Holi is the traditional Hindu spring festival celebrating friendship, during which the faithful pelt each other with brightly colored maize flour. The world of running has now embraced this tradition, too, with cheerful contestants all over the world taking part in the aptly named “Color Run”.
Fun and laughter, a mass of bright colors, thumping bass rhythms from huge speakers, cheerful crowds in a holiday mood, and a bit of running to round it all off – welcome to the Color Run. The distance? A mere five kilometers – a cinch compared to a marathon – but the Color Run, actually a whole series of runs, is not about long-distance stamina, record times or pushing back your physical limits. This international event combines the pleasure of physical exercise with Hindu religious traditions. The runs are now held worldwide on almost three dozen dates every year.
The festival of Holi is associated with crowds of happy people having fun, dressed in tops and pants covered with gaudy splashes of color. But pelting each other with a rainbow of colors is not the main activity at the festival of Holi at all. Holi is actually when Hindus celebrate the coming of spring. On the last day of the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalguna – which falls between the end of February and the middle of March – the faithful celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring. That said, Holi marks not only the beginning of spring, but also the triumph of good over evil, when social divides are crossed, old friendships renewed and differences laid aside. The festival originated in Nepal and northern India. The Hindu social system – especially prevalent in the poorer sections of the population – in which people are assigned to different social castes is disregarded for one day as members of all castes celebrate Holi together.
This temporary equality is symbolized by participants throwing brightly colored maize flour and water at each other. The colors are an expression of joy at the coming of spring, diversity of opinion and the equal status of all people. Over the years, the good-natured flour and water fights of Holi gradually attracted more and more media attention. Groups of laughing people covered in splashes of vibrant color make the ideal motif for posts on Facebook or other social media, and so the festival of Holi took the world by storm. In recent years, the colorful, exuberant event has become increasingly popular outside India and Nepal, too. The first “Holi Festival of Colours” took place in Europe in 2012, a large-scale event that brought the Hindu custom to the attention of a global audience. Nearly 11,000 people took part in the first event in Berlin, and “Holi Festivals of Colors” have since become a global phenomenon, although the cultural aspect of Hinduism has played only a minor role, if any. The emphasis has been on partying in a sea of colors to music played by trendy DJs. In 2017 there were more than 50 Holi festivals in Germany alone.
And now gaudy colors have come to the world of running, although organizers of events such as the “Color Run” don’t actually mention Holi at all: Competitors at the running event throw brightly colored paints at each other on purely aesthetic grounds. Being a Color Runner is advertised as a “lifestyle choice”. It is not so much about religion as about creating spectacular photogenic entertainment. The bright colors serve to remind the runners of what they have achieved, and not social divides that need to be bridged. And the “Color Run” concept is a big success. There are already more than six million Color Runners, and Color Runs are held regularly in 35 countries. And there are definitely parallels to be drawn with the spring festival, because “The happiest 5k on the planet”, as the run is also called, is a great opportunity for beginners and seasoned runners to compete with one another. As times do not matter, having fun takes top priority. The only rule that applies is that the white clothes everybody starts with have to be covered in bright colors by the finish line, so any visible distinctions between amateurs and pro runners are cancelled out along the way. To that extent, the Color Runs stay true to the principle behind the festival of Holi, which promotes complete human equality. And it’s not hard to interpret people running together and celebrating together afterwards as a sign of good triumphing over evil – a return to the origins of Holi. In sum, while Color Runs are in no way religious, they are the perfect events for anyone who enjoys running, listening to loud music and being pelted with paint.
In Europe, there are also runs where the original meaning of Holi is given more prominence, such as the Spanish “Holi Life”, another 5-kilometer race that has already attracted more than 350,000 participants. The event in Spain not only includes the word Holi in its name, but also has clear associations with the Hindu festival.