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Ex-banker encourages people to get outdoors and make long run to freedom

By WANG MINGJIE | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-09-02 10:10
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While the COVID-19 pandemic has placed great strain on many people's physical and mental health, a former London banker-turned-trail-runner is hoping to encourage people to overcome social distancing and reconnect with nature in the name of exercise.

Since surgery James says he never takes any runs for granted. [China Daily]

Simon James is an ultra-trail runner who has completed Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in the Alps and conquered the Andes and the Himalayas. A late-night bet with a client got him hooked on running, and now he is regarded by other runners as "trail royalty".

"In 2006 when I was still working in the City, a business client challenged me one evening in a bar to a 36-hour walk across 54 miles (87km) of the West Highland Way in Scotland and I foolishly said 'yes'," James said. "He then rang me the next day to tell me we would be running it."

At the time, James was 20kg overweight and the longest he had run before that was just under 13 kilometres, but he managed to finish that run and has never looked back. Now he says trail running is one of the best things anyone could ever do.

According to Public Health England, two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom are overweight, one-fifth suffer from depression, and suicide is the single biggest killer in men under 45. The huge disruption caused by the novel coronavirus has put these issues in the spotlight.

COVID-19 has made us aware of the importance of exercise in everyday life, and no amount of virtual meetings or Zoom calls can make up for direct social interaction. As so many people find the great outdoors the ultimate escape, James said: "there really is only one thing that fixes so many of these problems in one fell swoop-trail running."

What is unique about trail running, he explained, is that "it reconnects us to our beautiful natural world and yet at the same time stimulates and connects our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual elements, as well as providing us with an experience which can connect us to other people.

"In a modern age where our biggest forms of illness come from loneliness, lack of exercise, lack of sunlight, lack of purpose, lack of meaning and too much stress, trail running, I believe, is the perfect antidote," he added.

What started out as a bet with a friend has changed the course of James's life. [China Daily]

Inspired, he quit his City life of working 16-hour-plus-days, and became more involved in trails and mountains. Over the years, he completed many ultras in the UK including the 140-km Ridgeway Challenge, finishing 5th in 16.5 hours, as well as 170-kms around Mont Blanc in the Alps, with a 10,000-meter cumulative ascent, and the Marathon Des Sables, a 249-km multi-day event in the 55-degree-Celsius heat of the Sahara Desert.

James is now an international mountain leader and founder of trail running company, Run the Wild. Although trail running is a major part of his daily life, he said every run has been a gift following hip surgery in 2015, when he was told by the surgeon that he could never run again.

James admitted that at the time, it seemed like a good idea to head straight to the Himalayas after the Mont Blanc, the ultimate back-to-back adventure. However, as much as he loved it, it did put a huge strain on his body.

After noticing pain in his abductors, where the leg joins the torso, over a couple of years, he had a scan and the surgeon felt a standard procedure should fix the problem. However, it was only when the doctor opened him up that he discovered the extent of the damage.

"I went in expecting an outcome of 6 weeks recovery and returning to normal activity, but instead woke up to the news that I may never run again," James said. "After waking up from surgery I had an identity crisis and had to really dig deep to find myself again. I was on crutches for 18 months and had to learn to walk unaided and eventually run, which was the most amazing feeling. I still never take any of my runs for granted."

The biggest takeaway from that experience, he said, is that "you are not defined by your ability, you are defined by your attitude. Attitude is what really counts, it's what keeps you going and has far more endurance than ability or goals."

Since lockdown began at the end of March, he has encouraged and guided more than 250 individuals at various events, running across the Chilterns in Oxfordshire.

"I can't think of a more important time in our world history when the need to support our mental and physical health has come into such focus as with COVID," he said. "The outdoors is such an extraordinary place for us all to experience. The door is open, we have to just choose to go through it."

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