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In which our correspondent almost gets caught with his shorts down while pounding the city streets…
I’ve always tried to stay fit when travelling, and since most of the hotels I stay at have gyms smaller than the bathroom on an aircraft, I tend to go for a run. A combination of boredom, too much food and jet lag often has me waking early, and early is the time to go running in a city. I have shared the morning air with milkmen, dog walkers, street sweepers and street sleepers, and at times, I have experienced the joy of having the new day to myself before the world awakens, with endless possibilities opening up around every corner. But as you’d expect, it’s not all been Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise or Santa Monica at sunset. In fact, sometimes it’s been Chariots of Fire crossed with Forrest Gump.
Cards on the table – I’m not a great runner. Five to ten kilometres at a slow pace is the aim, and I have little equipment beyond an iPod and some faded cotton T-shirts. If I ran more regularly, I’d buy the right kit, but I’d only forget to pack it anyway.
The marvellous convenience of modern travel means you can leave one climate behind and land in another in a matter of hours, but it also means you are never quite sure what the weather is going to throw at you – so when travelling light, inclement weather can present challenges.
Arriving one February evening in New York, I didn’t notice the chill in the air. The next morning, waking to a clear sky and the first glimmers of a sunrise, I slipped into a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a waterproof running top and headed for the hotel door. What a shock. Back home in Blighty it had been fresh, but here it was freezing, brutally so.
The old adage is to dress for the second mile of the run, so I pressed on, reasoning that I would warm up. I just got colder. Five blocks on, and with Central Park still a few minutes further north, I was freezing. Not metaphorically, but literally – blood thickening, flesh turning purple, and lungs unable to process air so cold and dry it stuck in your throat. My ears and nose were numb and my knee joints had stopped working, forcing me to run stiff-legged with my face frozen into a plastic surgery-like rictus grin. Thank goodness it was Manhattan – I fitted right in.
It took half an hour in the shower to warm up from that one, gradually increasing the temperature to avoid chilblains. Still, if the purpose of running is what my doctor euphemistically refers to as “weight management”, it had done its job – at least until my hunger kicked in and I treated myself to steak and chips for lunch.
In Sydney a year or so later, the problem was inappropriate rather than insufficient clothes. I’d woken at four in the morning with extreme jet lag and figured I may as well run it off, but I’d packed in a daze – no socks, and no shorts. Well, I could do without socks, I thought, and I had a pair of normal shorts. I could run in those. Big mistake. The loose fit I preferred when lounging around worked less well when running around; my sockless feet rubbed, particularly once I’d warmed up; and it was very warm, even at five in the morning. And because it was going to be a short run, I hadn’t bothered to grab a map, or work out where I was going. I kept the harbour to one side, and turned around after 15 minutes or so, taking what I thought was a short cut as my feet were beginning to hurt. Second big mistake.
An hour later, exhausted, I half-jogged, half-shuffled through the less than salubrious Kings Cross area. No socks, sweat-stained T-shirt, one hand holding up my shorts, and wondering why no one would meet my eye so I could ask them the way back to the harbour. I can tell you that no one, not even bouncers on the door of strip clubs and clip joints, want anything to do with someone on the point of collapse. Even the police started their car and drove away, not wanting time-consuming paperwork to mar the end of their night shift.
At my every approach, people would beat a retreat. It was like a parody of sprint training at the end of a long run, a game of tag gone wrong. Even the hookers in their heels were quicker than I was in those trainers. When I finally found my way back to the hotel, the receptionist alternated between professional concern and personal disgust, with the latter claiming victory.
I fell into the lift as the first businessmen were coming down for breakfast, and once in my room pressed the “Do not disturb” button and collapsed into bed. I’d allowed myself a day in Sydney to acclimatise before my appointments started, and it was the last trouble I had with jet lag that trip, sleeping for 20 hours and waking only to empty the minibar of chocolate and soft drinks. So much for the weight management.