Saturday, 12 October 2019

Running and Pollution in Beijing

My phone beeps and I look down and I see I have a received a text from a running coach Tian Hai Yuan although he usually goes by the name “Bill” when talking to non-Chinese people.

“The message reads: “This Sunday – marathon in Zhengzhou, speed train 4 hours from Beijing . You want to run?”

I receive these types of messages at least once a month, to run marathons across China in exotic – and not so exotic places – all expenses paid.

No I am not an elite athlete – I am just your common or garden journalist who likes to do a bit of running in his spare time. But I do have one special quality when it comes to marathons in China - I have a foreign passport.

Let me explain.

There is a revolution taking place in China. The country is undergoing massive developments, faster and deeper than any other country has in history. Almost every aspect of China has seen radical change over the past 40 years from massive reductions in poverty to the largest middle class in the world.

In the past five years, running in China has exploded – largely catering to this booming middleclass.

It is hard to get official numbers, but it is estimated that China hosted more than 1,500 marathons in 2018, 100 times the number of just five years ago – and that number keeps growing.

China also has 102 cities with populations of more than a million, most of which you have probably never heard of, but they all have ambitions to be famous and stand out from the crowd. Many of these large unknown cities think a massive city marathon may be the secret to achieving fame and global recognition.

And that is where my foreign passport is worth its weight in gold.

You see race organizers are desperate to attract as many different nationalities as possible to take part in their events to make them appear as international as possible.

Bill, who sent me the text, is a middle man between the foreign runners and the race organisers. I met him while running around the world famous Temple of Heaven in Beijing one Sunday morning a few years ago. He is constantly scouting for foreign runners who he can take from race to race and receive a small fee from the grateful marathons.

In many ways these are the best of times to be a runner in China.

However there is one massive drawback: pollution.

The very same factors that have led to the largest middleclass in history have also caused one of the worst pollution problems in the world.

And I experience the issue on an almost daily basis as a runner.

Before I go for my morning run I have to check an app on my phone which gives me the current pollution level. An AQI, or Air Quality Index of 0-50 is officially OK according to the US embassy, 50 to 100 is “Acceptable”, 100 to 150 “should limit prolonged outdoor exertion” and anything over 150 “everyone may begin to experience health effects”. I take a rather cavalier approach and run if the levels are under 200, most fellow runners I know draw the line at 150.

In 2014 pollution levels at the Beijing marathon peaked at over 400 micrograms per cubic meter according to the US embassy. And pictures of runners in thick smog were broadcast across the world in what many considered to be a public relations disaster for China.

However the year before that infamous marathon the Chinese government started to implemented some drastic anti-pollution measures such as fining the worst polluting factories, imposing output controls on steel and aluminum smelters and setting nationwide caps on coal use, in Beijing for example the goal was to reduce coal consumption by 50% between 2013 and 2018.

According to an independent study by the University of Leeds published in October 2018 the policies seem to be working. Between 2015 and 2017 there was a 20% drop in particulate pollution.

Of course as a runner I didn’t need to see all the report to know things are getting better. I literally feel it every time I run a 10k

So has China solved its pollution problem?

Just as one swallow does not make a summer many environmentalists are warning that one good year of lower pollution figures does not mean the issue has been solved. Last year in particular China was fortunate enough to have a set of weather conditions which helped lower the pollution levels. Cold fronts from Siberia brought cleaner air which not only dispersed the pollution but served to disrupt the high pressure that helps trap polluted air close to the ground.

And now in the words of everyone’s favorite fantasy drama TV series “winter is coming”. Or to be more precise November the 15th.

The majority of central heating is controlled by the government – even domestic heating – and in Beijing it is turned on, on the 15th November and lasts until the 15th March. If there is going to be a bad pollution these are always the worst months.

Or another way to measure it – how many races will I be able to run this year?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Running Home

Running away made me love where I am.

Seven years ago I moved to Scotland from London for work. It was a good career move but I wasn't happy.

I am a Londoner, I love London and my wife was still living and working in London. For the first three years Glasgow was where I worked and London was where I lived. On a Friday I would jump on the 7pm flight from Glasgow to Gatwick. On a Sunday night I would climb aboard the sleeper train at Euston at 11.45pm and wake up in Glasgow ready to start the working week.

The whole point was to try and maximise my time in London and minimise my time in Scotland.

Things changed marginally when my wife was able to get a job in Glasgow and moved up to be with me but I still wanted to be in London. My outlook on life was; "I have a great job up in Scotland but I just wish I could move it down south". Whenever I laid out the positives and negatives of spending a weekend in Glasgow versus a weekend in London, London won every time. My wife's presence only ameliorated the negatives of being in Glasgow.

