Monday, December 31, 2012

Maratona Internacional de Macau 2012

Running the Macau Marathon was perhaps my most realistic experience in this dreamy city of colossal architectures that truly come alive when the neon lights fill the night. Realistic because there's a 5-hour time limit to adhere to and a target of breaking my personal record. So, I had to be more focused in this race. As there were no pacers, I'd relied heavily on my watch to check my pace. Running in this foreign land added to the many unknowns in the race. What are the elevations like? Will it be too cold? How long and high is the Ponte de Sai Van? But I was excited and looked forward to this race, my 10th full marathon to date.

A light drizzle welcomed the runners, like an opening ceremony, as the pen opened. By 5 am, when the race started, it got heavier. Shoes were drenched, but the temperature was low. As crazy as it may sound, I rather enjoyed this unexpected running condition. There were 2 loops to be completed in this race, covering the Cotai Strip and central Macau Peninsula via Ponte de Sai Van. The first loop was mostly run in the rain, which meant lesser stops at the water points for me. Crossing the ponte for the first time, the view of the famous casinos and hotels shinning brightly in the dark was amazing. My pace was still within the sub-4 hour limit as I climbed to the highest point of the race - the top of Ponte de Sai Van. That was encouraging.

When I strategized for this race, despite the unknowns, I asked myself what contributed to my first sub-4 hour finish at this year's Standard Chartered KL Marathon, besides a controlled diet and sufficient sleep. The list included a few packs of power gel, MP3s during the second half of the race, and taking advantage of every descend by speeding down as fast as I could. I tried to reapply that so-called SCKLM formula in Macau.

The first loop ended with a sub 2-hour finish, so my confidence grew. By now, the city began to brighten up, but the clouds kept the sun in hide. Temperature was in the comfortable sub-tropical wintry range and it was still drizzling. To not lose my pace, I trailed behind a fellow runner of the similar speed until he sped towards the ponte. During the second loop, I was more aware of my surroundings. By now, I was able to identify some of the nearby Macau landmarks - Wynn, Mandarin Oriental, MGM and the stunning Grand Lisboa, as I ran along Avenidas Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Dr. Stanley Ho. Reaching Avenida Panoramica do Lago Sai Van signfied the completion of 35 kms. There were only 7 kms to go. Or so I thought. The fact is, the course was over-distanced by 2 kms. I mentally recalculated the time required to finish the now 44 km race within 4 hours and realised that it was still achievable if I maintained my current speed.

A marathon race with a completion time of below 5 hours is, in general, demanding. To me, Macau Marathon was more competitive than other races that I've participated in. I observed a higher average speed among runners here. It was inspiring but intimidating at the same time. But this was a race against my own personal record. Even I were the last to cross the finish line, I'd still be satisfied if my previous personal record was broken.

When I ran along the Avenida dos Jardins do Oceano again, I knew that I was approaching the finish line. The road from here to the Olympic Sport Centre Stadium was mostly flat, so that's a relief. Still clocking an average of 5 minutes per km, I just needed to maintain this pace and run steadily towards the finish line for my second sub-4 hour finish. But could I bet my personal best time at SCKLM?

At the last few hundred meters, I was greeting again by the large poster of Eason Chan's DUO concert, taking place a few weeks from now. Oh, I did mention that I'd run with MP3s again for this race? Yes, music did provide me with some distractions, and that's especially true when the playlist has been updated and randomized (for some suspense).

Runners had to make an almost complete loop on the stadium track before crossing the finish line. From far, I was able to see the electronic timer. Unless I collapse halfway along the track, I should be able to hit my second sub-4 hour marathon. And I did. I'd also broken my previous personal best by a good 6 minutes. Technically, it could have been better since the run was over-distanced. But that's okay. There's always another time for that.

I spent the next two days celebrating the end of another marathon in Macau with my family, visiting some of the most popular Macanese eateries in town. At Taipa Village, we tried O Santos and the limited pork chop burger (which we found later at the Venetian as well, despite the more expensive price tag). By the way, Lord Stow's Portuguese egg tarts can also be found at the Venetian! At central Macau Peninsula, we went to Tou Tou Koi at Travessa do Mastro for some old-school dim sum, savoured a few Portuguese egg tarts at Margaret's Cafe e Nata and my favourite, shrimp roe noodles, braised pork knuckle and poached carp skin from the legendary Cheong Kei along Rua da Felicidade. These eateries were conveniently located within walking distance from Senado Square, which also leads to the ruins of the church of St. Paul, the main tourist attaction in Macau. And what better way to cap the trip with, well, besides investing in a few rounds of Sic Bo, a spectacular show from The House of Dancing Water in the City of Dreams.

Finishing the Macau Marathon with a new personal record was sweet. But more significantly, the race marked the completion of my 10th full marathon, a goal I'd set for myself in 2012. Throughout the year, I'd tried to train as consistently as I could (even if it involved sacrificing my social life) and read a few books on running to keep myself psyched up. In the process, besides improving my runs, I'd learned quite a bit about life. Running has made me more patient, tolerant and respectful of others. Physically, I'm fitter and although mortality is still out of my control, keeping up with a healthier lifestyle by eating well and working out regularly has led to less flu and common cold. What a good run, 2012!

I hope 2012 has been kind to you too. Here's wishing you a very happy and blessed 2013, my friend.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Penang Bridge International Marathon 2012

Unthinkable. That's how I'd describe my PBIM weekend in Penang. The journey from Singapore to Penang itself had been, while not torturous, very long. 10.5 hours by coach, to be exact. Fortunately for me, I was able to catch some sleep until Bagan Serai, the northern part of Perak. Reaching the Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, after dropping off passengers at Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam, I made my way to the airport to collect my discounted (thanks to a voucher I picked during the Seremban Half Marathon) rental car. Since it was still early, I made a short stop at the snake temple near the airport, a place that I've not visited in decades. I asked the Gods for a safe run. Then, it was time for breakfast. With a GPS in hand, I headed for Balik Pulau in search of the infamous laksa. Just one sip of the sweet and sour broth was all it took to refresh my tired mind and body. After unpacking my bag at the hotel, I walked to Lorong Selamat and risked my life and order a plate of char kway teow from the lady seller wearing safety glasses. I'm happy to report that I was unharmed and the plate of char kway teow, though not my favourite, was really aromatic. Next up, carbo-loading. The nearest and most suitable place for that was Nasi Kandar Kasim along Jalan Gurdwara. Ideally, after a tambah nasi and telui (that's how the northern folks pronounce telur, I think) meal, I should be able to fall asleep rather quickly, but instead, I just rolled in bed, waiting for the hours to pass before the start of the marathon at 2 am.

