Over the past 12 years, the Mumbai Marathon has changed the city’s cultural landscape, altered boss-employee relationship and boosted social initiatives

People who prepare for weeks for festivals such as Janmashtami and Ganesh chaturthi , dedicate months in order to be ready for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), held every year, on the third Sunday of January.

Influential people including Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan and Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani participate, making it a high-profile affair.

While more than 40,000 will participate this year, an equal number will line up on the city’s streets to witness it. The event has had a telling impact on Mumbai as well as on the corporate culture in the country.

In its 13th edition this year, the road race is the biggest till date in India, including the world’s fastest men and women and India’s Olympic hopefuls, participating. And in the crowds will be some of India’s top business leaders and CEOs.

Leading the pack at the start line this Sunday will be N Chandrasekaran, CEO of software giant Tata Consultancy Services (the title sponsor for races in Bengaluru, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York); Sandeep Chaudhary, CEO of global human resources consulting major Aon Hewitt; Darshan Mehta, CEO of Reliance Brands, and title sponsor Standard Chartered Bank’s managing director Vikas Kawatra.

When the top boss takes the lead, the employees follow suit, so much so that the race day is quite a big deal in several organisations. “Our employees are very enthusiastic participants in the activities that surround this sponsorship,” says Lakshmi Goyal, Standard Chartered Bank’s head for brand and marketing in India. “There is a lot of hype and internal communication campaigns that promote registration. Special T-shirts are designed and novel schemes and promotional offers are made available to support employee participation. The race Sunday sees a large number of enthusiastic employees wake up early in the morning to either take part in the marathon or simply cheer their colleagues.”

Mumbai-based realtor Nirmal Lifestyle, which has been sending its employees and partners to participate in the race since 2014, will have 600 people representing the firm this year with chairman and managing director Dharmesh Jain leading from the front. “Fitness has now come to be the DNA of our organisation,” says Jain. “All our employees are encouraged, and fully supported, to lead an active lifestyle. We have engaged professionals to help them with their training two to three times a week, within the office hours. There is also a dietician to guide them in their nutrition. Last November, we sponsored two of our employees to run the New York City Marathon.”

Even media company Viacom18 is sending a big contingent led by CEO Sudhanshu Vats. “Till last year we used to send out a company-wide announcement for registration for the marathon,” says Vats. “This year we’re doing it a bit differently. I’ll be running in support of The Akanksha Foundation, an under-privileged children’s welfare organisation. We’d initiated a Twitter campaign #DonateAMile, where people can either run a mile with me or donate to the foundation. In fact, I’m doing a training run before the marathon and quite a few people, including employees of Viacom18, have pledged to run a mile with me.”

Such is the enthusiasm for running today that Standard Chartered Bank sets up booths along Peddar Road and Marine Drive on Sunday mornings to hand out water and sports drinks to runners.

Wipro and TCS have introduced the Spirit of Wipro run and the Fit4Life Corporate Challenge respectively for their employees across all their centres. Others, such as Infosys, Cognizant, Edelweiss, Mahindra & Mahindra, Ernst & Young send huge contingents led by the leadership teams to participate in both individual as well as the corporate relay category of the race. This year, there are 112 teams in the corporate challenge, which the Infosys team had won last year. According to data made available by the race promoters, Procam International, the highest number of corporate participants come from the banking, financial services and insurance (BFSI) sector followed by IT.

Though the first race was organised in 2004, it took a few years to become the big deal it is today. Along the way, what it did was make India’s financial capital and its big business houses aware of the importance of fitness as well as giving them a new way to challenge themselves and meet others like themselves outside the boardrooms and conference halls.

Procam International’s joint MD Vivek Singh has often pointed out that this event has been an agent of change and set the ball rolling as far as fitness is concerned in India, especially in the corporate world.

“This (the Mumbai Marathon) led to a paradigm of positivity in the corporate sector. A direct result of this was a bigger and de-stressed social circle,” says Singh.

“The corporates thrived on this new camaraderie among their employees and peers. It began to cut through hierarchy in a way it never did before in an organisation. This inculcated a new running culture and imbibed a healthy lifestyle in everyone’s schedule.” The event also serves as a great opportunity for employee engagement for corporates, Singh adds.

While Standard Chartered Bank has special health and fitness sessions for its employees where celebrities and fitness experts speak about fitness in the context of the marathon and how it can improve productivity along with health benefits, others such as Hindustan Unilever Limited have arranged in-house yoga, stretching and meditation sessions which the employees can participate in during office hours as well as arrange a dedicated running coach so that their employees train the proper way.

Former India marathoner Savio D’Souza and coaches from Mumbai’s biggest running group Striders are the most popular ones among Mumbai’s business houses.

Companies such as Viacom 18 and Nirmal Lifestyle, have started reimbursing gym or marathon training and race registration costs to their employees.

Vats says, “From sports tournaments and subsidised gym memberships, to annual health check-ups and weekly consultations with doctors, dieticians and psychologists to subsidized healthy food, we have a holistic approach towards the health and fitness wellbeing of our employees. We have also introduced a care package that allows for regular medical check-ups for employees and their families, counselling sessions and dietician sessions. We have regular Zumba classes in our premises so that employees can enjoy a fun workout as well.”

Airtel uses the Delhi half marathon (for which it is the title sponsor), to run an internal competition for its employees who participate in the run. “We get to meet some of our top officials and at the same time it is fun to interact with other runners from our other offices. The three fastest Airtel employees also get prizes,” says Praveen Giriya from Chennai, who was the second fastest Airtel runner in Delhi last November.

A former TCS employee says, “Race day is great fun. People, irrespective of designation and location, gather under one roof and also get to meet the bosses, who also run. It is one of the few opportunities when we get to interact with them without pressure and inhibitions.”

A direct result of this new attitude towards fitness has led to benefits beyond health issues. “Exercising regularly has many more benefits other than just weight loss or staying in shape. Exercise helps improve all aspects of one’s life, including work productivity. Few most common benefits are stress relief, increase alertness, better time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines. This certainly improves employee morale and improved overall productivity,” says Goyal.

Singh says that many of the runners get to meet their top bosses in an informal setting on race day and they cherish the casual exchange.

Corporate Social Responsibility has also benefited immensely from the success of running events. More than 400 non-governmental organisations have raised Rs 134 crore for various causes in the previous 12 editions of the Mumbai Marathon. Last year alone, Rs 24 crore was raised in a single day, of which Nirmal Lifestyle’s Jain alone had managed to raise Rs 83 lakh.

Goyal says, “Standard Chartered has a community initiative called WASHE (Water Sanitation Hygiene Education) that supports the girl children in municipal schools with an aim to provide them with easy access to safe water and improved toilet facilities, as well as hygiene education.”

Other prominent causes that are represented at Mumbai Marathon include Mahindra & Mahindra’s Nanhi Kali, HUL’s Operation Sunlight, Save the Children India, India Cancer Society, Forum for Autism and the Isha Foundation.