I’ve been running since I was about two inches high, says Trevor Hill, the founder of Baku Runners, as we chat over coffee one autumn morning in central Baku. Trevor is a seasoned marathon runner; he simply lives to run. So the natural first question is – where did this passion begin? The first time I started running I was playing in the park with my brother and I was hiding in the tree and I was watching these runners going round and round and I just thought – how far can I go?
Trevor jumped down from the tree, started running along behind and realised, Well this is easy, why do they make it look so difficult? Having discovered this talent, he went on to win races with ease at school in East London and even represented his local borough of Waltham Forest, but as is often the case with talented young sportsmen experiencing the freedom of university, running then took a back seat. You discover pizza and beer and the rest of it... as he puts it.
Years passed but in 2012 Trevor was in his late 20s and London was hosting the Olympics. The city was gripped by sporting fervour and he too felt the urge to dust off his trainers and attempt to turn back the years. It took me a little while, a couple of months, but I was back to being my best basically. I posted on Facebook one day that I’d run a 10k in 30 minutes and I thought, wow, I’ve finally broken 30 minutes, and a friend of mine said – “What do you mean you broke 30 minutes, the world record is 27!” and I realised “Oh! I am pretty quick.”
His running resurgence was boosted by meeting his current wife, a marathon runner from Poland, who introduced him to the greater distances – she taught me the difference between running a 10K and a marathon. It’s huge, he says. Nevertheless, after a few races, he progressed to ultramarathons and last year completed a whopping 100-km race in northern Thailand.
In 2015, Trevor’s wife came to work in Baku and he accompanied her, but without a job of his own he found himself lounging about at home on the sofa. We had a few words one day; she said, “You’ve got to do something, do something with your life, don’t just sit here and clean the house and cook the dinner.”
Naturally, Trevor’s answer was to once again slip on his trainers and what began as an episode of marital tension ended up as Baku Runners: I looked for a running club and I found The Hash (a well-known international running community for expats – Ed.) and I found the Baku Marathon Club and they weren’t really what I was after. I wanted something that would encourage people to run and perhaps change the culture a little bit. Once I realised that people don’t tend to run so much here, I thought there must be a way to start it up.
So I posted on one of the Baku expat groups – “Hey guys, anyone want to run this weekend?” And the first run it was me and my wife and one other guy and then the second week he couldn’t make it so it was me and my wife again [...] And then a couple of weeks after this three or four people started joining us.
And it grew from there. The club adopted a logo and found a base at a local coffee shop where runners could congregate. Running, however, isn’t as common a pastime in Baku as it is in Europe and North America. Azerbaijani society is generally more conservative and as a Muslim country, wearing shorts and baring too much of one’s skin can be frowned upon. Exercise is often done indoors, early in the morning or late in the evening. So it was unsurprising that Trevor and his runners initially attracted strange looks, but what’s interesting is the change in attitudes that he’s noticed over the last few years:
When we first started, even running down this street people are looking at you saying, “What are you doing? Why are you wearing shorts? Why are you running, what’s wrong with you?” And now people have just kind of grown to accept it. You know we used to get people cheering us on the Boulevard and kind of laughing. Instead of being aggressive or ignoring them, I just turn around and say, “Come and run with us.”
Just as more coffee and bookshops, exhibitions and festivals are opening each year, modernising and even westernizing the Azerbaijani capital, Trevor has also observed a growth in health and fitness: Absolutely, you know, just even from the sports shops selling decent running shoes through to even the Baku Marathon itself. We’ve had interest from sponsors here as well and I think generally people are looking at their health and looking at different ways to keep fit.
The Baku Marathon mentioned above is actually a half marathon; the city doesn’t have an annual, full and official 42-km race. But Trevor may well change that. Earlier this year he pioneered one of the city’s first official marathons – the Baku Boulevard Marathon. This came about after a vice president of the elite marathon runners’ club, The Country Club – to become a member of which you must have run a minimum of 30 marathons in 30 different countries – contacted Trevor about the possibility of organising an official marathon in Baku.
During the year Trevor set about devising a course, which he chose to do on the Baku Boulevard, and advertised the event, albeit at the last minute to keep numbers as low as possible. After all, this was to be as much as possible a private event for 30 or so members of The Country Club seeking to do a running tour of the South Caucasus in an ongoing bid to tackle marathons in as many different locations as possible. Among those on the startline on 18 October 2018 was Brent Weigner, who holds the world record for having completed the most marathons in the most different countries.
The race went smoothly, was enjoyed by all involved and gave Trevor confidence that he could organise official races. On the chances of the Baku Boulevard Marathon becoming an annual event, he says: That’s the plan. I’ve been talking to the tourism agency regarding doing something regularly. I think we’ve shown that there is an apetite for it; we’ve shown that we can bring people here.
As for the running club, his goals are more modest, the major aim being to impart his enthusiam and encourage a culture of running: With the running club I’m not interested in being the biggest club or the fastest club. What I’m interested in is getting people running and I’d rather take guys that have never done a 5K and get them running and then leave me to go and join the Marathon Club or go off and do whatever they’re going to do. [...] I have more respect for the person who puts on the shoes for the first time and struggles through a 5K than the guy who goes out and runs it without even breaking sweat, he says.
For the love of running
Perhaps this laid-back attitude can be explained by Trevor’s pure love of running. While the very word might horrify many a 21st-century male, Trevor describes it as being like time off from the world. Although that’s not to say that he doesn’t like to challenge himself: I’ve got a couple of big races I want to do in the next few years, there’s the western states 100-mile race in America, which is the oldest 100-mile race in the world. There’s the UTMB, which is the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, which goes through France and Switzerland, a bigger one, so I think every year I just want to go longer and longer distances.
Shortly after our interview he was returning to tropical Thailand to tackle a 166-km ultramarathon
through the mountains of Chiang Mai. The
race didn’t go quite as planned as Trevor was forced to pull out after 67 km due to torrential rain, but most importantly he made it back to Baku safe and sound. The Azerbaijani capital is a place he has come to call home and doesn’t plan to leave any time soon, although that wasn’t always the case:
The first couple of times when we first moved here and I had to go back to the UK I would almost dread coming back here and over time that’s changed and this is home, this is where I feel most at ease. It’s a beautiful city, it’s easy to live in; there’s a low crime rate and – I’m saying this from an expat point of view – we have more money than the average people [and] we live a very nice life – but I think people don’t realise what they have here: it’s a beautiful city, there’s a lot of culture.
Trevor’s latest project is a weekly Saturday morning timed five-kilometre run called the Baku 5K Series. The idea is to try and make incremental improvements every week and Trevor has already been impressed by the level of interest: We’ve had more people come to do this than we have at our regular sessions! he says. For information on how you can join in, visit the project’s Facebook page, or click here to learn more about Baku Runners.