The first kilometer along Queensbay Mall was difficult to run, as the road was narrow, but after making a turn at the roundabout heading for Eastin Hotel and the Seagate plant, runners began to spread out on the much wider highway. Running in the dark, odd hours in the morning wasn't enjoyable, but that's part of a marathon challenge. No excuses! Just like any 42.195 km race that I've entered, the first 10 kms are more physical - getting the muscles warmed up and keeping a 55-minute lap to ensure a sub-4 hour finish. Here, I exceeded the 55 minutes target slightly and so, I had to run faster at the Penang bridge. That didn't materialise. The 13 kms (one way) bridge has a few taxing inclines, and the toughest climb has to be to the peak of the cabled twin decks. Now, imagine doing that twice. The unpleasant combined smell of chemical emissions from the nearby factories and the sea hit at the start of the bridge route, but reduced gradually towards the main deck. The supply of water by the bottle was rather interesting. It might be a burden for some, but I thought it came in handy, where the excess water can be used to cool off the steaming head on that warm morning. I'd read about some leaving the unfinished bottle on the bridge for other fellow runners. Despite the straight and long (and therefore, boring) route, I felt good and proud running on this iconic Malaysian landmark, which is also the third longest bridge in the world. Looping at the toll plaza marked the completion of the first 21 kms. Next, we ran another 13 kms on the bridge before turning into Georgetown. The final leg, after returning from Georgetown towards Queensbay Mall, was difficult. I didn't hit the wall. And there was no sign of runner's diarrhoea! But my left shoulder started to sore badly and a side stitch bugged me for quite a distance. Also, the elevations were quite erratic. By the 38th km, I was almost certain that I would miss the sub-4 hour finish, but I pushed on. In the last 2 kms, I was joined by runners from the half marathon category as well. It was very congested and I zig-zagged my way through the crowd. I gave my friends who cheered me on at the finish line a thumbs-down, knowing that I'd missed the sub-4 hour finish by a wide 10 minutes.

I didn't feel terrible about my timing though. A little disappointed, yes. I wasn't prepared for a fast, record-breaking finish, having returned from South America just days before the race. A small part of me was also reserving the final push for the next marathon race, which would take place two weeks later.

By 9 am, I'd returned to the hotel. After a shower, I walked to Penang Road to reward myself with a bowl of laksa (of course) and some cendol. It's understandable why these hawkers have been doing brisk business for years now. Absolutely delicious. I checked out at noon and headed to my favourite mee goreng stall at Bangkok Lane. It was as moist, flavourful and red as I'd remembered. To ease digestion before the next round of hawker food, I drove to Armenian Street to see some of Ernest Zacharevic's wall paintings. They were certainly charming. Souvenirs imprinted with these paintings were on sale along the street, which I thought was cool. Then, it was time for more food...well, laksa, I mean. I guess by now, you'd already known my favourite Penang food? My first stop was Kafe Mega Star along Jalan C.Y. Choy. This is not a tourist haunt, which makes it even more attractive to me. The elderly cooks and heavy porcelain bowls were instinctively convincing. I'm not sure what constitutes an authentic bowl of Penang laksa, but if it comes with a sweet, sour but not spicy broth topped with pieces of mackerel and a colourful array of shredded lettuce, onion, cucumber, and pineapple, then it works for me. And I found it here at Mega Star. Next, I drove to Ayer Itam Market, below the Kek Lok Si temple, for a bowl of laksa from the perpetually crowded stall. Thank goodness they allowed customers to eat at the food market across the road, else I'd have to wait for hours to get a chair. The broth here was darker and denser, as compared to the rest that I've tried in the past 48 hours. And definitely good enough to be ranked among the best that I've tried in Penang thus far. I wanted to visit Kek Lok Si but there wasn't much time, since I had some unfinished business to settle back in Georgetown, which was....bagging boxes of tau sar piah from Ghee Hiang, at the only outlet that still had stock for the day! Before leaving for the airport, I made one last convenient stop at New Lane for some curry mee and char kway teow, which were less stellar and more expensive.

Sitting in the plane, I began to recall my time and tummy packed weekend in Penang. And that's when Unthinkable came to mind. My finish time at the PBIM 2012 was not regrettable. In fact, I should thank PBIM 2012 for giving me a chance to rekindle with this tantalizing island, our pearl of the orient that Tan Twan Eng described so beautifully in The Gift Of Rain. And how appropriate and lucky of me to end my trip to this hawker food paradise being seated next to an international streetfood blogger couple in the plane. Hor liao, eh?


Thursday, December 27, 2012

The NorthFace 100 Singapore 2012



I started trail running in August and enjoyed it very much because the terrain is mostly softer (and therefore does less damage to the knees) and the air is fresher in the reserves. It is also excitingly unpredictable. The route may stay constant but the obstacles along the course that nature has designed for me changes with every run. Every move is strategized so that I don't trip over fallen trees or rocks. The first few runs were the worst as I was unable to control my pace and ended up spraining my ankles. After a rain, the ground is muddy, causing the legs to be significantly heavier. Fallen trees are to be climbed over with care while landing on dead leaves should be avoided, for I don't know what's underneath the pile. On clear days, insects come out to play. Oh, and encounters with leeches are common, I was told.

Trail runs expose oneself to the wild. It's adventurous and intimidating at the same time. When I told my parents that I started running in FRIM (Forest Research Institute of Malaysia), they were horrified. Having spent their childhood in that neighbourhood, they'd heard countless stories of roaming tigers and pythons in the forest reserve. As much as I tried to ignore their reminders to stay away from the quieter trails, there's always a part of me that was afraid and hoped that I would not come face to face with a tiger or wildboar. Running alone in the early hours on these quieter trails can be nerve-wrecking. To be brave is to continue running. I was forced to be more aware of my surroundings and muttered a little prayer when I felt unsafe. I'm not quite a religious person but having that bit of faith that I'll be safe and protected was calming.

Stories of tigers, pythons and bears aside, FRIM is an excellent place to run. There are many trails in FRIM, including one that leads to a new village in Sungai Buloh (where I got lost once). After studying the reserve's map, I'd customized a route for myself; a 17-kilometer course that covers the ethereal Dream Trail, Bukit Bujang, Rover Track, Pipeline Track, Mountain Bike Track, Tongkat Ali Trail and Steroid Hill. These days, when I run a challenging race course, I remind myself that nothing comes close to being as dififcult as running continuously to the top of FRIM's Steroid Hill. At an elevation of 300 meters to Steroid Hill's Pinus Peak, I almost blacked out in my first attempt. Having run the course 8 times now, I must say that my lungs capacity has increased.

Why did I start trail running? To cut the long story short, I was training for my first ultra trail marathon - The NorthFace 100 Singapore in October. While runners debate on the definition of an ultramarathon, I will take it that an ultra is any distance beyond 42.195 km (the full marathon distance). So, yes, 50 km is an ultramarathon to me. Hah!

TNF100 took place on 13 October 2012. It was a Saturday, which means I had only a few hours of rest between knocking off work on Friday evening and the race. Fortunately, anxiety didn't follow me to bed (I wasn't targetting a personal best this time, just hoped to complete the race within the stipulated time limit), and I was able to fall asleep rather quickly.

The race was divided into 6 sections. The first, Lornie Track and the MacRitchie Reservoir Nature Trail, was the most pleasant to run and reminded me very much of FRIM. I was overtaken by many runners but it wasn't a bit demoralising. The journey ahead was long and for a beginner like myself, it's better to take it slow, enjoy the experience and finish in one, healthy piece. The second section ran along Rifle Range Road and Golf Link. Here's where we exited MacRitchie and entered another indistinguishable nature reserve. At this early stage of the race, I tried not to observe the distance covered. Instead, I focused on my footwork.

My hydration bag was still full. The plan was to drink a few cups of isotonic drink at each water point and save the 1.5-liter in the bag for later. Although it was marked clearly in the course map the locations of the water points, which were at least 5 kilometers apart, memory of the locations of these points was lost together with the buckets of sweat as I ran. The humidity of the nature reserves contributed to more fluid loss. I hoped that the sky would be kind enough to offer us a generous supply of clouds as the day progressed.

