The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


Running is my passion, especially when I do not have to do it. I feel great after a few hours of running, and I feel even greater if I do not run at all. The whole running business started when I joined the mountaineering club in Singapore. Mountaineers are from a different planet where physical punishment is a source of joy. Grudgingly I joined the compulsory running sessions. By a miracle, I even passed the timing test before we headed off for technical training. Yet running did not become one of my favourite activities.

An undefined alley in Bangkok

Where you should not run: the back alleys of Bangkok

My interest in running was rekindled when I lived in Bangkok. My first and only salsa performance required me to get into shape. I joined a gym, and I also learned that a city marathon was coming up, so I signed up rightaway. That was a borderline stupid decision: whatever weight I put on in the gym, I lost it while training for the marathon. Bangkok teems with stray dogs who play dead during the day. These dead dogs congregate in dark alleys as the sun sets, and chase after runners who get lost in the labyrinth of Bangkok’s backstreets. My only safe option was Lumphini park, where a 2.5 km circuit catered to runners, and where a range of dealers catered to people who were after a different sort of high.

The race started on a Sunday morning at 3am, perhaps the only time when the streets were not crowded. For a while I jogged behind a 50-something gay-right activist who was running holding up a rainbow flag above his head. He was supercharged, I could not keep up with him, I lost sight of him in the first hour. I stocked up on audio books on my phone, I was the most efficient in running when my mind battled to ignore the nonsense of self-help tapes. The route took us on a highway out of the city. After a while there were only rice fields on either side. Spot on two hours I reached the turnback point. I was good for another six kilometres, then my always shaky right knee said `enough.’ It began to hurt and a clicking sound reminded me that the joint was a substandard issue. The pain got worse after every kilometre. A gentle slope to bridge around km 32 was the most physically gruelling challenge I ever endured. Km 36 came surprisingly quickly, I started to grin. Then came km 36 again. The organizers misplaced the first sign — at this stage, it was beyond demoralizing. At a water break after km 40, I thought I would collapse. I dragged myself to the finish line in a limping trot, my time was exactly five hours. I was bed-bound for three days, my knees refused to take my weight.

A semi-mathematician after finishing his first marathon

The pictured person had no functional knees at this point.

My willingness to run wavered after this until I moved to Rio de Janeiro. Copacabana beach had a long running track, continuing to Ipanema and beyond. My running sessions were quite regular: I had the extra motivation of having the privilege of staring at all the hot Brazilian babes walking to and from the beach. The fundamental problem was that the competition was also steep. Other male joggers were running with their bare torso exposed, and each and every one of them had ripped abs and enormous muscles. I was never exactly the pinnacle of masculine beauty, but one particular evening, my frustration peaked. I took my T-shirt off to get some sun while running. My gleaming white body and prisoner-of-war stature attracted undesirable attention, and I could hear the giggles even through my earphones that blasted death metal at full volume. The experiment was quickly terminated.

While I always train harder when I prepare for climbing a mountain, the periods in between are sensitive to what kind of motivation I can conjure up. I gradually transitioned to minimalist running, my shoes got lighter and lighter with less and less cushioning. This solved the knee problems, and I could run as far as my determination lasted. I read Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, and McDougall’s Born to Run around the same time. For the following months I was flying, I ran a lot, believing myself to be Caballo Blanco in disguise. Then it was gone again.

View of Barcelona

The reward for running: great views of Barcelona. Just be careful with the sidewalk pillars when you run back.

Moving to Barcelona, my lodging was at the foot of a charming mountain range. The mountains proved to be an excellent motivating factor, I ran again regularly and came to love uphill running. One day as I was returning home after a long run, I noticed a group of ladies on the other side of the street. My eyesight is that of a mole, so I had to squint and look hard to derive an estimate on the loveliness of the ladies. Suddenly I felt an intense pain in my groins; a sidewalk pillar that prevented cars from entering skewered me in the middle. As I tripped over, the pillar tore my pants off. I felt like I was an athlete of extraordinary determination who continued running even with his clothes torn off, but in fact I was just a weird, sweaty bloke jogging in his undies.

Beijing factory and pollution

A good day for running in Beijing.

Apart from stray dogs and groin-invading pillars, many other dangers lurk to cripple budding runners. While on a research stint in Beijing, I glued my eyes to air quality monitors. Whenever the air pollution dropped below lethal levels, I made a quick escape from work and went for a run. PM2.5 particles and running are not very good friends. If I lasted six kilometres, it was a good day. A stinging pain developed in my lungs even after such a short distance. Other laowai runners ran in face masks — I tried the method, but took it off after twenty seconds. Breathing was impossible. Natives of the land continued running even if the pollution reduced visibility to two meters. When we finally start genetically engineering humans, we should model the lungs using the gene pool of Beijingers. With those lungs you do not even need air, any gas or aerosol will do. I foresee humans running marathons on Jupiter with Chinese lungs.


  1. Awesome. Never seen something like this before. You made a connection between the different running types und cities. Hilarious! Have a great next running without any problems. Regards, Patrick

    1. Peter Peter says:

      Thanks, Patrick. I slowly learn the principles of safe running.