The fact was outside of work I didn't have a reason to be in Glasgow. Friends and family and social events I was familiar with were all in London. I had a million reasons to be in London every weekend and none to be north of Watford - let alone north of Hadrian's Wall.

Then I started to run.

It was Hannah, my wife, who first suggested we train together to run our first marathon. It meant every weekend we would go on a long run together.

I began to look forward to our long runs. Over 13 miles of quality time between just me and my wife. (I've written before about how much I love running with my wife).

Then as the training started to get more intense going down to London meant I would be too tired do all the running I was meant to be doing, not just on the weekend by also during the week. (Try doing a 8km run after you've just got off a sleeper train).

Slowly but surely I not only had a reason to be in Glasgow but I started to resent going down south. London would eat into me marathon preparation.

Then something even more remarkable happened, I discovered Scotland's beauty. The beautiful canals, countryside and parks. Scotland has some of the most amazing running routes in the world.

Glasgow was no longer a "waiting place" between my trips back to London, it became a place I enjoyed.

Finally I started to look at what else I could do in Scotland on the weekend "between runs".

The shift was imperceptible, similar to how your running improves over time, but one day I woke up and realised I didn't want to go down to London.

I wanted to stay home.

And home was Scotland.

(The picture today is of me running the Cumbernauld 10k, in the background you can see my wife with a big smile on her face. We are both enjoying our home - Scotland)

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Old Gifted And Black

I achieved my greatest sporting success over thirty years ago at the age of 11. The occasion was the borough school athletics championship. On that hot summer’s day I won the 100m sprint, the long jump and - in a piece of inspired running my old school friends still talk about - I came from fourth place in the final leg of the 4x100m relay to bring the baton home in first place.

Due to the points I racked up, my school that year won the athletic championship for the first time in its history. In recognition I was allowed to take home the championship shield for a week. My mother still has a picture on her mantelpiece of me holding the inter-school trophy above my head dwarfing my pre-teenager self.

On that day in the summer of 1982 I was sure I was the fastest boy in my school. I was also the only black boy in my school. And at that young age I had bought into the racial stereotype: black people are more athletic. In an incredibly unscientific experiment, by winning those races, I had become living “proof” of this stereotype.

Yet it’s that same stereotype that held me back from taking up running for a long time when I was grown up.

For most stereotypes to really take hold, they often require the people being stereotyped to be partially complicit in the prejudice. To partially believe it themselves.

An example of this was demonstrated in a seminal experiment where American college students were given the task of completing a round of crazy golf. At first the participants were told the task was an experiment in analytical skills and lateral thinking. When they were told this the white students performed better than the black students.

The experiment was then repeated with another set of students and this time they were told it measured their natural athletic ability. The second time the black students performed better.

We all too often buy into our own stereotypes and then - for better or worse - act accordingly.

The trouble is as a black person this stereotype meant I used to think athletics was about being gifted, being “super-human” and definitely about winning. It’s a stereotype many black people buy into. And for good reason. It can offer comfort when life grinds you down in so many other ways.

However, mass participation running is the antithesis of all of these things.

Distance running is definitely not about being “super-human”. It’s about discovering your very human limits and trying to extend them just that little bit further. No matter how gifted you are initially as an athlete, I’ve discovered that most “gifts” seem to run out at mile 20 of a marathon. And as for winning, with most city marathons having over 30,000 participants, it’s obvious that 99% of  people don’t enter to win.

To really enjoy running, a lot of black people - myself included - have to relearn what sport is all about and face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  I’ve had to breakdown beliefs I subconsciously held from the age of 11. I am not “super-human” nor particularly gifted nor am I going to win any of the races I enter.

Instead, for me, distance running has been about self-discovery. I have discovered aspects to my character and physical limits I never knew before I started running. I’ve discovered a new way to enjoy sport that has nothing to do with winning or proving myself better than other people. But most importantly, as a black person, it’s given me mental strength in the rest of my life during those moments when I feel like the only level playing field out there is in sport.

At the beginning of this piece I wrote that my greatest sporting success came when I was 11. That is really the old me talking. In truth my greatest sporting success came just a few months ago at the Frankfurt marathon. The race did not go well and I didn’t even get a PB. As for winning, I seriously have no idea what place I came - I stopped counting beyond 3,000. But the reason it was my greatest sporting success is because I completed it despite being injured and having to stop at mile 19. Ironically, in those last 7 miles I lived up to all the stereotypes: I was “super-human”, I drew on every gift nature had given me and when I crossed the finish line I was a winner.

And that is a truth all of us can experience regardless of our race.

(This article was first published in my favourite magazine of running writing "Like The Wind" and I would highly recommend people buying a copy online at . The picture is of me at 11 and is still on proud display in my mum's living room)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Running In Church

Internal photo

The other day I introduced my wife to the joys of the ParkRun.

For those who don't know ParkRuns are 5km timed races that happen across the whole of the UK at the same time every Saturday morning.