I am referring to the TNF100 map as I draft this post. Without it, I'll not be able to recall the names of the race sections. I guess that's understandable. In a long distance run like this, numbers, in forms of time and distance, are more important than the trails' names. But anyway, we entered the third section of the race - the Durian Loop and Pandan Trail. Here's where we headed north, crossing the Bukit Timah Expressway and ran along the old KTM railway track. The track was narrow but by now, runners were already spread far apart from one another, so congestion and overtaking weren't our major concerns. The sun was rising when I reached the track. It is going to be a clear day, I assured myself. I adjusted my visor and continued running.

At that time of my so-called running life, I was experimenting with the influence of music on my pace. You see, loud music sinks the sounds of my heavy breathing, which leads my brains to think that I'm still doing okay. So, I can running longer at that particular pace. On the other hand, different beats can also cause the running pace to fluctuate. As much as I'd like to have System Of A Down throughout the run, my heart would not be able to withstand it. So, some Katy Perry (except Hot N Cold, of course) to bring the pace down a notch for balance is advisable. Knowing TNF100 would be the most challenging race yet, I'd decided to not hear my sufferings but instead of packing in my faithful, salinated MP3 player, I chose to be enthralled by the sounds of nature. But who was I kidding, right? I was running in Singapore. The noise along the nearby expressway can easily mute the few birds chirping in the reserve. Oh well...

Section 4 includes running around the Dairy Farm Park before continuing along Bukit Timah Expressway again, to ZhenHua Park. Dehydration and tiredness had set in. Rather alarming, I must say, as I was still far from the halfway mark. Trail running is really more consuming. Thankfully, the sky was still cloudy. Next, we ran into Gangsa Track of Section 5, which felt like the longest trail ever due to its mundanity. Here, runners and weekend cyclists made way for one another along this narrow trail. I was desperate to get out of here and complete the first 25 kilometers of the race.

One of the interesting parts of participating in a race, regardless of its distance, is observing my fellow runners, especially those of a similar pace. In TNF100, I paced behind a determined girl, who was accompanied by her heavy-built boyfriend. He provided her with countless encouraging words until he ran out of breath and stopped to rest while his girlfriend spurred on. And he would catch up later and restart his mantra. I also bumped into a familiar runner from Malaysia who looked like a colleague of mine. I'd named him bouncy because he could lift his legs off the ground so effortlessly. And man, he's fast! I don't know if anyone would observe or remember me as I run, but if they do, I hope it's not that pale-faced, hairy, struggling dude.

I had been anticipating Section 6, the Central Catchment PCN and Lorong Asrama, ever since I received the race map. Here's where the halfway mark was placed and where we had to climb Hill 265. Running up this hill was unthinkable. It was like Steroid Hill on steroid. I'm not joking. Given its slippery surface, I had to climb on all four limbs to prevent falling off this monstrous obstacle that the organizers had included. Upon reaching the top, and after gulping a few cups of isotonic drink later, it was time to make a turn and start the second half of the race.

By now, I'd lost sight of the determined girl (and her boyfriend). In fact, I was running alone along Lorong Asrama. Here, on this unfamiliar tarmac road, decorated with tall, lush trees, I reduced my pace and smilingly absorbed this moment of solitude that is quite precious in Singapore.

Before returning to the narrow Gangsa Track, I'd chewed a bag of GU Chomps that tasted like condensed jelly. And it had to be done when nearing the water points because they stuck easily to the teeth and some water was needed to wash them off. Reloaded, I entered the shady track again. Along the way, I met many real ultramarathoners (those doing the 100 km trail race) proceeding with their second loop. The faces showed that they were worn out, having run more than 65 kilometers since Friday night. I have utmost respect for this league of runners. And they'd motivated me to keep running.

How long more to go, bro?, asked a cyclist as we crossed paths along Gangsa Track. 15 kilometers, I replied. You're very near!, he said. His words were uplifting and I carried them with me at every incline, but in the end, they faded with my deteriorating stamina. Completing that 15 kilometers on trail is not as easy as running the last 15 kilometers of a city marathon. The paths are narrower with more undulations and the terrains can and will vary. A quick check on my pace showed that I was well within the race time limit, so I decided walk, up the inclines, for the first time in a race. Every step was mentally a pain because as much as I'd wanted to run, the body just wouldn't cooperate. So, I walked on and ran on every descend.

Exiting Gangsa Trail, I was now running in the less tiring Bukit Timah Nature Reserve of Section 4. With the roads now wider and flatter, my pace was also steadier. I caught up with bouncy again. That didn't last long though. It started with flatulence, which is always an indication that I'll soon be hit by runner's diarrhoea. Mobile toilets are placed far apart, so I decided to go for a toilet break at the next available booth to unload. If I am to compile a list of most frequently used words in a running post, diarrhoea is definitely up there, with toilet and bowels. Funny and embarassing, I know.

The sky turned grey as I entered Rifle Range Link. The wind was blowing strong and rain would fall eventually. I tried to run fast but the legs were getting heavier with every step. Earlier, my toes had hit a huge tree's roots and the pain didn't make the run any easier. With just a few kilometers away from the finish line, I just kept running, disregarding the snail pace that I was maintaining. Returning to Section 1, Lornie Trail, I overheard a runner informing his partner that the finish line was just 2 kilometers away. That perked me up. The blaring of music was also getting louder as I ran, so the finish line must be really, really close now.

Exiting the shades was such a relief. With the finish line in sight now, I removed my visor and was ready to pose for the camera. When I finally stopped running for the day, I wasn't thinking about the finisher's medal or how proud I felt completing my first ultramarathon. Instead, I recalled the trainining sessions in FRIM and how far I'd come since my starting my preparation after the River Jungle Marathon. And that made me really, really happy. There was a good buffet spread offered to all finishers but I just packed some home for later. Meeting an ex-colleague at the buffet table was a bonus and we spent some time catching up before promising to meet at another marathon.

The trails have given me a deeper appreciation towards running. I understand better the importance of good footwork, gait and breathing technique. I can tackle the hills more effectively by, as Martin Dugard described so appropriately in To Be A Runner, forcing me to lean into it, keeping my arms low to stay relaxed and my chin tilted up to increase oxygen flow. In short, trails made me a better runner. I don't know if I'll ever attempt a competitive trail run or an ultramarathon again but I will definitely revisit FRIM, for there are more trails to discover and I bet they are all exciting and fun.

Friday, December 21, 2012

River Jungle Marathon 2012

Breaking dawn at Semenyih Dam Reservoir


The run was to start in a few minutes. Chatting with some new friends did calm the nerves a little, but nothing could hide the fact that I came unprepared. I was, at the same time, thankful that I made it to this run, having just returned from China for work. Throughout the trip, I was insistent that I wouldn’t extend my stay there and miss the run. You may say that I was being unprofessional. Well, in the end, the job got done and there I was, standing at SJK (C) Choon Hwa with my hydration bag strapped to my back, ready to experience this boutique marathon run that promised a scenic route around the town of Hulu Langat. The hydration bag wasn’t meant for the River Jungle Marathon but I thought it would be a good study of how my shoulders would react to having constantly loaded with 1.5 liters of water, plus a few energy bars. This exercise was part of the preparation for my next run – the North Face 100 Singapore, a self-sufficient 50 km trail run.

