Chennai’s brief yet wonderful winter mornings are upon us and the streets are teeming with walkers, runners and cyclists, keen to begin or uphold their tryst with good health. It would be a crime to waste this time indoors. If you are looking to ditch the gym and get a breath of fresh air, here are four mostly traffic-free stretches that have emerged as a paradise for walkers amidst the concrete shackles that make the city.
A snug, little freeway between Perungudi MRTS and Velachery MRTS in Bhuvaneshwari Nagar transforms into a small-scale athletic complex every morning and evening.
The two-kilometre stretch adjacent to serpentine tracks, railway underpasses and newly-planted trees, makes for a stunning canvas at sunrise and its fairly neat roads, a track for runners and walkers.
The Lockdown Warriors, a 15-member crew of 50 and 60-somethings, once used to walk along this road as stray individuals trying to both kick-start a new habit and get out of the house during the lockdown. Today, they wear matching T-shirts, and take part in strength training post walk. The empty halls of the Perungudi MRTS are hence put to good use.
“We end up chatting for a few minutes about day-to-day affairs. We have been able to create a sense of community,” says I Edwin, a member. They also huddle around the same location to drink tea in the evenings.
Waving hi to this group every morning are M Mathivanan and M Sumathi who go on an hour-and-a-half long walk along this stretch, frequently checking their smart watches. The aim, they say, is to clock 10,000 steps in the morning.
“It is a neat straight road that makes for a breezy walk. A team of volunteers from an organisation called Green Velachery have also been planting saplings along this stretch so that there is green cover eventually. It would be nice if the dump along this stretch is cleaned,” says Sumathi.
Anil Sharma, a runner from Vibrant Velachery, a chapter of the Chennai Runners group, says that the Velachery MRTS is the nucleus of the walking community here but there is also the 100 feet road that runners frequent. To gain elevation, they also take the flyover in the wee hours of the day.
In the heart of Chennai, 11th Avenue in Ashok Nagar unfolds as a dynamic thoroughfare. Here, the dawn chorus is not confined to birdsong alone; it harmonises with the hum of fruit juice shops eager to hydrate spirited joggers and brisk walkers. Amidst the rhythmic footfalls, newspaper vendors unfurl the day’s headlines, stitching the city’s narrative into the very fabric of the morning routine. The four-kilometre stretch of 11th Avenue transcends its concrete foundation, emerging as a vibrant tableau of health, connection, and the collective heartbeat of Chennai’s early risers.
“We’ve been walking here for the last 10 years. It is not very safe because traffic starts flowing, so a lot of walkers and joggers start early,” says retired officer S Balaji as he and his wife brisk walk by the line of parked trucks along the pavement, adding that they prefer walking on the open road as opposed to the numerous parks in their area because of the freedom of movement.
“I believe that walking on the open road is better than going round in circles in a park. You get to observe the city wake up. I have a few friends here, and we walk for approximately an hour and then sometimes go to Saravana Bhavan for a coffee.” says business owner VR Chandran, who has been a regular walker on 11th Avenue for the last 25 years.
The stretch which is known as a paradise for walkers and joggers not only plays host to old walkers, but also welcomes new enthusiasts donning smartwatches and running earphones. Hema, who made a resolution to get healthier this year, says, “I find this road easy to walk because there are a lot of trees, and you can extend your walking route by including the smaller streets. A lot of joggers prefer the main roads, but walkers often weave the smaller streets into their circuits.”
A number of juice shops, healthy soups and breakfast spots seem to have replaced the age-old street side dosa, idli spots on 11th Avenue to cater to the crowds.
“You can pay me tomorrow. Take this,” says S Mahendran, handing over a bag of spinach and spring onions to a customer. At 6.30am on the service road by Marina beach, walkers are milling around him. “They are all going to come back anyway,” he waves my concerns away.
There is a lot that has changed over the years there — the low hum of ongoing work at the metro construction site is representative enough of the churning that the sea continues to witness. The legion of walkers there though, are either loyalists or on their way towards becoming one.
An early morning walk down the service road that extends from the lighthouse to the Marina swimming pool has a thriving ecosystem– vegetables for the week, flowers, your morning breakfast, or even fruits and coconut kernels for a mid-workout snack. There are shops selling cut fruit, boiled sprouts, hot soup alongside big tubs of crunchy cornflakes, and even puttu with kadala curry, teeming with people soon after the crack of dawn.
“Many walkers stop by to pick up fruits and sprouts which they can pack into their children’s lunch boxes for school,” says N Perumal, who has been there for the last seven years.
Amidst all that is to savour, there are resolutions to keep. In matching T-shirts that say ‘Work it, own it’, friends Kailash Parihar and Rajendran Kumar tell me their plans for the new year — to walk here at least five days a week.
Muthulakshmi Raguraman, points to her T-shirt that says ‘My life, my fitness’ printed in big letters and says once a week, she lands up here with her gym buddies for a long walk, followed by a run on the sand and a meditation session.
“After the Chennai marathon, I am now looking forward to participating in the Auroville marathon and am training for it,” she says, hurrying off.
Outside Geetha Cafe in Pondy Bazaar, a gaggle of walkers and cyclists sit with steaming hot cups of coffee just as dawn breaks. I am handed a cup of Horlicks and told with a smile that I can choose to sit outside as well — the best option given how lovely the weather in Chennai currently is.
At regular intervals, walkers in groups of threes and fours briskly pass by in colour coordinated T-shirts. Mahesh Bhandari, who has been frequenting the empty morning roads of Pondy Bazaar from even before the pedestrian plaza came to be says seven T-shirts in different colours were given to the regular walkers here. “This was a lovely gesture by Mahaveer Chand Bothra, a diamond merchant, who has been an integral part of the walking community here. We have a colour assigned for each day,” he says, pointing to their red T-shirts for Tuesday.
A stretch that is bursting at the seams with retail outlets, hawkers, and restaurants which are buzzing with activity through the day, the pedestrian plaza at Pondy Bazaar plays home to a myriad of people as the city wakes up. Early in the morning, men sit along the pavement sorting out newspapers that are to go out for delivery and people stop by on two wheelers to pick up milk packets from the lone watchman by the booth. The neat pavement all through, and the restaurants that dot the stretch bring together walkers and cyclists, and multiple photographers who are filming pre-wedding shoots and modelling portfolios in the wintry early morning sunshine.
“We first meet here for a cup of coffee, one that is smaller than the usual serving and then begin our walk. We are all over 50 years of age, and this sense of community is great motivation for all of us to come and walk here,” says actor Gopi Kannadasan. It is hard to miss this large group he talks of, seated at the first table in Shri Balaajee Bhavan chatting away.