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.