Friday, May 4, 2012

Energizer Night Race 2012 @ Sepang International Circuit


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.