It was my tenth time covering a gruelling 42.195km run-walk-trot-sprint on our infamously sunny-humid-moody-weathered island last Sunday. Not a big deal, considering the amount of interest, time and effort vested over the past decade and counting. Interest – all the time, that led me to running overseas before the run-cation hype peaked. Time and effort – can be better and better planned most times, the lack of which resulted in my internal and eternal fear-uncertainty-fury that I had before and during the run.
I thought it will be apt for me to list down ten things that I tried for the first time on a run (or on the run?) in celebration of this mini milestone of mine. Interestingly, a list of things that I’d not done before while running, not to mention a marathon. Most were checked-off past the half-way mark, after a point that I may had given up, or some might say, hit the wall. I knew I had to and I will complete the run, somehow, and somehow along the way, I chose to do the things that I’d not done before (cranky stubbornness at play).
Some, I had witnessed others done before and felt puzzled while doubting their “seriousness” of running. Who am I to judge anyway? We are not elites battling for the prize money, so each of us run our own race our own way, with own target if any. It does help, running alongside so many strangers, all heading the same way under one dark blanket sky (sans light pollution, wishfully) till dawn breaks, until the sun eventually shines down mercilessly on all of us.
Perhaps this list was part of an intuitive plan to distract my protesting physical self. Now that the run was over, I’ll say this was a plan that worked.
one: I started off with half-marathoners and marathoners.
Can you imagine 9,578 half-marathoners and 9,390 marathoners lining the streets of Orchard Road on 3 December 2017 from 04:00 or earlier? I was one of those 18,968 runners, waiting to be flagged off by the second wave at 04:40.
When the online race guide was released 3 weeks ago, I was skeptical to learn that full marathoners will start flagging off at 04:30 and half-marathoners at 04:35, just 5 minutes apart, all at the same spot. It wasn’t a small scale event, with many thousands of runners in for it. I met an old-time runner friend 2 weeks ago and as we ran-chat through our 8km leisure jog, she shared that in last year’s edition she was flagged off amidst half-marathoners and marathoners whom she would not know which category the person next to her is in unless she bothered peeking at the bib colour. The flag-off was smooth, she recalled and said. That conversation peeled off some of my skepticism. The half-marathon used to be flagged off separately near Sentosa, with the route winding through Universal Studios Singapore. No longer so since last year, but I missed the action as I was in the 10km event instead.
And when it was my turn to turn up at Orchard Road on the first Sunday of December to check out the Christmas lightings while the sky is still dark (although in the morning), and when I tried stationary high jumping twice to see how far we are from the actual start line but all I could see were the endless (in line with this year’s Christmas theme: Endless Wonder) rows and columns of the heads of other runners facing the front, when our National Anthem was aired out to my surprise and ended with the usual iconic timpani solo, and when at last we passed through the over-arching START frame, and when we took a 90 degrees right-turn somewhere after passing Dhoby Ghaut, I realised at that moment, that I am thankful that the race organisers are flagging off so many of us together.
It is when the straight path took a turn, that my vision noticed how many runners are with me, ahead beside or behind (when they caught up and overtook me). When I realised that I was not alone on this path, it makes a difference. The power of numbers make up the influence of atmosphere. It makes treading the path ahead easier. The energy feels different, that energy felt great.
two: I spotted my mom near the 8km marker.
This was planned. My mom and I chanced upon the 8km marker board on our way to breakfast the morning before. It was just a 15-minutes stroll away from our home. She suggested to be there, to cheer me on, the next morning. I believe in whatever she said.
When the time came, I could not see her at the board, our designated location. But she was just a few metres away further down, in her yellow top leaning against the yellow railing placed temporarily there for the run. When I caught sight of her there and then, I almost cried out. But I didn’t, as it was tough manoeuvring in between my haphazard breaths.
I was panting like mad already, with my mentor running beside me since flag off, and I knew I had been running way faster than my usual pace (and I wondered how long I could last like this – I have 34km ahead, not 4km). Him with his killer turning-back-of-his-head to check me out whenever I lagged behind. Those looks kept pushing me to keep up with him, time and again. Actions speak loud. Very loudly.
three: I chatted with a sub-4 runner from Taiwan.
We chatted, not just me, with the Taiwanese.
My mentor was still with me, when we hit East Coast Park and did the u-turn (which means half the marathon has been conquered) when Mr. T donning a running vest printed with Chinese characters jogged up in between us and asked: 你們來自新加坡嗎？(translation: are we from Singapore?)
Apart from the fact that both my mentor and I are (and looked) Chinese, I guess he might have spotted the Chinese characters printed on the back of my running top (something he could relate to). Well, that sparked off a short conversation among the three of us, in a comfortable way as none of us are sprinting at that point in time. I noticed his bib starts with “A”, a hint of his expected completion time (mine was “C”). True enough, he is a regular marathoner and usually completes under 4 hours (i.e. sub-4). However, our uniquely-Singapore weather is deterring him from going any faster. It is his first time running a marathon in Singapore. He asked if there were other marathons held here as well. I said plenty, way too many, but he made the right choice to join this, as this is the most prestigious run of the year, after so many years, and I mean it.
I also shared that the East Coast Park that we are running on (during our conversation), was actually reclaimed land (a quick fact that I learnt from one of the many informative marker boards that I ran past earlier before the u-turn). That surprised him, and he added that he liked the fact that Singapore is very clean, to him. My mentor then urged him to run on without us, as we will be too slow for him.
So, off he went.
four: I walked, when I should run, because I “listened” well.
Not long after Mr. T’s back view disappeared from sight, I could feel a cramp in my left gastrocnemius (calf muscle) building up. By this time, my mentor has been reduced to walking ahead of me (too many times that I lost count, not that I counted) and even though I had kept running non-stop, I could no longer keep up. When I finally did, he finally agreed to my final plea to move on without me. As I watched him increase his pace to speed off, I dropped my pace to a walk. I didn’t want my calves to cramp. They didn’t, thankfully. Listening to my body paid off. Body over mind, at that point.
I was still within the grounds of East Coast Park but instead of hearing the sea waves lapping consistently along the coastline, I was nearer to the expressway (the better known ECP) on the return leg inching towards town and over-powered by vehicular sounds instead.
Not many around me are walking, maybe just 1% and that comprised me and only me. The rest are running, so I should run? Nah, keep walking, says the devil. I listened.
five: I made a video call.
Since I was walking, I was in an ideal position to fish out my phone from its holder velcro-strapped around my right biceps.
Then, I made a video call, on speaker mode. It lasted for 5 minutes odd, according to the counter after I ended the call. It helped that runners around me were on running mode. That took away some guilt in me for disturbing and disrupting their run. I hardly did given that they sped past me, spending a maximum of 1 second next to me. And I kept to the left-most lane throughout, as left as I could, so I couldn’t be blocking anyone’s way forward.
I was impressed by this year’s route, the best out of my attempts so far. The running paths were comfortably wide, no bottleneck at all, thanks to the extensive road closures. I don’t expect ECP to close, of course. Closing Benjamin Sheares Bridge is enough. I’m happy the organisers brought the bridge back this year, although I’m pretty sure most runners dreaded that stretch very much which I arrogantly don’t.
six: I snapped a photo and posted it on social media (2 pictures, 2 posts to be exact).
The first photo was snapped at a turn before heading towards Gardens by the Bay East. Once more, I was demoted to walking after running a little before. A photo that I took half-heartedly, thus not great. Half-hearted to the extent that I didn’t bother to remove my phone from the ziplock bag before tapping on the shutter button, thus adding on that unintended blurry filter. The caption of my post read “weather can’t be better, all else can”. All else referring very much to my will to keep running on, evident from my extended walking pace.
This was one marathon that I never looked at my own watch/phone at all to check the time. I was afraid to know how bad I was doing, perhaps, and chose to escape into the realm of unknown. The running app on my phone has been running and tracking since I passed the start line, but for once I silenced Kat (she diligently shouts out my running stats at the end of each kilometre completed, on my typical running sessions).
Unexpectedly, the organisers had placed marker boards topped with “live” digital timers at significant points, e.g. 10km, 21.1km, 30km. It was at the 30km marker board that I snapped the second photo. The frozen time showed 03:17:26. I trusted the time, without a doubt, that it would have tracked the lapsed time since official gun time. I started my run 10 minutes after gun time, so doesn’t that mean I took only 3 hours 7 minutes to get me to 30km so far? And if that was the case, if I could press on for another 110 minutes or slightly less than 2 hours to cover the remaining 12km, I might stand a chance to finish my run under 5 hours? It was that quick math that gave me a glimmer of hope, to up my pace and resume running all over.
Finding hope within hopelessness is not easy, or easy at the same time, paradoxically. The fact that I had not looked at my own watch to check the time, was mistake no. 1. The fact that I trusted the timer board, was mistake no. 2. But I can’t deny that it was this false hope arising from the series of mistakes, that pushed me to run on, not walk on, for at least the next 5km or so. Ironic? Truly ironic. But no regrets.
seven: I blasted my playlist of that one song, over and over.
I don’t listen to music when I run. I prefer to take in and observe the surroundings when I run. I prefer to run in the early mornings when it is all quiet and peaceful still, before the city hustle starts. So, listening to music, either through earphones or blasting out, doesn’t quite fit in at all.
I could not recall exactly at which point of the run that I started playing that playlist out loud. Perhaps I got tired of playing that same tune repeatedly in my head. Perhaps the surroundings were simply not enough to keep me distracted. Perhaps it was not peaceful at all, that I didn’t mind adding my “noise” to it.
I got to a point of wondering if it was unethical to blast music during a marathon. I recalled others doing it before, but it seemed I was the only one doing it this time. That doesn’t mean if others do it, it will be legit. But it didn’t take long for me to burst that thought bubble, when someone sped past me and for that few seconds I could (hardly) hear that song playing out from her, presumably, phone too.
Just like the video call I made earlier, I was less guilty of polluting the peace of other runners since most will just hear my “noise” for a few seconds, the most.
Relating to music, I do appreciate the efforts of the true noise-makers who lined up at various well-spaced locations of the run. So many “live” drummers and bands and performers played on to enliven our paths, at such ungodly hours. My applause to them.
eight: I poured cups & cups of water over my head (of course, cups & cups of isotonic ones went in through the proper channel for proper hydration)
There were plenty of water points along the marathon route. And plenty of water at each station, or at least when I passed by. Two types of beverages – one plain, one isotonic – were available at most of these stations.
When it comes to hydration when running, there were varied schools of thought that I read before. I attempted to limit my water intake, to just drink the bare minimum, so as to cut down the time “wasted” at the loo. But I knew better, that in such humid weather of ours that this will risk being dehydrated. I tried not to drink too early in the run, probably skipped the stations for the first 10km or more. After the half-way mark, skipping became a challenge, especially with the sun hanging so nicely up in the sky.
The plain water provided was branded with the ability “to restore the body’s natural balance through constant replenishment”, exactly what runners will need on such a long run on such a hot-humid morning. Instead of drinking them, I was dousing cups and cups of these over my head, to cool myself down. It was a different balance that I was trying to achieve with the same medium. I know, this may sound wasteful. Desperate measures to avoid heat strokes or headaches.. please pardon me. The supply at the stations looked endless, but I took no more than 2 cups at each. Not too much, right?
My choice of actual hydration was the isotonic drink provided, which I kept strictly to 1 cup at most at each station. The temptation to take in more was tough to fight, but the thought of fighting stitches from over-drinking triumphed over. The thought of plenty of the drink waiting for me at the end of the race, helped.
nine: I had 2 squares of dark chocolate with mint fillings, 2 mini-oranges, 1 banana, 1 iced-lolly as “race fuel”.
I had been consuming those little packs of “energy releasing chemical substances of unknown nature to the layman” unwittingly for years for runs. They go by the generic name of “gels”, as regular runners will most likely be familiar with. Brands and types are plenty in the market by now. Not cheap too. I doubt any runner enjoyed stuffing these gooey chemicals down their throats, except knowing that those chemicals (some with caffeine added) are magical enough to give that prolonged boost of energy so needed to hang in there till the end of the run, perhaps adding thrust to reach the end faster.
