On Friday morning, somewhere along the windswept shore of Lake Ontario, I will pass a significant and, many will say, rather self-obsessed milestone.
If all goes to plan I will run a minimum of five kilometres through Toronto, allowing me to add Canada to the list of countries I’ve run in, bringing the total up to 50 in all. My personal half century.
For over the past three decades or so, I have been keeping a quiet tally of all the countries I’ve run in. I don’t actually know when this all started but the rules of the game are simple: the run has to be a minimum of 5km, it has to be completed in less than 30 minutes (otherwise it’s distinctly like a walk) and no gyms or treadmills are allowed. You have to go out and pound the pavements or hit the trails.
Getting to 50 countries has been no small feat. For one, it has taken more than half my life. Secondly, 50 is no small number of countries – the United Nations has 193 members at last count, so I’ve run in more than a quarter of all the countries in the world.
Of course there have been a few false dawns. I thought I had reached the half century a few months ago after a trot round Malmo to add Sweden to the list. But a second check revealed that Bermuda is not actually a sovereign nation, so it had to be deducted from the total, leaving me maddeningly at 49. Canada will however put it beyond doubt, to be followed by Indonesia next month to make it 51.
This is the simplest hobby. While Munro baggers and cyclists need endless gear, the shoes, shorts and shirt fit into the smallest overnight case. Then all you need is a spare hour – and even the most intense business trip or family holiday will allow you some down time
For most people this will seem like pointless list-ticking, but what all this fails to convey is that almost every run has been filled with wondrous sights and technicolour memories. A run has often turned the dullest business trip into a photo album of images.
Perhaps it is all that oxygenated blood pumping round your brain, but the memories of those many outings are so vivid.
There was the time on a press trip with ICI that I ducked out of the hotel at sunset and ran through the back streets of Shanghai, past the street vendors and crowded pavements and out onto the Bund along the Huangpu river. Or dawn in Dar Es Salaam where I took a short break from an investor tour and loped along the beach road, watching the singing and shouting fishermen pull in their nets. That trail through the rain forest in Tobago, being buzzed the whole way by azure parrots. Or icy Red Square in Moscow late at night, with St Basil’s cathedral lit up like a fairy palace, where I knew that if I stopped running there was a real chance I would freeze to death.
There have also been the people I’ve met along the way, such as the Jordanian soldiers who came down from their armoured car to share their sweet tea with me as I trotted up to the Saudi border, or the farmhand in the Dominican Republic who showed me a secret way up a nearby mountain, climbing up the cliffs using the creepers that trailed down it.
I have been blessed with so many opportunities to see the world and every time my battered trainers have come with me, to stare me down, trigger the guilt trip and force me to open the door of the hermetically-sealed hotel complex and into the wide world beyond.
So where to next? I have to recognise that I’m now pretty unlikely to run the whole world – at my run rate (forgive the pun) I would need to live until I’m around 120 to make it round. There are also some countries where a short jog around the block might be a distinctly life-shortening experience. So I will settle for 100, and even then I need to lift my feet up a bit.
I might slip in a few easy ones like The Vatican (although who knows how you could fit in a 5km run around a country whose total area is just 0.44 sq km).
Try it for yourself sometime. If you don’t like my rules, create your own. Just lengthen your stride, open your eyes and the whole world is waiting.
*Neil Bennett is chief executive of communications consultancy Maitland/AMO