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NEW DELHI - People breathing New Delhi"s acrid air for the past month have suffered burning eyes and rasping throats, so the notion of thousands of distance runners gulping down lungful after lungful may have seemed strange. But even as the polluted air threatens health, India seems to be embracing physical fitness.
The Airtel Delhi Half Marathon went ahead on Sunday, even after a last-minute attempt by the Indian Medical Association to have it postponed.
In the cool half-light before dawn, street-dwellers stoked smoking piles of trash to keep warm while organizers adjusted placards along the route.
Men and women wear face masks as they take part in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2017 in New Delhi on Sunday. Sajjad Hussain / Agence France-presse
In the start area, runner Sunil Baxi, who traveled 11 hours by train from the city of Jodhpur to compete, spoke over the blaring motivational music, saying he was thankful the air had gotten clearer.
"The gods have sent in the rain yesterday and over the last 48 hours," he said. "So it"s a blessing for us."
Air pollution was a concern for past races but was brought into sharp focus this month after air-quality readings in New Delhi spiked to 75 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.
Three days before the race, Delhi"s High Court gave race organizer Procam International permission to proceed with the run.
Still, many runners remained frustrated. Ashish Shakya said he"d barely been able to train because of the poor air quality. He wore a handmade sign on his back that read, "Running is in the air but the air is highly polluted."
The 31-year-old said he loves running and has watched its popularity in New Delhi soar over the past few years. But he also worries about what it"s doing to him.
"It"s just like smoking a cigarette. If you smoke for a year, you don"t die," he said. "But if you do running continuously in this weather, the health risks outweigh the health benefits."
New Delhi"s air pollution typically worsens at this time of year as winds die off and the fumes from vehicles and industry stagnate. Farmers also burn spent crops and people build street fires as the night air cools.
Race organizers tried to help. They washed down the course with salted water to minimize dust. They used 150 mist fans to try to cleanse the air. They kept vehicles from the route for hours before the race. And they offered refunds to those who wanted to pull out.
About 35,000 runners signed up for this year"s half marathon and the shorter races that were included. Organizers say more than 1 million people have signed up for races across India over the past year, and the popularity of the sport is increasing.
"Slowly the trend is rising," said Baxi, the runner from Jodhpur. "No doubt India is on the back foot on health parameters, but slowly and surely it"s picking up."
(China Daily 11/21/2017 page11)