Ottawa Marathon 2019

At the starting pen, the first thing I notice is that the runners here don’t really do the annoying thing they do in Singapore where they squeeze together to the point where no one can breathe properly. I am able to have space for myself, and space around me to stretch a bit, do some arm rotations. Szu was standing by the side of the start pen, so I felt slightly less nervous. I had already done my warm up and stretches up to this point, taken the pre-race dump, and so all there was to do was to just go. I took out my first gel and ate it right before the runners all crowded to the start line.


At the start line!

When the starting gun fired, I could only think of one thing: don’t go out too fast. My plan was to run the first km in 4:20, so I scanned the crowd for the 3-hour pacer, and just ran beside him. He was of African descent (though I never got to find out exactly from where, I am aware that Africa is a continent made up of many countries, each with her individual identity) and looked like he was just jogging, graceful as can be as if he were running at 5 min pace. And so I felt assured that we weren’t going that fast, and for the first km I felt smooth, really smooth, and felt like 4:20 was probably the pace I was going at. But at the kilometre marker, the watch showed that I was running at an astonishing 4:04 per km.

I was worried, but everything just felt so smooth. I decided to have faith and continue following the pacer. Things evened out eventually. The first 5km goes along the river, a pleasant scenery to my left, so I just cruised along beside the pacer, and enjoyed myself. Though 2km was still at 4:07, he ran 3, 4, 5 km at 4:13, 4:13, 4:13. To add to that, my GPS watch tended to overmeasure the distance, so the km markers on the route got further and further ahead from when my GPS watch made the km splits. Still, I passed through 5km in 20:56, 19 seconds faster than my goal pace of 21:15, or 4:15 per km (which translates to a barely sub-3 hour marathon).

At 6km, the route makes a turn away from the river and into a neighbourhood of houses and shops that winds through west Ottawa (or Westboro, as they call it). This is the part of the race I enjoyed the most. There were people who came out of their houses to cheer the runners on, and I still had a lot of energy left in me to appreciate these cheers, and really take in the race atmosphere. They called the pacer a rabbit, and when he passed by there were cheers of “THE THREE HOUR RABBIT!!” which made the sub-3 dream seem suddenly very real, although I was only in the 8th km of the run.

It was at this juncture that I felt incredibly blessed that I was even running at all. Just a week before, I came down with a terrible bout of stomach flu while I was travelling with Szu in London (of all places in the world to get stomach flu). I could hardly eat properly, and could only do soupy foods and water. There was no carb loading to be entertained, and there was one day that I could hardly walk, with buy-two-get-one-free stomach cramps hitting me like I was a punching bag. I doubted if I could even be at the start line of the marathon, which made me angry at first. But I decided that there was nothing I could do but to hope for the best. And sure enough, with just three days to go before the race, the sickness cleared, and I could (most importantly) eat as much pasta as my heart desired without fearing that it would all be expelled in explosive diarrhoea.

So the sub-3 dream aside, I was thankful to be running down the streets of Westboro, cheered on by an insane number of spectators and race volunteers. I was running with a group of like-minded runners who had trained hard and we were all following the 3 hour pacer, having formed a large pack and were just cruising along with him, all gunning for that Boston qualifier. At that moment, it felt really good to be running, the activity that made the most sense to me, and it felt even better that I was smooth and able to enjoy this spring day.

10km passed in 42:04, 26 seconds faster than my goal pace. I kept calm and told myself again to trust in the pacer, that he would bring us through in good time. Everytime I would speed up a bit, I would force myself to slow down and be “eaten up” by the pack again.  At 12km, however, the plan changed. While taking in a gel and running to the side to get water, I unintentionally sped up. I opened a 10 meter gap ahead of the pacer, and was suddenly running with a different pack of runners that was just slightly faster. I made a gamble, and decided to follow this pack. I was feeling good, but more than that, this decision was based on a book that I had read about marathon tactics, about how runners at the amateur level should be running the first half slightly faster than the second due to glycogen depletion. And so, to run a sub 3-hour marathon, I had to run a considerably faster than 1:30 for the half marathon. It was a gamble for sure, and at a bad timing: just as I made this move, we turned away from Westboro at 14km, and onto a desolate highway with almost no supporters, and just a strong, cold headwind.