They were first set up in 2008 and there are now hundreds of them up and down the country. They are completely voluntary, attract thousands of runners every week and are completely free to take part.

After her inaugural ParkRun my wife and I went with a few of the runners to a nearby cafe and chatted over coffee and pastries.

It was on the way back that my better half pointed out the obvious that was staring me in the face:

"We've just been to church!"

She then proceeded to explain how the ParkRuns are the perfect substitute for church as organised religion attendances seem to be falling in the UK.

Here are some of the similarities she pointed out:
  • In the ParkRun you have people volunteering to make a better society. 
  • A congregation (or group of runners) come together once a week and go through a set of rituals (running 5km along the same course). 
  • At the end of the race you have a small chip that you queue up to give to a time keeper. The whole process is very reminiscent of taking Holly Communion where you queue up to show you are a true believer.
  • There is a small chance that you will experience 'spiritual bliss' or a feeling of real well being. Some might call it the Holly Spirit others might call it the runner's high.
  • And at the end of the ceremony / race you break bread with your fellow believers / runners.
I'm not sure that the ParkRun is my new religion. But what I do know is that we live in an age where people are often more sceptical than ever of not only god but of the motives of our fellow human beings. Running and the ParkRuns brings out the trust I have in my fellow man and definitely makes my weeks a little more bearable.

Whatever can achieve that is a good thing and I dutifully thank god for that (whether that is the one in the sky or the guy running beside me in a pair of Nike Flyknits - I'm just not sure yet)

(The picture today is of the St Katherine Church in Bermondsey, south east London, where I got married)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Halfway Up a Mountain

Last weekend I found myself halfway up a mountain with a man who had been in knife fights, served two prison sentences for serious assault and had been sectioned after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2010

It all started a few days earlier when I joined a running club in Glasgow. We were doing a particularly hard session of 1km intervals with 90 second recoveries. One of my fellow runners turned to me in the recovery 90 second phase looked at me and said, “I know you”. 

I did not recognise him at all and I was sure he was wrong but he quickly provided proof.

“You run along the canal in the morning don’t you? I see you sprinting along there sometimes”.

He was right of course but I still didn't recognise him but it was the start of a conversation which ended with us agreeing to going on a long run together that following weekend.

The amazing thing about running with someone is that the meditative nature of putting one foot in front of the other often lowers inhibitions and you end up talking about far more personal things then you would normally (I've written about this phenomenon before). Before long I discovered that my new running partner had lost more than 100 pounds since he started running and that is when the penny dropped. Of course I knew him. I knew him as the overweight guy who ran along the canal. I knew him as the fat guy who had even raced against me in an impromptu race for fun up a hill as I had passed him on a morning run - and when we’d got to the top of the hill we’d both gone our separate ways smiling. 

As we ran together last weekend he looked like a different man but as we talked I soon discovered running had not just changed his physical appearance. 

My fellow runner had a troubled past. He opened up to me about his time in prison for serious assault and knife fighting. We discussed drug and alcohol abuse. The custody battle for his two year old daughter and his battle with mental illness. 

In all this there was one constant theme: Running had changed his life.

Running had changed his weight. Running had given his life a new focus away from drink and drugs. But most importantly he told me running helped him to “live in the moment” - it was living in the moment that enabled him not be stressed about tomorrow and manage his mental health issues. 

It was in the spirit of “living in the moment” that he suggested we change our running route. Instead of running along the canal for ten miles and then running back he pointed to a small set of snow capped mountains in the distance; “Let’s run to the top of those hills”.

40 minutes later I found myself halfway up the mountain looking out across Glasgow with my new running partner. It was beautiful and one of the best running experiences I had ever had.

Running has not only changed my running partner's life it has changed my life too. I might not have had the same dramatic issues he has but running helps me cope with the stresses and strains of life. It has given me new insight into who I am and what I am capable of and it has given me new experiences. What I learnt half-way up a mountain is that if I let it, running will continue to change my life in ways I had never expected.

(The picture today is of two people running up the Kilpatrick hills. the same "mountain" I ran up)    

Monday, 2 February 2015

The joy of running slowly

What is our obsession with speed?

As a runner I constantly want to run faster and faster, get a new Personal Best (PB) time for the marathon, half marathon or 10k. I want to get to where ever I am I going quicker and earlier. But is that always the best approach and ironically my running - and life - experiences seem to tell me the exact opposite is often the case.

I recently visited my sister-in-law and her beautiful two year-old daughter.

My sister-in-law is an incredibly proud mother (which is only natural) and was talking about the different areas that my niece is ahead for her age - different motor skills and language skills etc. It is true that she is incredibly talented for her age but I started to question whether our we've all become obsessed with achieving things quicker and earlier. 

