Running on Empty, Loving the Game

Because I have connections with cool people in Beijing – well, okay, one – my itinerary on a recent trip to the capital was not the usual middle-aged tourist fare. My weekend in The Big Smoke (literally, if you look at the skyline or scout the pollution figures) was highlighted by a Saturday afternoon not pounding the pavement at Tiananmen Square or fast-breaking into Temple of Heaven Park or (thank heaven!) being full-court pressed by the salesfolk at the pearl or silk markets.

Instead, this lone man loose in the city went hooping. My ace contact had given me a standing invitation to “get in a run if you’re in ever in Beijing”, perhaps not thinking I’d be silly enough to take him up on it. I was, and (heaven help me) I was jazzed about it. Our rendezvous was set for 12:30 on the platform at the Xizhimen station of the number two metro line, the loop that runs a rough underground rectangle of the city centre. I had no idea where I was going, but I had a mobile phone and a tall young American to look for at Xizhimen – that is, until he phoned to say that he was stuck in a police station, doing the obligatory bureaucratic dance of renewing his residence permit for foreigners. (Even my ex-dancer wife didn’t enjoy this process, though our apartment manager — and the 240 yuan that he asked for as a fee — made it relatively easy.) He wouldn’t be able to meet me.

Plan B was going to be “AV”, who texted me, but then when our timing wasn’t going to fit, AV passed me on to Sultan, who was blessedly easy to spot when I got off the subway car. A short taxi ride later, this medical student, raised mainly in Beijing by a Sudanese dad and a Chinese mom, led me through the grounds of the Beijing Youth Political Institute (man, was I in the wrong room!) and a real live gym: a fine old hardwood floor, lots of room on the baseline, glass boards, and what instantly struck me as a scarily high level of player for me to presume to run with.

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