There were no rankings or prizes for this run. Runners were just advised to complete the run within a certain timeframe. So I started slow, keeping a constant pace that didn’t leave me begging for air. Despite the name of the run, runners were running on tarmac, along highways and narrow kampung roads. The highlight of this run was definitely the 300 meters ascend to the peak of Bukit Hantu (Ghost Hill) at the 17th kilometer, spanning 3 km, which a friend described as running up Genting Highlands. And it was really as difficult a climb as she had described.

I began the climb just as the day brightened. Given the altitude and forestry, the roads were cooling and mostly misty. Running through the mist was such a liberating experience that I couldn’t help spread my arms wide as I ran. Runners started walking instead of speeding to the peak. I decided to keep running despite my much slower pace. With every step, I reminded myself not to walk. If I can’t endure this, I will not survive the North Face challenge, I told myself.

Isn’t the view amazing?, asked a fellow runner when I overtook her during the tough climb. Go! Go! It’s just another 1 kilometer to the top!, she added. She must have been a regular RJM participant. That’s one of the countless good memories I had from participating in the RJM. A non-competitive marathon, this is a run for those who really appreciate the joys of long distance running. The organizers did an excellent job in making sure that runners have a good time by providing a beautiful route (especially along the Semenyih Dam Reservoir), sufficient water points, supportive volunteers (one even helped to splash iced water on my head!) and at the 37th kilometer, the mother of all surprises – chilled coconut water! As the sun burnt and tiredness grew, every gulp of the coconut water was blissful.

Rehydrated (but slightly brain-frozen), I pushed on. The final few kilometers, passing through the kampungs, were disastrous. Runner’s diarrhoea had hit again. I’d feared but somehow expected this, given the lack of training during my business trip, causing the bowels to be reactivated during this longer distance run. I wished for some distractions but the roads were just too plain and quiet in the morning. There were times when I was tempted to unload behind the bushes.

The final kilometer was the worst. I was on the verge of, well, explosion. Still, I decided not to walk, but stood still for a good minute, clenching my cold fists while watching a few runners passed me by. I took a few deep breaths and waited for the bowels to relax before starting to run again. Turning to the main road and passing by a morning market, the finish point was now in sight. The bowels started to misbehave again, but this time, instead of stopping, I ran faster and even managed to flash a smile for the camera. Receiving my finisher’s medal and T-shirt, I dashed into the mobile toilet.

Given my lack of training, the undulating terrains, diarrhoea and the dreadful Bukit Hantu climb, I managed to finish my run within the targeted timing. However, at the end of this run, I was still unsure if I was ready for TNF100. But running is an honest sport. To improve is to increase one’s mileage, be it on the road or trail. Instead of getting worried, I knew I had to run longer trails and intensify my core muscles training, in hope that by 13 October, I’d be ready for TNF100 Singapore – my first 50 km run, or what some termed – ultramarathon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Seremban Half Marathon 2012

There was one more race to go before taking a break in August (the fasting month), when not a major race would be held...except in Singapore. Runners were spoilt for choice in selecting their pre-fasting/resting run in July – the Ipoh International , Feel Good, Men’s Health and Orange runs. And many more across the causeway.

I chose to run the Seremban Half Marathon in July because this is a race that I’ve known for a very long time. Since I started reading the Star, I think. That must have been more than 2 decades ago. Of course, in those inactive years, I’d not shown any interest or perhaps, hadn’t plucked enough courage to sign up for this, or any other run. The SHM was not a redemption run, but it sure felt good standing at the start line that morning on 15 July, albeit 20 years too late.

Running a half (that’s 21 km) after a series of full marathons was comforting, but I had no less respect for the distance this race carried. Training continued right after the Kuala Lumpur Marathon 2012, but I’d decreased my mileage by 30% to suit the race. The body needed some serious recovery as well. I certainly didn’t want to risk busting another ITB or knee.

Besides the run, I thought it would also be fun to rediscover Seremban’s famous eats while I’m in town. That’d make a nice post-race treat too. Honestly, I was more excited studying the route to the Pasar Besar Seremban (for the infamous beef noodles and Hakka mee) than the race course.

The scattering of July runs saw a smaller turnout, especially in the half-marathon category, I overheard while waiting for the Yang Amat Mulia Tunku Naquiyuddin to flag us off. But it was this intimate scale, coupled with the rare pleasure of roaming the quiet town at the break of dawn, that appealed to me. I was looking forward to a fun and fast (I promised to try) race.

There was no special preparation for this race. All I’d planned for was a good pre-race dinner of rice with a few light dishes. I had that at Restoran TC Keong. Serving some good old Chinese stir-fries (loved the steamed pork ribs with dace) in a neighbourhood away from town, I think we’ve found a restaurant locals throng. For supper, I had half a waffle with butter and syrup from the drive-through A&W (a Seremban landmark), and saved the other half for breakfast on race day.

Except for the unending, intermediate climbs around Forest Heights and passing by an old coffee shop named See Fatt, I have not much recollection of the race. I just ran, happy. At some points, especially after the 10th km, I glided at a new fast speed. I was definitely having a good time; the endorphin was at work. It was only during the final few kilometers, when we merged with the massive waves of walking schoolchildren, where we slowed a little to zigzag through this obstacle, that the calves began to pain.

As I entered the final kilometer of this race, a few thoughts ran through my mind; of completing the last race of the season in one piece, how I would spend my resting month, the anticipation of holding the limited edition of finisher’s medal from Royal Selangor Pewter, the gruesome races in the second half of the year and, of course, the awaiting delicious Seremban food. Soon, the sun was up in full force, blessing us with a Vitamin D shower. I was lucky to have crossed the finish line, celebrating a new sub 2-hour personal record, before it started to burn.

Soon after the race, the Pasar Besar Seremban foodcourt was filled with runners, most of them wearing finishers’ tees, especially the 2012 edition of the KL marathon. This busy pasar was quite the obvious choice for runners to refuel after their run because here’s where some of the most famous Seremban hawker stalls are located. While waiting for the legendary beef noodles to be served, I had, firstly, a plate of cuttlefish beehoon that came piping hot and full of wok hei. It was very satisfying. Next, still waiting for the beef noodles, I had Tow Kee’s Hakka mee, which despite its visual modesty, was a toss of well-proportioned egg noodles, minced pork and lard that resulted in a wonderful taste that I believe, can only be achieved through years of experience. The beef noodles finally came...30 minutes later. The gravy wasn’t as sweet and sticky as I’d remembered almost a decade ago. Bordering starchy and almost bland, it was a rather letdown.

A trip to Seremban is never complete (I was being totally touristy, thanks to the runner’s high that lasted the whole afternoon) without packing a few siew bao home. By the way, what’s the English translation for siew bao? Burnt bun? Or baked bun? We bought ours at the very busy Asia Confectionary. And if we had just one more inch-cube of space left in our stomachs, we would have had a bowl of mouse-tail noodle (also more decently called silver needle noodle) at the nearby Yi Poh before leaving this quaint town.

I must confess that it took me 2 months to complete this blog post, not because I had to think hard about its content or direction, but I was just unfocused. When I did get to draft the last few paragraphs about 2 weeks ago, I asked myself if I’d lost interest in blogging and began to re-read some of my other posts (even the earlier, cringing ones). I tried to find, or remember, the passion for blogging that I might have lost before deciding its demise, for good.

Or has it evolved instead?

