In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks in Iran - first in Mashhad, then Tehran. I was trying to write a book (I never finished it) about the Paralympic movement, which has a very particular expression in Iran, both positive and exploitative. It was hard to get a visa (I had to fly to Dublin and plead my case as there were no UK-Iranian avenues open). But it was a wonderful experience; one I will never forget. I made some notes, which will almost certainly never be published, but perhaps they're of interest anyway. Here's what happened on Day One.
I had mild to moderate trepidation about going running in Iran. The Lonely Planet Guide Book had been of only a limited help when I had leafed through its pages looking for references to running. My suspicion was, and still is, that the kinds of people who contribute to the Lonely Planet Guides are professional travellers; the kinds of people who may well wear tiny leather necklaces, open neck cotton shirts and occasionally stout walking boots, but are not necessarily, or even at all, the types of folk who lace up their Reeboks, strap on an ankle support, fire up their Nike Plus App on their iPhone and head off for an hour’s interval work. Nor am I, for that matter, but a pair of running shoes are essential to my mental wellbeing at all times. I need to get out. Running clears the mind, sparks up the system, and all the rest of that pious claptrap you’ve ignored a thousand times before. Plus, if you are somewhere strange (and by strange, I mean foreign), it’s a great way of gathering a flavour for the geography and architecture of a place, without the need to appear as if you a tourist, in the strictest, formal sense of the word (strolling around Mashad with a thin leather necklace and an amiable, interested smile).
But the guidebook didn’t help, when it came to running. My fear was that NO ONE DID IT. I asked Hamid, and he looked genuinely alarmed. I asked the hotel concierge, who after offering me a taxi several times, then waved in the direction of the garden at the front of the hotel. It might have taken me as much as twelve seconds to run from one end to the other.
So whether I should and where I should do it were both imponderables. And equally worrying was the issue of clothing. I was working on an assumption that it would be improper to bear my legs. And, for that matter, that it might offend to bear my arms. So I dressed, early one morning, in a baggy tracksuit bottoms and a lightweight running jacket.
One further glance at the free and largely uninstructive map provided at hotel reception revealed to me the option of large-looking square park, with what seemed to be a giant cartoonish ferris wheel at its heart. This must at the very least represent recreation of some form, relaxation, fun. I would run there, and maybe once round it, and then come back. That looked about the right distance.
As I left the hotel foyer I spotted someone, similarly dressed, from head to toe (despite the fact that it was already pushing twenty degrees at six o’clock in the morning) in sensible athletic sportswear. He had just finished what looked like it had been an elaborate series of stretches, and now he, like me, was heading out of the gates for a run. We greeted one another in some randomly concocted mis-match of international salutation, and then he set off to the right, and I to the left.
After a quarter of an hour, weaving through the deserted streets of Mashhad, past bored looking policemen in tiny metal huts, and past sweet smelling jasmine and pornographically ripe-flowering wisteria, I spotted, in the near distance the giant, cartoonish ferris wheel. Heartened that this tallied with the map, I picked up the pace, and soon found myself at the perimeter of a lush, beautifully maintained park.
At 6.15 in the morning, it was teeming with life. Along the perimeter road which seemed to contain the leafy interior of the park, a constantly, dense mass of Iranians made their way, the inside lane was for clockwise movement, the outside lane for anti-clockwise. Most people were walking, two abreast, or in groups of four or five. Others power-walked on their own. Some, a good many, in fact were running. Most were men, but not all of them. In fact there were plenty of women, Nike trainers gleaming white from underneath their black trousers, shawls still in place, and headscarves anchored down sometimes by baseball caps. The men favoured nylon tracksuits, or simply their normal cloths (often checked cotton shirts with collars) pimped up for athletic purposes by the presence of at least one garment by adidas; tracksuit bottoms, a jacket, a hat. No one showed the merest dash of flesh tone from beneath their waist. There were no legs on show. None.
