Health and wellness

How a Hong Kong couple found love through running and push each other to greater heights

Mo Devlin and Janine Canham clicked instantly over their intense passion for long-distance running. Learning from and encouraging each other every step of the way, they are now achieving things they could not have done alone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 8:57pm

Voluble talk on anything running related is the cupid’s arrow to the heart of Mo Devlin, a 52-year-old Scottish running enthusiast and PE teacher at Sha Tin College for whom sports has always played an integral part in his life.

Three years ago on a Tuesday night running session with the ANTS (Andy Naylor Track Session) group, he met Janine Canham, a finance professional. They didn’t get talking until months later at a bar, when a group of runners were meant to meet up to plan a race in the New Territories.

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On that day, however, only the pair of them turned up. They chatted non-stop during those four hours and realised they had much in common.

“Janine was probably the first woman that didn’t think it was boring that all I talked about was running: running training, running and nutrition, running races,” Devlin says.

Canham, an ultra-runner who participates in world-renowned events such as Racing the Planet, recalls: “When we met, my hair was tied back, I was red faced, covered in sweat … I never feel a need to wear make-up to impress him.”

Today, the couple run together casually and competitively. They took up triathlons last year and joined the Hong Kong Dragons Triathlon Club for training. Their first ever triathlon race was hosted by the club, and was swiftly followed by similar events elsewhere.

The two prefer to run individually. Devlin is a faster athlete, favouring races of between 10km and 50km. Canham is an all-terrain runner, who signs up for 50km to 300km races. But since they got together, their styles have been merging.

In the early period of their courtship, they ran in a 100km race together at Stonehenge, England – a first for Devlin at that distance. It was Canham’s idea as she wanted him to experience a multi-stage ultra event.

It wasn’t much of a learning curve for Devlin athletically, but he found the social and camping elements “strange”.

“Because it’s England, everyone ran 50km [one night] then had beers and partied and joined the buffet all before the next 50km the next day,” the Glaswegian recalls. “Whereas we were stretching and doing yoga outside our tent while everyone was like, ‘Wow, you guys must be professionals.’” Meanwhile, Devlin has been urging Canham to do shorter races with faster results.

Most other couples would have said you should quit, but Mo knew … that deep down, I needed to hear that support from him to finish the race
Janine Canham

Before meeting her boyfriend, winning wasn’t a priority for Canham: the love of running was. That changed as Devlin nudged his girlfriend to run, say, five minutes faster, so she could gain a place on the podium.

“Now every time I run, I push harder as I’ve got Mo’s voice in my head going,‘Can’t you go a bit faster?’, and as a result I’ve been on the podium pretty much every race I’ve done in the last year or two,” she says.

Canham says she pushes herself so her boyfriend will feel proud of her. “It’s quite the opposite of a competition between us,” she explains.

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One of Devlin’s most memorable races was last year’s 9 Dragons Ultra in Hong Kong, his first serious 50km attempt. Canham competed in the “50/50” version of the race (50 miles plus 50km the following day). Devlin crossed the finishing line in fourth; Canham was third out of the women.

After the race, Devlin helped Canham get ready for her second bout. He drove her home, fed her and washed her running kit, then drove her back to the starting line of the 50km race the following morning.

While running is their favourite workout (they go out three or four times a week), their fitness routines differ. Devlin exercises about eight hours a week at his school’s gym, stretching and cross-training, in addition to running 50km to 60km a week. Canham mixes up her regimen with cycling, open-water swimming, yoga and gym workouts.

The pair also raise money for charity through their racing adventures and have accrued “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to benefit various organisations, Canham says. When Devlin had prostate cancer two years ago, the pair were inspired to raise money for Movember, which raises awareness of men’s health issues.

“We encouraged people to sign up to run every day in the month of November and pay fines for each day they didn’t run, and so on,” Canham says. The couple raised HK$60,000 that month.

Canham is half English, half Lebanese and was brought up during the Lebanese civil war. She says that giving back to the community and knowing life could be worse motivates her during tough races.

“When you know you are raising money for charity, there is no way you are going to give up,” she says, explaining that she has powered through pain and sickness to finish races.

That ethos was put to the test last month when the pair were in a horrific car crash a day before Canham was to fly to Costa Rica for The Coastal Challenge, a notorious 236km, six-day race across jungles and beaches.

Their car was struck by another travelling at such a high speed that theirs flipped upside down. Fortunately the two exited their battered vehicle relatively unscathed, and Canham flew to Costa Rica as planned. The episode did not really register for Canham, who was unaware she had fractured a vertebra in the crash. At around 200km into the Costa Rica race, the pain and shock set in.

She considered quitting with 10km left that day – but with the medics’ approval, she walked the rest.

She mulled over whether to compete in the final day: it was just another 23km. But the medics were against it. She messaged Devlin: What would you do if you were me?

He replied she would regret it if she didn’t finish the race. You should go really slowly and try to get over the finish line, Devlin messaged.

Upon medics’ advice, she paired up with another injured runner and they supported each other to the finish.

“Most other couples would have said you should quit, but Mo knew me well – [he knew] that deep down, I needed to hear that support from him to finish the race,” she says.

“Sometimes the greatest achievements are the ones most difficult to complete,” Devlin says.

Devlin believes that everyone has limitless inner strength, and that all they need to tap into it is a bit of confidence. “I teach my [pupils]: when you are hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, that’s when you have to turn on the effort and really try … and really learn about yourself.”

Devlin bristles at what he describes as the modern-day approach that desensitises pupils from life’s adversities and challenges. In reality, he says, most accomplishments are earned through trials, failure, persistence and resilience.

“How do kids learn these lessons now? Sport is a great environment for that,” he says.

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The couple try to inculcate this ethos in Canham’s twin 13-year-old boys by running together and going on action-packed holidays.

“We encourage them to be passionate about running and sport … and the boys love it,” Devlin says.