It was on this highway that a runner that was in the pack I was following spat on the floor, and narrowly missed me, at which he offered an apology. With this opening, I asked him for his goal time (so as to gauge if it was a good idea to follow him), and he said that he had just run a 2:56 seven weeks prior, so he was aiming for the same time (turns out this 2:56 was run at Boston!). But, he told me, that he didn’t do well in heat, and so might need to adjust his goal later in the run. I would understand why he would say that, today was slightly warmer than the previous two days I had been in Ottawa, with the temperature lingering between 16-18 degrees through the duration of the race. Having been through a harsh Canadian Winter, 17 degrees might be warm, but to me it was a slice of heaven, having trained exclusively in the high twenties with roaring humidity back in Singapore. But I wasn’t about to belittle the heat soon, because at this point, just 16km into the race, there was no telling what might be a factor in the later stages in the race, of which I had no idea about.

I told the runner (I later found out that his name was also Justin) that it was my first marathon and he looked at me and said “you’re doing good, you look really smooth”. I told him that I came from a middle distance background, and had no idea what happens after 30 km, and he responded with some advice. “You want to go through the first half feeling totally fine. 20-30km you have to work a bit to keep your pace, and then at 30 – 40 km it gets really hard. the last two km is just about making it to the finish line.” I hoped that I could still be in a position to push towards the finish line, because all that lay ahead was indeed dark and murky; my longest training run was only 36km, and so there was no telling what would happen after that.

After taking another gel, Justin and I ran across the bridge towards Gatineau, towards 20km. Things were still feeling smooth, my legs were moving fine, and my breathing was well regulated. It felt like only a stray car coming to run me over could stop me at this point. I passed the halfway point (21.1km) in 1:28:43, which was an optimal amount of time under 1:30 to positive split. In the short distance between 20km and the half, there was a slight uphill, and in that time somehow Justin had forged a 20m gap in front of me while I was zoning out and trying to maintain a constant effort. 


The view of Ottawa from Gatineau

I was running alone now, not really wanting to chase Justin because he was aiming for a 2:56 which was way too fast to strive for. The next few kilometres I could not help but think to myself that by 30km I had to feel good, I had to feel good, I had to feel good. I repeated this in my head with every km that passed, making sure that I still felt good. I took a gel at 24km, and kept telling myself even up to this point that though I had a lot of energy left I had to conserve all the energy I had for the assault coming up past 30km.

The 20-28km section of the course was a lonely one, not only was I running on my own, it was also through a neighbourhood where not many came out to support. It was also a decidedly hillier neighbourhood, and I suddenly recalled from all the race reviews that I read that the second half of this race was generally hillier. I wasn’t so worried, because I had done a few 6am long runs up and down the hills of rifle range road, all for the purpose of preparing for this part of the marathon. I also remembered this piece of advice I’d heard, to not go too fast uphill but maintain the same effort so as to not build up lactic. There was also no sense in sprinting the downhills, because it might result in calf cramps, and so I took that slightly quicker but not too fast. I had to keep thinking about these things, measure every step, and so in a sense I never got bored when I was running, there was always something new to see around me and always something to think about.

At 27 km we crossed another bridge back to Ottawa, and it was here that I began to overtake a few runners who had been overzealous from the start. I tried to sit behind a small group of runners at about 28km, but realising that they were too slow, elected to speed up and just overtake them. I was still feeling good up to this point, which honestly does not make for a good story, and so far you might notice that this whole time has just been me asking myself if I feel good and me actually feeling good. Well, that’s all about to change. I passed the 30km mark at 2:06:45, 45 seconds faster than goal pace. I took another gel, and at this point I must admit, I still felt good. I overtook a few more runners, saw a few who had walked and tried cheer them on but saw that it was as good as reviving ashes, with their faces of defeat looking resigned to the wall.


The Giant Spider that greeted us as we crossed the bridge back to Ottawa. Hitting the wall is still scarier though.

The 30-35km section winded through Rockcliffe park, and as the name suggests, to was quite a bit hillier, but I already knew what was ahead for I did a practice jog around this segment two days before to get used to the hills. I knew every uphill and downhill of this section and so I was never caught off guard by the course. What I was caught off guard by, however, was a sudden twitch in my hamstring at 33km. I had just passed by a sponge station and had cold water stream down my face, when the first hint of possible cramps came about. And I had 9km left to run. I was still ahead of pace, but I had read up a lot on how people could slow to a 5 minute pace within a short span of a km despite feeling perfectly fine the km before. I told myself again not to panic, that all my training had led up to this moment and that I was well prepared to forge ahead without incident. I couldn’t slow down to a 4:40 pace to accommodate these doubts, and so had no choice but to keep up 4:15 per km and just hope that these cramps didn’t knock on the door again.


