and you can’t take it off,” Abhay Sen, 30, told AFP. “Makes you think whether you want to do this again or not.”
The US embassy website on Sunday showed levels of the smallest and most harmful airborne pollutants hovered near 200 – eight times the World Health Organization’s safe maximum – for the duration of the 21 km race.
Despite this, the majority of runners decided to opt-out of wearing a mask, with some expressing relief that the pollutant levels had dropped in recent days to a merely “unhealthy” level.
Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia, who won the men’s race Sunday, said elite competitors “were scared” before the race but the pollution was “not that bad. I would say it was perfect to run,” he said.
Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana won the women’s event.
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The course was sprayed with water before the race to minimise dust levels but it didn’t prevent the pollution reading creeping above 200 as the day wore on. At this level, the US embassy warns active people “should avoid all outdoor exertion.”
“But here we are running a marathon,” said Ashish Shakya, 31, who heeded the warnings and decided to sit the race out, watching 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.”
Vehicle emissions and dust from construction sites have been blamed for the spike, as well as firecrackers and farm burnings. A north-westerly wind caused air quality to worse as it brought smog from the burning of stubble of wheat and other grain in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana.