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.