For this run, I was determined not to take any gel at all. I want to cut the reliance on these “chemicals”. I opted to carry chocolates, something of less chemical nature, instead. In the end, I only ate 2 out of 3 I carried. It didn’t quite give the energy that I expected, or perhaps I expected too much magic from those minute squares. The race organisers also offered bananas along the way, at quite a few stations. I took only one, though.
Thanks to kind souls giving out free food/drinks/fruits along the marathon route, I snagged a small plastic bag containing 2 mini mandarin oranges. These kind souls were part of local major running clubs, whose presence there were mainly to support their comrades in the run, who were just as generous enough to give out these freebies not just for their members but also for those who are thick-skinned enough to take them. I belong to the latter, having fallen into desperate times.
For a good handful of years, I relied on the unofficial home-made iced lollies that were up for grabs past the 35km marker, for survival, literally. This year was no exception. This year, I had it just before the start of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge ascent. The end may seem near, with 7km more to go, but that was also the toughest leg of the run. The sun was fully up, shining fiercely. Water stations seemed to have disappeared, as I wished for them to be there every 500m instead of 2km apart. Energy level falls to a new low. Any form of hydration is like an oasis too good to be true in a desert, except that they are for real but only if you are willing to accept it by succumbing to the thick-skin syndrome.
This was also where 98% of runners were reduced to walking. And me? That was where I resumed running. Not fast running, but as long as I run, I’m able to catch up with the next walker in front of me. One by one, I overtake them. That’s how I caught up on my lost time, lost when I walked earlier. Not that I was competing with anyone else, but only with myself. The walkers shaped the environment that I thrived. I walked when I should run before, and now I ran when I should walk. Then again, who defines the “should”?
Nutrition during a marathon is tricky, and tends to be overlooked by many. I’ll have to look into this, seriously, for next year.
ten: I cheated…
… my legs, in a way.
Marathon running, like any other sports, requires specificity in training. I was tempted to launch into a “lecture” of the various principles of sports training, blah blah blah, but no, I’m not boring you with that. The gist of specificity, is to specifically train on what you’ll be using most (e.g. leg muscles) to finish the intended task (e.g. marathon running – long distance running) through simulation. One counter-example: watching an English show will not help much if your aim is to improve your Chinese. Perhaps the Chinese subtitles may help, but not as much compared to pulling through a Chinese show (with English subtitles) instead. The training has got to be specific, the environment has to be right.
I lacked the specific training of doing long-distance practice runs this year, with the longest run completed a mere 23km, and pathetically once. Way too little to count as training. I knew I was courting for trouble. True enough, leg cramp started creeping in around 27km, where I parted ways with my mentor, where I turned to walking to avert the danger of an actual leg cramp, with success.
Walked on, I did, and for a fair bit. For quite a few km at a stretch, in fact. I believe that was where the “cheating” unconsciously began. Because I was walking for such an extended period of time, I might have “deceived” my legs into doing 2 half-marathons back to back with a long walking break in between, instead of doing a full marathon at one go.
So much for breaking up a huge task into “bite-sized” manageable bits. Never mind if this sounded overly-introspective, like some of the items listed before.
The point is, I finished my run, my tenth marathon, in 2017.
My official results of 05:28:38 was not fantastic, but not my worst. My worst to-date was almost 30 minutes more than that. No point comparing the worse with the worst. Better to look forward to the better, and the best that is yet to be.
Glad that I suffered no major injuries – just a big blister to the right of my left big toe, and an 80% fallen off toenail on my right big toe. (Blister burst and toenail gone by the time of writing this.) No big deal, seriously. My heel was perfectly fine, which means that nagging pain that acted up the week before was an angel in disguise, forcing me to taper and rest almost completely.
If moments of truth are worth celebrating, then this one below is classic. My favourite race pic for this run captured at the finish point with ten other finishers before and after.
And how could I forget, my hard-earned finisher tee. It wasn’t easy getting this. No one said it was, and no one would.