Well, evolved is a more appropriate word, I think. Evolved applies to the topics that I blog about. Evidently, these days, it’s about running. Is this just a phase? I don’t know. But the journey’s been rewarding so far. More importantly, evolved means I’ve been posting one-liners on Facebook and Instagram, which to me, are similar forms of blogging, only more convenient, instantaneous (pun intended), fun but can also be too frequent, frivolous and forgettable. Here, however, the expression of ideas and thoughts are more expansive, detailed, and therefore, gratifying. Blog posts are to be kept and read over and over again. So, yes, despite the evolution and the pace that it’s going, this blog is staying. And that’s a pretty fine message to celebrate Black Tie White Lie’s 5th anniversary this month.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur Marathon 2012

Will there ever be a perfect marathon race? Hold on. Perhaps I should ask, what IS a perfect marathon race? Prior to SCKLM2012, it’d be, for me, a race that is injury-free, challenging but ends with a new personal best time. It does seem easily achievable but many runners will disagree, I’m sure. In pounding the road for a long distance of 42.195 km, at one point (or more), either the body or mind will or attempts to give up. And usually, it doesn’t take long before the synergy is lost completely, causing the other component to surrender as well. So, perfection is tough. That’s life.

But what if I did run that perfect race? On 24 June 2012, I’d completed the Kuala Lumpur Marathon course of undulating terrains injury-free and even secured my first ever sub 4-hour finish. There’s no denying that I felt triumphant crossing the finish line. To have run that perfect race in my hometown and meeting familiar faces of friends and relatives at the race site made it an even more memorable race. I should be very happy. Yet, I couldn’t shake off a sense of disappointment that felt like a splinter stuck inside the skin.

I thought I’d planned well for this race by consistently keeping a high weekly mileage on the road and even managed to swim a few times. I’m not really interested in swimming, but if cross-training helps to improve my run, then I should do it. More importantly, I’d maintained a light and healthy diet throughout the week. It wasn’t easy, especially on the evening before the race, when the family got together for a feast to celebrate the Rice Dumpling Festival. To avoid another bout of diarrhoea, I’d stuck to steamed potatoes, rice and some lean meat. I managed to sleep for a few hours before waking up at 2 am, feeling rather fresh, to prepare for the race, which would start at 4.30 am at the iconic Dataran Merdeka.

At the race site, I managed to find and greet a few people; including Lyrical Lemongrass and Bald Eagle, Karen and Logan, Jun and Cousin Harry. These meetings of familiar faces added to the joy and comfort of knowing that I was back home again.

I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur. At 18 years old, I moved to Johor to pursue my tertiary education and began my worklife in Singapore 4 years later. But I do return to KL whenever I can, simply because this is home.

Like the other Standard Chartered-sponsored marathons joined previously, the theme for this race was Run For A Reason. My reason was nowhere noble, just nostalgic. As I signed up for this race in February, I’d already imagined what a fantastic experience it’d be, running along the familiar streets, passing shops and restaurants that I’d frequented in the last 30 over years. I was especially excited about the Jalan Ipoh – Jalan Kuching stretch, from the 28th to 35th km. During those childhood days, this was the route I’d take to go to school, the city center, for suppers…well, everywhere!

Studying the marathon course had me thinking of how KL has transformed in the last 30 years. The skyline, though incomparable with New York or Tokyo, is something that all KLites should be proud of. We’ve certainly progressed. Inevitably, the cost of living has also increased, but to what extent? It’s baffling to learn, through friends, of the daily spending on necessities of an average KLite working in the city against his monthly income. Some described it as barely surviving. Well, it is understandable, and acceptable, if a higher cost of living translates to a better quality of life. But before getting into a deeper discussion on this matter, let’s just, for now, focus on cutting down the ridiculous, increasing number of crimes in KL.

At the start line, some runners were happily chatting away while most kept quiet, seemingly focused on the task ahead. Strangely enough, my eyes were fixed on the clock placed high at the tower of the brightly lit, historic Sultan Abdul Samad Building, instead of my own watch. The excitement grew with each tick. We would be flagged off in a few minutes. A decent finishing time would be fine, I told myself. I wanted nothing more than to enjoy this race down memory lane.

Standing freely at the Dataran that morning, I recalled an article on the electoral reforms rally in April, in which the city hall rejected the assembly to be held at Dataran Merdeka, stating events allowed to be held at Dataran Merdeka are only those of a national level. The city mayor clarified that national sporting events are allowed. Placing sports above a national interest and the future of the country is something that concerns me, really. Where are we heading?

It was still dark when the race began. My body was just warming up, so it took more energy and some pain to move those cold muscles and set the right momentum for the rest of the distance. My accelerations were random and my breathing was heavy. At Jalan Travers, near the LeMeridien, I saw the large green balloon about 100 m ahead of me. It means that I was nearing the 4-hour pacer. Without hesitation, I chased after him. Soon, we turned into Brickfields, descending the first major slope. Usually, I’d slow down, to avoid damaging my knees and shins, but in wanting to keep up with the pacer, I sped. My pace, at that point, was still fluctuating. It was just 3.5 km into the race and I’d begun to feel the stretch. I was not running like my usual self. I’d lost control.

The pacer’s name is Kenny Wong, as I found out after the race. He was running at a very fast pace and trailing him was not easy. Somehow, I had to overtake him. Well, for at least 500 m, to secure a sub 4-hour finish. My breathing remained irregular and a side-stitch revisited. My left shoulder felt sore too. I thought of my old car being driven at 120 km/h and shaking violently. That’s how my body was reacting now. I’d never run this fast in my life. My sole focus was to overtake that floating green balloon tied to Kenny Wong.

At the Lebuhraya Kuala Lumpur water station along the old airport runway, I overtook Kenny Wong while he stopped to rehydrate. And we would overtake one another until the 26th km, passing the Istana Negara, Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, Jalan Loke Yew, Bukit Bintang, the Petronas Twin Towers, Institut Jantung Negara and the National Library. In this (which now seemed to be) a race against the pacer, I realized that I could actually push much harder than I knew. At the risk of destructing my body, of course.

One of the most enlightening, and torturous, moments of the race took place at the Pavilion row along Jalan Bukit Bintang. I’d never realized that this part of the road was so damn steep! And that’s what makes running so interesting; it gives the everyday driver a whole new (and better) perspective of the same road. Time lost in climbing that incline was compensated by speeding down the slope connecting Jalan Raja Chulan to Jalan P. Ramlee. Years ago, at this very same spot, and perhaps same time as well, I was just leaving for home after a loud nightout at the clubs.

At the 27th km, turning into Jalan Ipoh from Jalan Tun Razak, I began to lose sight of the green balloon. But I didn’t give up. Not when I had only 15 km more to go.

Jalan Ipoh wasn’t as easy to run as I’d hoped for. First, there was that invigorating smell of bak kut teh from Ban Lee, at the time when my fuel tank was almost empty. Then, there were the many, though minor, elevations to tackle. My focus was still on the invisible green balloon. Still running at my fastest pace for a marathon, my quads felt like they were ready to give up very soon. I was prepared to cramp.

Leaving Jalan Ipoh, we made our way to the busy Jalan Kuching. Passing each flyover, I was grateful that I didn’t have to climb them. Linking Jalan Kuching to the Segambut roundabout was a steep incline that, to me, was just an introduction to the biggest, final obstacle of the SCKLM – the double hills of Bukit Tunku. I was glad that I’d done some research on the route prior to the race. Some energy has to be reserved for the double hills. I would have, if I hadn’t crazily trailed the green balloon. At the 36th km, I might have hit the wall. And what a great time to do so, at the most difficult part of the route! I composed myself and ran steadily towards Bukit Tunku.

