The quarantined Frenchman who ran a marathon on his balcony and the Englishman who did the same on his lawn sparked a memory or two of improvised running routes. My motive, however, has been to avoid busy roads, crowds of pedestrians or foul weather, rather than to combat inertia forced by a deadly virus. Needs must. I’ve battled the boredom of circling the roof levels of car parks in Toronto and Phoenix, Arizona and small public gardens in Milan and Shanghai. I once tried to complete five miles on a tiny track in a hotel gym, high above Manhattan. The circuit – at the Vista International, which was later partly destroyed on 9/11 – was so short I lost count of the number of laps I ran.
A running habit that began as a way of getting fit for skiing and became an obsession was also a good way to overcome the effect of jetlag. There is no perfect way to beat it, but exercise is as good as anything. Why? Because jet lag throws your eating schedule out of kilter and if you run in early morning, for example, it’s not long before your body tells you it’s breakfast time. Local time, that is. Besides, running gear doesn’t add much weight to the luggage. All you need is whatever the climate demands you wear, and a pair of decent trainers. But I don’t do it only to get over time zone disruption. Instead of counting sheep I’ve occasionally tried to get to sleep totting up the places I’ve run in.
If you’ll allow more than one in the same city (most of central Paris has been treated to this spectacle, for example) it’s somewhere north of 350. Over some four decades I’ve become oblivious to the embarrassment of negotiating posh hotel lobbies in sweaty shorts and a T-shirt, politely waiting for the next lift rather than joining more fragrant guests (that, to borrow a joke, would be wrong on so many levels). Having ventured out on an icy morning in Beijing, not long after China opened to tourism, I returned to find the water was off. The only solution was to shower with the contents of the large tea making flask left overnight in the room.
For those determined to run, sometimes improvising in a small space is unavoidable – because there’s simply no better option. Fellow travellers laughed as I bobbed in an out of view in a tiny hillside garden in Barbados, telling me I looked like Monsieur Hulot. The patience of a young couple, attempting some kind of after dark intimacy by the Bosphorus, must have been tried severely as I loped past them time and time again on a short waterfront terrace.
Finding somewhere to get a rhythm going in Monte Carlo can’t be much easier than driving in the Grand Prix. That said, I have rarely had to resort to the hotel fitness centre. But the pavements in the Mexican city of Puebla were so uneven I was forced back to the top floor gym. Afterwards the man on the next treadmill picked up my key card and I his, Cue some 20 minutes of bizarre confusion as we yoyoed to the front desk and back before realising, in a chance encounter as our respective lift doors opened across a landing, why efforts to reprogramme our keys had been futile.
The occasional difficulty of finding somewhere to avoid exhaust fumes and crowded streets makes you appreciate those sublime mornings when you feel fine, the dogs are docile and the air is clean. Oceanside sand can be firm and forgiving – as on 80 mile beach in Western Australia. Also in Oz, taking a turn around around Uluru/Ayers Rock proved irresistible. The walking and cycling path around Stanley Park, Vancouver, with mountain views across the harbour, is one of the best places to run in the world. Seaside promenades in Rio de Janeiro, Nice and Cannes run it close, as do those at numerous other coastal resorts – not least Benidorm. Sometimes there’s a converted railway track (most welcome as age makes hills steeper) as at Le Bec Hellouin, a stopover in Normandy, or Lexington, Massachusetts, where I’m currently prevented by COVID-19 from spending time with relatives.
As I write, of course, all those places are off limits. I hope our local park, where passing runners go out of their way to maintain social distance, will stay open. Like Elisha Nochomovitz, who covered the 26.2 miles on his seven metre long balcony just outside Toulouse, I only have a few metres of space – in the hall, and on the back patio. But while he gets a big “bravo”, I won’t be emulating him, even for a couple of miles. That would be an improvisation too far.