The hills of Rockcliffe Park

I passed 35km, and began to understand why this was the worst part of the marathon. My breathing became heavier all of a sudden, and I started to adopt a slight grimace. The neighbourhood I was running through was lively, and that helped tremendously. A woman cheered me on from the sidelines, and upon reading my name on my race tag, said “come on Justin”, which was a simple cheer but it helped a lot to keep me focused. “Come on, Justin” was exactly what I needed to tell myself as well.

With 7.2km left in the race (which feels like an eternity after you’ve run 35), I began to carry out a visualisation technique that I had read up on, where you imagine that you’re running a short loop that you’re familiar with, so that seven km can seem more bite-sized and manageable. My mind wandered back to the 7.2km route that I would run around my neighbourhood, the route that introduced me to running proper, and a route that I had found myself through exploring the neighbourhood. I had run this route countless times from when I was younger, sometimes I failed, but eventually I conquered the route and could do a sub 30 minutes easily on it. I looked at my watch and saw that I just had to run under 32 minutes to break 3 hours, and so I just kept thinking of myself as that kid again, trying his best to conquer this 7.2 km run, trying again and again and loving running more and more as I did.

As soon as I began this visualisation, my left calf began to twitch, and a full blown cramp threatened to hit me. I quickly took my last gel and drank an electrolyte drink they offered at the next station to battle the cramps. At 37km, the twitch in my calf became more pronounced, and I thought about stopping to stretch my calf at the side, thinking if that would be a good idea to help assuage the cramping. I then thought back at my various attempts at the half marathon, and how stretching at the side did me no favours, not only did it slow me down, but it also made other parts of my legs cramp up from stopping and starting again. I had to keep my body in fight mode all the way or it would crumple and give in altogether, there would be no in between. And so I decided to continue. Every time I cramped up, I would transfer by body weight to the other leg, and try to shake up the cramp in my calf. There would be a few hundred meter stretches that it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and I could run smoothly, and then it would hit me again as if reminding me that it won’t be so easy to run that sub-3, that a huge cramp could reduce me to a walk at any time it fancied, and crush all my hopes. I kept thinking about my running form, and kept telling myself to maintain good form and to not let bad biomechanics get in the way and induce more cramps in other parts of my leg. The 38km split was the slowest thus far: 4:27 per km. I didn’t panic or try to increase my pace, I remembered that I had already given myself some leeway from the first half by running more than 1 minute faster than the target split, and so had all that time to spare.

Not that I could go much faster; at 38km I was already in a full on grimace. I passed by Justin, who was reduced to a short walk to take in a gel, the weather probably getting the better of him. He looked over and told me “good job”, which helped a little. With 4km left, I thought about another run I always did, which was my 4km warm up. I thought about how easy it was to run 4km, and how I did it before and after most workout sessions. With only 4km left, it seemed silly to slow down now. The crowd around this part of the route, known as Sussex drive, was teeming with what seemed like the entire town. There was a wedding going on at a church and some of the guests came out to cheer. There female students with banners around their necks saying “You can have a piece of this after  you’re finished” (which was of no motivation to me because my allegiance is only to Szu) and even little kids and old ladies cheering on. The atmosphere was immense, something you’d never find in Singapore for numerous reasons.

The pain at 39km

My calf threatened to cramp a few more times; but I limped it off, let out a silent scream, or ignored it altogether. At 39km, we were back at the canal again. We were to run down the canal, and then turn back via Pretoria bridge and to the finish line. I had this all in my head, having done another practice jog here the day before. However, I had done that little recce on fresh legs, and so it was particularly torturous to see the same sights that I saw but in such an excruciating filter. This part of the race was strange, there were a couple of people who tried to overtake, but they too seemed to succumb to cramps and I was overtaking them again within a few hundred meters. We were all trying to claw our way to the finish line; everyone that was around me all had the same dream, to break 3 and get that Boston qualifier.


The finishing stretch.