At the start of the climb, I looked at my watch and did a quick mental calculation of my estimated finish time and average pace. With the green balloon out of sight, I’d still be able to finish the race in less than 4 hours, if I’d kept the pace at 6 mins/km. That’s achievable! So I re-strategized. Instead of wasting my entire, limited energy climbing the hills, I should run relatively slower but consistently, and accelerate when descending the hills, all the way to the finish line at Dataran Merdeka. I just had to keep my pace below 6 mins/km.

The double hills climb left me nearly breathless, while the quads and calves were stretched to the limits. Thank goodness for the generous Salonpas volunteers who treated my legs with their pain-relieving spray. Descending the hills, I couldn’t accelerate as planned. By now, my energy level had depleted completely, almost. I maintained my climbing pace, but kept in mind that it had to be within 6 mins/km.

Running on flat surface again at the 40th km was sheer bliss. Here, merging with the shorter distance runners, despite the congestion, brought much needed livelihood to the rather lonely full marathon course. My shoulder still felt sore. The feet were soaking wet, most probably blistered as well, while the legs begged to rest. But I was very, very close to my first sub 4 hour finish. So what’s another 2 km, right? I imagined this being the last 2 km of my usual, easy night runs and the joy of being closer to returning home to a relaxing cold shower and a sound sleep. 10 minutes of this tranquilizing thought later, and after running for 3 hours and 53 minutes that breezy Sunday morning, I crossed the finish line at Dataran Merdeka.

At the rest tent, I met up with Lyrical Lemongrass, who congratulated me on my new personal record. I remember telling her that I could now die a happy man. Later, I was joined by LeCoupleToy. ToyBoy was there to support his friends and ToyGirl, who ran the 10k race. I left the group to use the toilet. I had a major purge but it came at the most welcoming time – at the end of the race. What a relief!

I left the square and made my way to the Masjid Jamek LRT station. Hunger hasn’t gotten to me yet, which was a surprise. Alone, in the train, I began to recall my SCKLM2012 experience. There were many memorable moments during the race; the cooling rain at the 6th km, passing the uncle at the Sri Dhandayuthapani school bus-stop who continuously cheered on the runners, the adorable little girls and their dad holding up cards of encouraging words like Run like you stole something!! and Chuck Norris never ran a marathon at the Segambut roundabout (or Jalan Ipoh, I forgot) and trailing Kenny Wong, the 4-hour pacer, who spurred me on in the first half of the marathon. These moments, though precious, were not what I’d expected from this race. An initially planned nostalgic relaxed run around my hometown had turned into a draining sub 4-hour run mission. Instead of running at my usual pace along the familiar roads, reminiscing and celebrating the parts of town that had shaped me, I forced myself to accelerate, to catch up with the green balloon and was oblivious to my surrounding. In short, I didn’t enjoy my run.

In a post-mortem on SCKLM2012 with a running friend, I expressed my disappointment in failing to enjoy the race as planned, despite having achieved the previously elusive sub 4-hour marathon finish. For my friend, the result outweighs any form of enjoyment. A race, to her, is a time to run faster and improve the previous personal best record. I do agree, partially. Towards the end of our discussion, I concluded that perhaps a perfect marathon race is not that easily defined. It’s not as simple as running an injury-free race and crossing the finish line with a new record, but to find that equilibrium point where result meets pleasure. How can a runner push himself to the brink of extreme pain and still enjoy the process? Perhaps that point is a vacuum, an empty space. A runner’s nirvana. Or simply, when the body produces enough endorphin to suppress pain and simultaneously create an immense sense of happiness – runner’s high. So, SCKLM2012 was not my perfect marathon race. Will I be able to attain that equilibrium point? I don’t know. But I’m hopeful. Maybe, the answer is just another marathon away.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sundown Marathon 2012

What long-distance running is truly about is measuring ourselves against a challenge that exceeds simple arithmetic....It is about knowing how to cope when the world turns against you. Robin Harvie, Why We Run - A Story Of Obsession.

For the longest time, I’d imagined running in the rain being an exhilarating, more liberating experience. And it’s true, as I’d found out during my last pre-race run. A light shower turned torrential rain had me completing the last few km in thoroughly soaked shoes, accompanied by a concert of roaring thunder. I admit that it was, to a certain extent, an irresponsible and dangerous decision to proceed with my run but it was also undeniably fun; reminiscence of a carefree primary school kid playing in the rain.

The next few days were spent resting, in preparation for my first midnight marathon. Resting, to me, was also an opportunity to stuff myself silly with food, in the name of carbo-loading. I’d been looking forward to this. From indulging in a seminar’s buffet (with free flow of cod fish!) to munching large bags of chips (I needed sodium, I really did!) to carelessly choosing fried noodles for lunch to having mee rebus for supper, it was as if I’d forgotten how dreadful it was to have runner’s diarrhoea.

This was my fifth marathon. By now, I’d learnt to pack my race bag systematically and managed to fully utilise the few hours prior to the race; by taking a short nap and stretching. When I left my house for the race site that night, I felt good. I wasn’t aiming for a sub 4-hour finish given the humidity and odd running hours, but I thought I’d trained enough to complete a 42.195 km run, injury-free. I could have been more excited had the organizer kept its promise to include the west coast highway route.

There were, of course, advantages to the changed route. Looping at the convenient East Coast Park meant that the elevations were minimal, which offers runners an opportunity to achieve a new personal record. Running along the ECP was also undoubtedly safer than on the highway.

I was expecting chaos at the start line as both full and half marathoners were scheduled to begin their respective races on the same road AND at the same time. I’d positioned myself nearest to the start line, to avoid the hassle of untangling myself from the massive middle pack.

And so, my run started off just fine. For the first 10 km, I clocked a sub 1-hour spilt. The supportive bar-goers and cooling air at the Marina Bay Sands made this an absolutely enjoyable stretch. By the 16th km, when the full marathoners headed for the ECP via the newly opened Gardens By The Bay, I still felt fresh although it was already 2 am.

By the 20th km, I was tailing the 4-hour pacers comfortably, hoping to overtake them in the end. That would have been ideal. But sadly, it did not materialise. Before reaching the Bedok Jetty, I was hit by bouts of gastrointestinal discomfort. It was disturbing and frightening at the same time. I had to fix this before it, literally, blows out of proportion. I was also disappointed with myself, for being so gluttonous in the past few days. That must have, somehow, contributed to this disaster. I entered the nearest toilet across the road to unload while watching the pacers sped off.

By the second toilet break (which, like the first one, failed to unload anything), I’d lost sight of the 4-hour pacers completely. Frustration and the continuous discomfort made the run even harder now. The turning point came when I’d reached the 25th km mark, where power gels were distributed. Interestingly, after consuming just one pack, the bowels reacted violently and I knew this time, I would be able to flush it out. And I did.

Exiting the toilet and returning to the marathon course, I felt lighter (obviously) and somehow reenergized. I’d regained the enthusiasm to run this race. I turned on my MP3 player and quickened my pace. There was no room for remorse right now. I should enjoy this - the second half of my first Sundown marathon.

As I ran, strong winds blew from all directions. Branches shook. Leaves started to fall. It didn’t take long before the ECP was hit by a deluge of rain. For me, it started when I reached the 30th km mark. This will not stop me, I’d decided, and assured myself that it’d be more fun than my last pre-race run. Some had resorted to seeking shelter in the nearby tents while volunteers and traffic marshals braved the rain to provide support for the runners. It was inspiring. Thank you!

