Never run out of options
Recently, while out for a long training run in the fields, bridleways and woods near the village where I grew up, it struck me how much I had hated running cross-country at school. Yet here I was, more than 40 years later, volunteering to stride across muddy terrain in brutally cold weather.
What changed my mind? It was a posting overseas, to one of the most sports-mad places on the planet, that initially prompted me to invest in a pair of trainers, tackle a race or two, and gain a new perspective on a sport I once loathed.
Bermuda is the kind of place where virtually everyone is involved in some kind of outdoor leisure activity, be it tennis, scuba-diving, sailing, fishing, squash, golf or lawn bowls. I played the odd game of tennis and became a moderately proficient windsurfer, but it was running that really hooked me.
Jogging on roads flanked by palm trees and the turquoise ocean or along pink-sand beaches was a new experience. The scent of tropical flowers in summer and cedar wood fires in winter were also novelties for someone who grew up in England.
The camaraderie and fun were also new to me. At school, physical education meant enduring cross-country runs that were presided over by cruel, and sometimes violent, teachers. They would mock the fat, panting boy who finished last, and try to humiliate everyone else without natural athletic talent.
In Bermuda, nobody forced me to run. But I was entering 10-kilometre races and half-marathons within a year of living there, delighting in the chance to become fit and make friends. There was a weekly fun run at the Botanical Gardens, a fiercely competitive blast around a three-kilometre circuit. Beating a friend in that race gave you bragging rights for a week.
I was so hooked that I even ran the New York City Marathon, marvelling at the fervent support that came from ordinary people. Encouragement came from jazz bands, brass bands, rock bands, cheerleaders and excited children. The race goes through all the five boroughs, giving a real flavour of the city's diversity and the residents' love of a good spectacle.
Running, as I have discovered over the years, is by far the best way to explore a city. An early morning jog through the streets and parks allows the runner to observe the sights and soak up the atmosphere.
When I tell visitors Hong Kong is a superb city for running, they look at me quizzically, suspecting a wind-up is in progress. But I manage to convince people that Bowen Road, with its bird's-eye view of the bustling harbour and soaring hills, is one of the world's most magnificent urban running routes.
My personal Hong Kong favourite is the trail from the Sai Kung Country Park entrance at Pak Tam Chung, up and over the hill to the first reservoir causeway. In years of running that route, I have seen giant snakes slither across the pathway, heard wild boar rooting through the undergrowth, been mesmerised by yellow and blue butterflies dancing in front of my eyes and been temporarily blinded when I ran into hanging cobwebs. After a fierce rainstorm, it is thrilling to cross raging streams and squish through thick mud.
Almost all places have some merits for the adventurous runner. I have ventured gingerly out into the Gobi Desert in China and the Wahiba Sands in Oman, followed tribal paths in Papua New Guinea to the amusement of face-painted locals, gasped for breath in the high air of the Andes and the Himalayas, and dodged cows, monkeys, and Ambassador cars in New Delhi.
I have been lucky enough to be able to pound along the paths of Tokyo parks at cherry blossom time, a magical experience that feels like a dance across a pink-hued carpet.
Only a handful of destinations have defeated my efforts to run. Shanghai, where I lived for a time, is a dreadful city for running, with impossibly crowded and potholed pavements and precious little greenery. The only serious options are a suburban park built by the British colonials and Century Park, a depressingly unimaginative contemporary construction.
But even the most beautiful cities have unforeseen drawbacks. Recently, while in Paris, with the intent of watching the sun's rays gently light up the Eiffel Tower, I attempted an early morning run along the River Seine. Instead, I found myself sharing the riverside cobblestones with giant rats eagerly devouring leftover food from dinner-cruise boats, glass underfoot from late-night revellers, and (friendly) vagrants.
I was in the city to run the half-marathon, an event that involved 30,000 people. The course starts near a 12th-century suburban chateau and winds its way towards the Seine, past the Bastille and back to a park. I was very pleased with my time, which put me in the top third of all finishers and respectably high in my age category. It was fun and friendly, precisely the opposite of my school experience with mean-spirited teachers.
Sadly, that breed of educator still exists, as I discovered on a Bowen Road run not so long ago. An expat PE teacher was supervising an out-and-back run (yes, the fat boy was last), shouting at her charges and forcing them to squeeze past large construction trucks. It was a far more dangerous variation of my childhood runs.