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Runner banks on mountain trails to keep the blues away

By WANG MINGJIE in London | China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-04 09:58
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Editor's note: This news column showcases stories from around the world that bring a touch of positivity to the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

With the COVID-19 pandemic placing great strain on many people's physical and mental health, a former London banker-turned-trail runner is hoping to encourage people to work around social distancing constraints and reconnect with nature in the name of exercise.

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 (87 kilometers) 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 20 kilograms overweight and the longest he had run before that was just under 13 km, 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."

Unique character

What is unique about trail running, he explained, is that "it re-connects 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".

Inspired, he quit his City life of working 16-hour-plus-days, and became more involved in trails and mountains.

James is now an international mountain leader and founder of the 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.

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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