Exiting ECP and into a few construction sites, the water level was, at the lower points, ankle-deep. There were much fewer runners on the road now. I wasn’t worried about the downpour or fatigued by the additional weight on my shoes and clothes. Rather, I was enjoying the cool it brought, and that I didn’t have to stop at water stations to rehydrate anymore. Water from the sky was aplenty that morning. Titanium by David Guetta (featuring Sia) was playing repetitively on my MP3 player. Even now, when I hear that song, I am reminded of the rainy Sundown 2012. You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium.....

The finish line was near when runners returned to the Nicoll Highway from the new Sports Hub. The rain had reduced now. Crossing the finish line a few minutes later, this time, I’d remembered to flash a smile for the camera.

Many finishers, still wet, stayed in the large tent to avoid the incessant rain. The food stalls inside the tent were doing brisk business. I overheard some stalls ran out of stock! There was also a free massage session for all full marathoners, which was great. I took this opportunity to relieve my recovering ITBs.

The rain finally stopped around 6 am. I didn’t head home right away. Instead, I dropped by the neighbourhood wet market for a hearty bowl of mee siam and some fried beehoon. A few hours ago, the people around me were runners, huffing and puffing their way to the finish line in the rain. Here, families were enjoying their Sunday breakfast at a more relaxed pace. Strangely, I’d found peace amidst the clatters.

At home, I managed to sleep for a good few hours. Later, waking up to a cool, grey late afternoon, I went grocery shopping for the new week ahead, wearing my new Sundown 2012 finisher's tee shirt. As much vanity there was in wearing the smart-looking tee shirt, I was, honestly, also celebrating the joy of having endured what some runners claimed as one of the toughest Sundown marathons ever, given the heavy rain. For me, toughest includes dealing with irritable bowels. Lesson learnt (yet again) - carbo-load, not overeat.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Orbit and Supermoon

The Orbit

It was one of those days when I wanted to lunch alone, in my cubicle. That lasted 15 minutes, at most. With ample time to spare, and that the flu virus was spreading like wildfire in the office, I decided to catch some fresh air outside the building. As the sky cleared that afternoon, I took the opportunity to walk around the compound and later, circled the outer perimeter of the industrial cluster. I must say that I enjoyed this healthier way of spending my lunch hour. It was a good change from the usual routine of waiting for the bus to reach the food court, queuing to order my usual ban mian and spending extra money on coffee or tea that comes with conversations that do not interest me much.

As I walked on, patches of sweat appearing fast on my shirt, I realized how similar my life is with this circling, repetitive motion. It is dictated by commitments that keep us orbiting the same surrounding, day after day. I grinned when I thought of how this pattern also revealed itself in my usual physical activites - running loops and swimming laps! This is not meant to be a grouse but rather, a gentle reminder of how rewarding will all these commitments be in the end.


Supermoon

Did you manage to catch the supermoon yesterday?, asked a colleague. I didn’t know what it was until I did a quick search on the internet. Wikipedia explained this phenomenon as the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the moon's disk as seen from Earth. Oh, it seems like I’d missed the fun.

Approximately twenty four hours after the moon moved its closest to Singapore, I met an old friend for dinner. The timing was quite unfortunate, really, as I was required to attend a few late night meetings that week. But that particular night, I’d somehow managed to, tactfully, avoid the meeting. Besides enjoying a serious amount of ramen (3 whole bowls on the last count), I had a good time catching up with her. It’s been a long while since we sat down together for a meal. That few hours spent was my supermoon.


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Towards the end of my walk that afternoon, I still couldn’t answer the question about rewards that I’d reminded myself earlier. But recalling the supermoon, I guess despite life orbiting the constant surrounding, it is a time like this, when the extraordinary appears, that makes the journey more worthwhile.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Energizer Night Race 2012 @ Sepang International Circuit

Pre-race

A friend with an impressive race record confessed that she’s not a good runner. She explained that if she was, then she wouldn’t have suffered countless, prolonged injuries throughout her running life. If I interpret that correctly, it’s to mean that a good runner should not only be concerned about speed, but he or she must also know how to avoid drills that damage the body. I can’t agree more, but it’s always easier said than done. And do I consider myself a good runner? Definitely not.

February started well with an enjoyable run at the Hong Kong Marathon. I took a week off running after the race, to relax and catch up with friends. When I resumed training for the Brooks Half Marathon in early March, I was confident that I wouldn’t need any special preparation. It was, afterall, only 21 km. My first post-marathon run was the hardest, even though it was done at a leisurely pace and short distance. This is one of the reasons why I try not to rest for too long, because to regain the momentum is hard, naturally. And it was during this run that I’d felt pain on my right knee. A few more runs later, coupled with a change of shoes, the pain had miraculously faded. It was now mid February. BHM was a few weeks away.

Unfortunately, it was also during this time that I’d been down with a bad flu, causing me to stop running for another week, which was also my birthday week. I relied on paracetamol and lots of garlic for containment but left it to my immune system to fight the flu war (I prefer not to take any form of antibiotic unless necessary). When I did almost recover, I decided to start training again. On my first run, as I climbed my favourite slope along the usual route, I felt a sharp pain on the left knee. It was so bad that I had to stop running to stretch and jerk my leg, which didn’t help much. As I tried to continue, the pain would return, as if to tell me to STOP running. There were times when, in pain, I couldn’t even move my leg. And I would have to limp-run back home.

It was now a week before BHM. The knee would only start to annoy after the 10th km. Increasing the distance to 15 km was deadly. So, my earlier statement of only 21 km now seemed unmanageable. Without a proper diagnosis, I wasn’t able start rehabilitating. And I didn’t want to seek professional help, simply because it’s expensive. So I tried everything I knew to minimize the pain; to get me through BHM at least.

Nothing worked. What frustrated me more was that I couldn’t even locate the painful spot. It seemed to be all around the knee. I finally decided to pay a visit to the nearby clinic. The GP that attended to me had only one advice – rest and stop running. She then explained the detriments of the sport, which I thought was inappropriate, especially to a runner. I was given some anti-inflammatory pills that I’d started taking two days before the race. I did complete my first BHM, four minutes short of a new personal record. But not without pain, of course. This time, it started at the 15th km and dragged all the way to the finish line on the track of the Bukit Jalil National Stadium. After the run, it was difficult for me to walk straight. Climbing stairs was a nightmare. BHM came and gone in a blur, but I still remember the happy moments of meeting old and new running friends. There, I was told that pain in the knee is a serious issue and that to ensure a long running life, I should seek opinion of a specialist and keep in mind the possibility of conducting an MRI scan.

The meeting with a specialist went well. He was a runner, so that made me more comfortable. I was diagnosed with ITBS, or Iliotibial Band Syndrome. It’s a common injury among runners and apparently, a stretching routine will fix the problem…if followed strictly, of course. It’s not a permanent injury and no MRI scan was needed. But recovery will be slow. When I informed the doctor that my next marathon was in a month’s time, he suggested that I should start a series of laser treatments to fasten the healing process (well, to minimize the pain, at least). It’s nothing serious, really. A probe is used to beam laser light into the knee, providing analgesia and repairing tissues simultaneously. A few sessions later, I began to train again, with a knee wrap. At the same time, I’d also started to cross-train, alternating between running and swimming.

