'After 25 minutes running in smog city I was drained'

Simon Turnbull reports from Beijing on his failed attempt at a five-mile jog through the city yesterday. The amateur athlete's run ground to a halt after less than three miles
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The Independent Online

Pulling back the curtains on the 14th floor of tower block C6 in the sprawling North Star Media Village yesterday, it was possible to make out the eight-lane highway that runs adjacent to the perimeter fence and the first few rows of shops and high rise flats. Beyond that, Beijing was just a haze. Not so much the purplish kind that Jimi Hendrix imagined. More of a greyish blur.

Stopping off at the general store on the way back from breakfast, there was a similar sight to behold on a book stand. It was just along from Beyond the Stars, which was described as "a novel by William Shatner" (it's literature, Jim, but not as we know it). The cover of Hard Times depicted a smog-scape from England's dark satanic mill days. Inside was Dickens' grimy portrait of an northern industrial town in the mid-19th century: "Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun's rays... It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled."

Whether the smog-monster serpent of 21st-century Beijing will do any serious damage to the participants in the Games of the 29th Olympiad remains to be seen over the course of the coming fortnight. We shall have a better idea on Sunday when the first major test of endurance takes place: the women's cycling road race. Those US track cyclists who were wearing protective masks when they arrived on Tuesday might not have been as stupid as they looked. Then again, an oxygen mask seemed like an infinitely better idea five seemingly-breathless minutes into a training run on the streets outside the media village in late morning yesterday.

The plan had been to do something like the steady five-miler I'd completed with the rest of the slow pack at Blaydon Harriers last Thursday night. But, then, that was in the sylvan setting of the Derwenthaugh Country Park, on the former site of a fire-and-brimstone-breathing coke works on Tyneside. Beijing has yet to become post-industrial, let alone sprout the green shoots of a mass environmental transformation.

Times were hard pounding the streets here yesterday. Very hard indeed. Even before the first step, there was the acrid taste at the back of the throat that you get when the Beijing air starts to percolate through your body. Trying to get the respiratory system up and running in smog city while doing the same thing with the legs seemed something like attempting to start an unleaded car on diesel. The mouth, nose and lungs all begged for fuel. The chest didn't like what it was getting. The uncomfortable tightness there lingered long after I ground to a halt.

As premature fatigue set in and the pace dropped to what seemed like slow-motion, it was clear there was going to have to be a Plan B. The steady five-miler turned into a slog of less than three miles. The pace did pick up at one point. I turned down an avenue in search of some parkland but instead found a rottweiler zealously baring its teeth. I had already shifted into sprinting mode by the time that I spotted it was tethered to a post.

Not that the burst of speed lasted for very long. By the time I got back to the media village, after just 25 minutes of running, my face was flushed with a purple haze and my body was drained and lathered. I couldn't face the labyrinthine walk to our tower block. I hitched a ride of shame on one of those carts that carry the likes of Davis Love the 24th, or whatever number the American club-swinger happens to be.

Perhaps some of the marathon runners will end up doing the same. At least the long distance cyclists, by necessity of trade, will have the benefit of their own mode of transport if the metaphorical wheels come off.

As the golf buggy neared tower C6, I spotted a sign for a gym and, though the windows, five people going nowhere fast on treadmills. Maybe that could be the answer, for the two marathon races at least: get the men and the women to run their 26 miles and 385 yards indoors on treadmills, protected from the elements by four walls and a roof.

After all, Sunita Williams, a NASA astronaut, was allowed to contest the Boston Marathon last year while strapped on to a treadmill in the International Space Station. Running at the same time as the field on terra firma, she completed the distance in 4 hours 24 minutes.

Picture the scene: Paula Radcliffe and her 86 rivals, all running side by side, neck and neck. It would be the Olympics, Jim, but not as we know it.