As a runner I am all too aware of this obsession with speed. Running quicker, finishing earlier.

But if I look back at my life speed rarely matters in the long run and has very rarely made me happy.

I didn't start to talk until I was five years-old. Yes you read that right - I hardly said a word until I was five and definitely string any sentences together before then. Unlike most people I can actually remember when I first started talking - and as my father has always joked - I "haven't shut-up since" (at least I hope it is a joke).

I am by any definition a late developer.

It's not just in speaking that I started late. I'm now 6ft 2inches tall but for a long time in my childhood I was one of the smallest kids at school, (my brother used to actually pray for me to grow). And going to an all boys school from the age of 11 to 18 I didn't even know that girls existed until I went to university - I am a late developer. 

I started running late in life. I was over 40 before I ran my first marathon, but three years on I'm about to run my ninth marathon in London this April. 

I started speaking when I was five, I started running when I was forty. But who cares? Does it matter? I frequently take part in public speaking now and I often place in the top three for my age at (smaller) running events. Starting late has not hindered my enjoyment or my achievements in any way.

My wife also runs. She runs far slower than I do but she enjoys the races she's taken part in just as much as I do. In many ways she enjoys them more than I do. Many the time we have finished a race and she will talk to me about how beautiful the scenery of the run was and all I can talk about is the running vest of the person in front of me that I was fixated on. One of my favourite races I have ever taken part in is the South Downs half marathon last summer just outside Brighton - it was also the slowest half marathon I have ever done.

Paradoxically running has taught me that the race is not always for the swift. Life has taught me first is not always best.

I hope my niece continues to grow and showcase her amazing talents. But I also hope that one day when she is a lot older she'll discover what I've only just discovered; the best things in life can take time.

(The picture today is of my beautiful niece who is not running slowly!)

Running and mourning

In 2013 the Boston marathon was the target of an infamous terrorist attack. The Boston bombing seriously injured 29 people and killed three, creating headlines around the world.

The Boston bombing was a terrible event but like so many news stories it was something that didn’t really touch me - all the pain and suffering was mediated either through some kind of screen or news print. I was not personally affected.

All that changed a year later.

In 2014 I run the Boston marathon and one person died. He died thousands of miles from the Boston but for me his death will always be linked to the marathon.

On Tuesday 22nd April my mobile phone started ringing at 3.50am in the morning. I had just run the marathon the day before and my body was still in pain. On the other side of the phone line was a colleague from work and I knew instantly something was wrong. Back in the UK it was still only ten to nine.
"There's no easy way to say it, so I'm just going to say it" was all the warning I got by way of preamble. "We think Jay is dead - drowned in Barbados". Just typing this conversation still makes my lip quiver.

I am an executive producer for the BBC and Jay was one of my documentary directors. He was in Barbados for a wedding but he was also directing a film for me about the 1986 Commonwealth Games. One of the interviewees happened to live in the Barbados and so the day before he had shot an interview with him. Work done the following day he had gone back to enjoying his holiday. My understanding is that he swam out to sea and simply never returned.

The phone call gave me an small insight into how the families and friends of the victims of the Boston bombing must have felt the previous year.

I knew logically that Jay must be dead. At that point he had been missing for over 12 hours and although rare it is not unknown for freak currents in the Caribbean Sea to take even the strongest swimmers. But without concrete evidence I still clung on to hope. I wondered how long the bereaved relatives of the Boston bombings held on to their hope? I thought about the runners and spectators who taken to hospital and survived and wondered how long loved ones must have worried that they were dead.

Four deaths - three due to a terrorist attack, one caused by drowning. On the face of it completely unrelated. In my world as close as close could be.

After the work call it slowly dawned on me; at the very same time I was running the Boston marathon Jay was fighting for his life. The day earlier I had been so proud of my physical achievement of running the marathon in 3 hours and 1 minute. All of a sudden it seemed pointless. Almost pitiful. How could I take pride in my own physical achievement when a friend had faced a real struggle? A struggle far greater than any marathon.

Almost a year later I still struggle to answer that question. But I think I have got closer to an answer.

Consistently when writing about my marathon running I realise that in so many ways running is all about our own mortality. We are physical beings. We are flesh and blood. We are all subject to decay and eventual death. As I get older running helps me to confront this reality in a controlled and safe environment. Running enables me to celebrate my physical body every time I lace up my running shoes, while at the same time making me acutely aware that my physical body has very real limitations.

I am now training for my next annual Spring marathon. Occasionally while on my long weekend runs I think of Jay and the Boston marathon. But now instead of seeing them as contradictions I see them as part of the same thing. I run to remind myself of what it means to be alive, I run to enable me to stare into the abyss that is death and not be scared.

(The picture today is of a memorial to the three people who were killed by the Boston bombing. In April I will be running the London Marathon in memory of Jay)