By race week, I’d managed to do two pain-free 20 km runs, in between shorter distances. At the end of my last laser session, the therapist asked about my next run. I told her that it would take place in a few days. She looked surprised, and asked of the distance that the race would cover. 42 km, I replied. By now, I couldn’t tell if she was surprised or worried. Well, good luck, she said. Yes, luck. I really needed that.

Race night

Even before the start of the race, the full-marathoners were already treated like champions. We were given special parking lots just in front of the Sepang International Circuit’s main entrance. The race was to start at 8 pm, but I’d reached at 6 pm, to avoid traffic congestion and do a proper, thorough warm-up. I can’t remember how many ITB stretches that I’d done that evening!

The starting point was on the F1 track. In front of us hung the start light, now in red. When it turns green and the gun is fired, we’ll begin our night Run For A Brighter World (that’s the theme for this race). This time, I wasn’t aiming for a groundbreaking finish, just a pain-free run.

Running along the track wasn’t as easy as I thought. There were moderate inclines, but proved to be a good warm-up before we headed for the paddock access and continued covering 5 loops (of about 6 km each) on the main road outside the circuit. At certain areas, it was completely dark, if not for the organizer who had thoughtfully placed a few human torchlights (cum supporters) to guide the runners. To be fair, we were given headlights to wear but I’m sure many, like myself, wouldn’t like to have extra weight on our heads when we run a full marathon. But out of respect for the organizer, I decided bring along the headlight, but had it strapped to my arm instead.

The undulating terrain was a challenge, but because we ran in loops, we were able to strategize better after each round. Exiting the well-lit Jalan Pekeliling, we’d entered a dark, quiet palm oil estate and here’s where the elevations got more radical. As there were only 500 full-marathoners, at times, I’d run alone for a good 200 to 300 m. At that point, I understood why some past participants described this stretch as being eery. It didn’t bother me much though. I was more afraid of an antagonizing knee, for sure.

My watch died on me by the second loop. I ran without knowing my actual pace. Like many would say, more than anything else, it’s important to run with one’s heart. And so, I did...I think.

By the fourth loop (approximately 28 km on), my calves sored and I could feel my energy depleting fast. I refueled with powergel provided by the sponsor, right before reaching the checkpoint. The climb towards the checkpoint was the hardest, given the steepest (I think) incline. Many would walk, instead of running up to the checkpoint. What motivated me to push harder here was the thought that I’d completed another loop and was moving closer towards the finish line. Despite the relatively small scale, this was the most technologically advanced race that I’d ever participated in. At the checkpoint, a large screen used as a reminder would display my name and the number of loops that I’d completed, when I stepped on the electronic mat. A glance at the screen showed that I was at least one loop ahead of the other runners who stepped on the mat at the same time! To see that I’d so far, outrun many other runners was, unashamedly, a morale booster.

Re-entering the paddock meant that I’d only 5 km more to go. As always, the nearer I got to the finish line, the more torturous the run became. By now, it was solely a mental challenge. However, I think I’d somehow accustomed to this phase. Instead of exerting more pressure onto the tired body and mind, I tried to remain calm and consistent. The MP3 player had Miike Snow’s Silvia and Cult Logic on heavy rotation now, which was awesome...and timely. At the main entrance and nearby carpark, the resting 5 and 15.5 km runners, as well as traffic marshals, cheered us on. What a fantastic feeling. It was also during this time that the sole of my left feet felt warm, as if some blood vessels had just burst. But I kept going.

3 km to the finish line now. I’d entered the F1 track again. Surprisingly, with the limited reserve in me, I was able to overtake another runner and our distance grew with each stride. There was only one more runner ahead, separating me and the finish line. I’d hoped that he would not be the 50th runner to complete the marathon. You see, the organizer had promised a special T-shirt for the first 50 full-marathon finishers. From the beginning, I knew that it would be almost impossible to achieve that kind of ranking, but...oh well, I can be overambitious at times.

I crossed the finish line to the cheers of the other runners, emcee and volunteers. To have stayed for so long (it was already 5 minutes past midnight) and for keeping the spirit high, I have utmost respect for each of them. After the 42.195 km ordeal, I’d stopped running for good that night. I was congratulated by the staff, had the finisher’s medal hung on my neck and was given a goodie bag. NOW, the knee felt more painful as the endorphin thinned. And there’s the usual fatigue on every part of the leg that had me dragging myself to the car park later.

Sitting at the pit stop to catch my breath while still sweating profusely, I began to dig into the goodie bag. I wasn’t hungry, so I’d left the snack pack for later. I was more interested in the finisher T-shirt; to see if there’s a slightest chance that I might be able to own that special edition. And I began to tear the plastic bag.

The back of my T-shirt did have a TOP 50 print (I’d found out later that I was ranked 16th in my category). It was a surreal moment. I was astonished. And doubtful at the same time. But I was mostly happy. Nevermind that I’d missed a new personal record by 5 minutes or that the speakers had to blare a Miami Sound Machine song that moment or that the wounded ITB needed some stretching that very instance. This was perhaps a once in a lifetime experience and I wanted to savour every second of it. I heaved and then, started to laugh out loud.

Post race

Reality hit hard the next morning. I woke up to very painful calves, soles and left knee. The visit to my usual masseur left me relaxed, but still broken. I’d planned to rest for a whole week.

For my ITBS, the road to recovery will be long, for I’ve unknowingly done much damage to it in the past year. But as I’m typing this, I’ve begun to run again. My mileage is reduced; in line with my recovery plan. With each run, the ITB still stings but I insist on avoiding the knee wrap. I can’t and shouldn’t depend on it forever. I’m also more aware of injuries now. I’ll stretch before, during and after a run, regardless of the distance. Also, I’m cross-training to strengthen other parts of my body. Diet-wise, I’m taking in more protein to help build muscles.

I didn’t prepare any special meal for the ENR2012, except for the above, which I’d assembled while clearing the fridge on a Wednesday morning – Somen (carbohydrate) cooked in salt water (minerals), served with freshly cracked black pepper, truffle oil (good fat) and eggs (protein).

On a recent visit to the library, I’d found John “The Penguin” Bingham’s acclaimed An Accidental Athlete and decided to give it a read. Towards the end of this biography, he wrote Running has taught me, and continues to teach me, that there is joy in accepting the fact that I am fully human. Reading this, I couldn’t help but kept nodding in agreement, smilingly.

Through running, I’d begun to understand how the human body works, though often in a hard and perhaps unnecessary way. You’ll be surprised to know that sometimes, discovering a suitable stretching method to reduce pain is just as satisfying as finishing a marathon. For me, it’s another one of life’s little mysteries solved.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Forbidden City

The Last Emperor Theme by David Byrne played in my mind as I walked into the Forbidden City for the very first time. So affective was the composition that I’d almost descended the stairs of the Gate of Supreme Harmony to its rhythm.

The city, or palace, was built during the Ming dynasty, centuries before the adjacent Tiananmen Square materialized. A huge portrait of Chairman Mao hangs high at the south entrance, or the Heavenly Peace Gate, overlooking the square.

In the inner city, it’s a step back into imperial China, more specifically, the Ming and Qing dynasties. The opulent, now unoccupied halls and rooms leave a lot to the imagination. Distancing myself from the boisterous tourists, I was left pensive; thinking of the intricate lives lived behind these protective yet restraining walls.

At the age of eight, The Last Emperor wasn’t of any interest to me. Though award-winning, I couldn’t sit through the whole movie. Now, with better understanding of its colourful past, I think I can...with much enthusiasm.