The variety of movement on display was breathtaking. The stiff-legged shuffle seemed particularly voguish. There was the loose-limbed bounce and the boxer’s feint and parry. But my eye was particularly drawn to the preponderance of home-spun callanetics on display; there were men who were elaborately swinging their arms from side to side as they ran, men who were punching the air, men who had both arms permanently stretched upwards, or were swinging them up and then down in counter-rotation. One man I saw was running along revving and then changing the gears on an imaginary motorbike. Another man, marvellously, was simply running backwards, in his everyday trousers and sensible shirt.
Then there were the fitness chain-gangs. I heard them from a distance; a US Marines-style cadre of men of a certain age, dressed in pristine white tracksuits, marshalled into three columns, flanked by their commanding officers, and singing loudly. Or again, a smaller platoon this time, but still in white-shell-suited columns, whose NCOs appeared to be telling jokes to their general mirth. The rearguard of both travelling armies of joggers was exclusively female, their black headscarves bobbing up and down as they ran and chatted.
The one thing that all this glorious early-morning movement had in common was its extraordinary lack of speed. The running was mostly done at walking pace, and the walking was simply an accelerated form of standing still. Only the wrist waggling, shoulder-popping and finger-clenching had any proper degree of vigour. So it was not difficult, as I joined their ranks, to establish myself as comfortably the Fastest Man in the Park. I weaved through their ranks, dropping a shoulder to the left, skipping lightly to the right, but all the time overtaking, overtaking.
Until, that is, I heard behind me the sound of breathing and running getting ever closer. I held my nerve as the runner behind me held their distance; having closed the gap to me they were now clearly waiting for the moment simply to pick me off, toying with me. I dared not look round.
Suddenly he ghosted alongside me. I glanced to my left, and recognised the smiling countenance of the mystery runner from outside the hotel.
‘Hi!’ I gasped at him.
He beamed back, beaded lightly with sweat. Then he pointed at his chest as we continued running. ‘Korea Team!’ He was a coach with the South Korean Sitting Volleyball Squad.
‘I’m from London.’ I mimed writing with a pen on some paper (not easy to do as you run) ‘I am writing!’
He looked baffled. ‘I no speak English.’
‘OK’ I smiled again at him, then we both looked forwards and continued to run. He accelerated mildly. I followed. He slackened the pace almost imperceptibly, and I followed. Thus, within a minute of meeting and without exchanging a word, we mutually agreed to an unspoken contract that we would run together. And so we did.
Sometimes he would push me a little too hard, and my increased breathing made him show mercy. Other times, he would run off to the side of the path, hawking up phlegm, to dispose of it in a bin. I would slow up to allow him to catch me up again.
We completed one tiring circuit of the whole park. I looked his way to see if he woud turn off and head back to the hotel now. He held a finger up in the air.
‘One!’ he shouted. I fell into line, and off we went again.
It was only on the way back to the hotel, down the boulevard with the policemen (noting , I am certain, that we were now together) and the jasmine, that I became aware of how perfect a runner he was; balanced, compact, effortless. As we slowed the pace down gently, I tried to find out more.
‘You.’ I opened. ‘You, Marathon?’ I tried to pronounce Mar-A-Thon as clearly as I could.
He understood perfectly. ‘1988. Soeul Olympics. I, Marathon.’
I gaped openly at him. He went on ‘32nd. 2 hour, 16 minutes, 11 seconds.’
There was so much I wanted to say to him, and even more I wanted to ask him. But it was not possible. So instead I clapped him a little too heavily on his back and laughed. I was delighted to be in his company that morning. I looked up at the sky above us. A golden yellow sun was bursting out all over the dusty concrete towers of downtown Mashhad. It was good to be alive, good to be running, good to be here.
About two hundred metres from the hotel, I picked up the pace again, and tried to finish my run strongly, something I often try to remember to do. He let me go.
As we came to a halt outside the hotel, I shook his hand and he extracted his iPhone. I assumed he wanted to press stop on some GPS training App. But instead, he summoned me to his side, held the phone out in front of him, and we took a sweaty selfie.
‘My stretching now.’ He waved me off.
‘My drinking now.’ I strolled inside, parched with thirst, but thrilled.