Working Out With the Malaysian Prime Minister


Running in a foreign city can be dicey. There’s always the chance that you won’t be able to get back to where you started from (it happens) but it’s worth it for the sliver of new perspective you get, to see a city as it wakes. People often stare, but more often than not they smile and wave at me, a tall conspicuous foreigner with her sweaty ponytail. It’s a great way to start a day, especially if the rest of it is likely to be filled with business meetings.

My husband will run anywhere; getting lost is part of the appeal, and finding his way back is part of the challenge. He’ll run in the rain, through cities, through parks, on hidden trails, anywhere.

I’m not so adventurous. I prefer to run where I know I’m unlikely to get mowed down by a car, especially in Asia. In Hanoi I run around the lake; I have to circle it four times to even get close to 5km, but it grows on me with every loop. I learn where the dangerous wet tiles are, where the ladies exercise, where the dogs gather.

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, an early-morning hub of activity.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I run inside on the hotel treadmill. I’m sure there are running tracks somewhere in that city, but I’ve not yet been brave enough to seek them out. (Jared, I’m sure, would have discovered them by now). In Malaysia, I tried to run outside, but holy heck was it hot.

I recently stayed at the Hilton in Kuching, a fancy hotel on the riverbank. Perfect. I laced up my shoes, and took my naive foreign self right straight out to the walkway next to the river. The heat and humidity hit me immediately. It was like running through a dryer full of wet towels. How anyone managed to function in that city, let alone exercise outdoors, was beyond me.

I made it about half a kilometer before I became aware of a large group of runners to my left. My run had coincided with some sort of organized event taking place on the city streets. The runners were mostly teenagers, dressed in jeans and long-sleeved t-shirts.


Many of the young women wore headscarves as well, which magically stayed in place as they ran, looking gorgeous. In fact, none of these kids looked the way I did, which was sweaty, disgusting, and with one foot in the grave despite a weather-friendly outfit of tank top + 3/4 length leggings.

Clearly, I was alone in my problems with the heat.

Yeongwol 6km run
During one of my more conservatively-dressed runs in Korea.

I abandoned my attempt and ran straight back into the hotel gym, which is how I ended up working out with the Malaysian Prime Minister.

The Hilton’s gym was under construction, so a temporary gym had been set up in what was formerly the business center. It was snug, with just enough room for a treadmill, elliptical, rowing machine and two weight machines.

I started running away on the treadmill, spraying residual sweat everywhere in my less-than-fresh workout wear. (When I travel for work there isn’t much time to do laundry, so clothes often get worn two…or three…times before they get washed. I know, ew, but there you have it.)

The door opened behind me and the guy on the rowing machine stopped. I heard a woman’s voice, but it was hard to make it out above the thundering noise of my feet on the whirring treadmill.

“Prime Minister (unintelligible dialogue) exercise now.”

I didn’t turn around because that required too much coordination. Instead, I felt sorry for the man in the red t-shirt who jumped on the elliptical machine next to me because he was directly in my smell zone. I tried to subtly check him out but mostly I just wanted to finish running.

When I stepped off the treadmill I realized that there were two bodyguards and a hotel employee at the back of the room. I drained my water bottle and dropped my towel in the hamper, then sidestepped a woman with an earpiece in the hallway.

No way, I thought. Maybe I heard right. Maybe that was the Prime Minister.


Sarawak Times

There on the front page was Najib Razak, who was currently staying at the Hilton and looked remarkably like my neighbor on the elliptical. This was confirmed later in the morning when I went to the lobby to catch a taxi to the cat museum but had to wait because he was strolling down the red carpet to his car.

I suppose I could have waved – we were workout buddies, after all – but I hung back in a corner like a creeper and snapchatted him instead. It was probably for the best because it turns out he’s maybe not such a great guy, though I suppose there could be a perfectly logical explanation for why $1 billion found its way to his personal bank account.

Najib got in the backseat of his car and the red carpet was promptly rolled up before any peasant feet could touch it. The crowd dispersed and I was finally able to secure a taxi to the cat museum.

Running outside is a good way to get to know a city, but apparently running inside has its unexpected moments too.

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  1. “Hung back in a corner like a creeper and Snapchatted him instead.”

    a) This is totally what I’d have done.
    b) Are we following each other on Snapchat? I have no idea. My ID is waegook_tom, come and join me.

    The closest I’ve ever come to a famous gym encounter is when a Taiwanese male model/actor stripped to his underpants next to me in the gym once. I had no idea who he was until the receptionist excitedly told me as I was leaving.


    1. The layers! I get so upset when I see people wearing winter clothes in hot climates. THEY don’t look upset, but I do on their behalf.

      WHY did he strip to his underpants? Unless this occurred in the change room and not on the gym floor? Or maybe underpant workouts are a thing? Still I support it more than fully clothed workouts.

      I do follow you on Snapchat! Your dogs are supercute.

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