At 40km, I felt a different sensation, my legs felt like they were on fire, so numb and stinging with exhaustion as they were. Forget calf cramps, my entire lower half was threatening to give way and reduce me to a heap on the ground. Every muscle involved in running was burning. I was at 2:49:59 at 40km, which gave me a grand total of 10 minutes to run 2.2km. It would have been easy in any other circumstance, but running 40km prior did not happen to be one of them. I had faith though, that I wasn’t entirely out of it, for I had run a 4:18 min 40th km, and so just kept my head down and told myself that I had the mettle to finish this off. I told myself that I had to give this everything. I thought about all the kilometres I had put in to make these last 2 km survivable. I limped when my calf threatened to cramp up, and tried to actually run when there were windows of respite. I crossed Pretoria bridge, and turned around where there was 1km left. In that last km, I thought about every last km I had ever done in my life and decided that none were as painful as this one. I probably looked like I was running to the toilet, or that I had just survived a bomb blast and was jog limping away from the blast. I tried to follow this guy who was also finishing, then decided that i would just run my own pace. I looked at my watch and saw that I had a little less than 5 minutes to run the last km, so I looked down and took it one step at a time.

And then, I saw it. The finish line. It was 400m in front of me, yes, but there it was. There was no indication prior to this that the finish line was anywhere within reach, but there it was, in all its glory on a sunny Sunday morning. I had about 2 minutes left to run 400m, and so I just opened up my stride. I felt like I was stepping on coals, every impact of my leg on the ground felt like I was punching myself, but it didn’t matter anymore. I was at once the heaviest and lightest I’d ever felt, as if all the weight of the past 4 months of training, the last 1660 km I had run, was lifted off me. I ran past all the spectators, past a screaming Szu, and onto the carpet that led to the end. I looked at the clock as I neared the end, and it read 2:59:30 as I was running the last 20 meters or so. I clenched my fists and pumped them into the air, and crossed the finish at 2:59:34.


Typing this exactly 24 hours after I crossed the finish line, it still feels like a dream. I still don’t know how I did it. I remember the last two workouts I tried to do involved trying to hold 4:15 pace and I could not even complete them both, stopping approximately 15km into both. How I could maintain that pace for 42 km will always be a mystery to me. I shook hands with some people, and then with an exhausted Justin who finished just behind me (I had beaten a 2:56 marathoner!) and he told me “you did it”. At this, I began to tear. I was embarrassed at first and tried to hold it back. I walked on and composed myself, took some water, walked to collect the medal. It was the most ceremonious medal collection ever; there were a large group handing out medals that cheered loudly as I arrived. I thought there was someone behind me that was being cheered for, but I looked behind and it was just me. I hobbled over to receive the medal, and finally began to cry when I walked past them.

I thought about all the sacrifices, and the distant belief that I had in myself from the start that given the perfect conditions, that this feat would just have been possible. I thought about all the 4:30 am alarms I had to set every Saturday, the 30 plus km runs I did with Yik Siong at East Coast park, at West Coast Park, at Punggol. I thought about how I trained 6 times a week, hardly had rest days. I thought about all the sacrifices I had to make, the times I had to say no to drinking sessions, that I had to have late dinners with a super understanding Szu whom I could not feel more grateful for, who came all the way down with me to obscure Ottawa to support me. I thought about the group of people I trained with: Yik Siong, Josh, Wen Sheng, who were all stronger that me in various ways and had pushed me beyond my limits, my training buddy in y1 -y3 Philip who had always shown me what running was all about. I thought about my parents who supported me all the way, providing me the resources and space to succeed, who would never stop me from achieving this crazy dream though it was precisely the kind of activity that I knew would worry them.

Last of all, I thought about my love for running. It all began when I was 13, progressed till I was 17 and then it became murkier during army when I had an injury, and then even murkier coming into uni when I could not get my priorities right. After failing to make the Sunig team for the 3rd time, I sat myself down last August and decided that I wanted to achieve something amazing in my last year of university. It was with this renewed focus and planning that I began to enjoy every workout I did, qualified and did well for my 1500 IVP and then decided foolhardily to go for the marathon because i wanted to feel like I did everything I could in running before I graduated. I followed a strict training plan, and loved every minute of the journey. The joy of running never left me, but had stayed dormant for a few years before erupting in its full glory. I could not stop thinking about running, about what I needed to do to rest, to fuel up for the next workout, to be my best at every run I did in any small way possible. I made no excuses. I constantly reflected on the journey, read up about the marathon and watched a lot of races. This sub-3 journey, in a way, isn’t just about running, it was pretty much about a lifestyle that I consciously chose to keep up despite every temptation to just take my final year easy and not dream such big dreams.

I cried maybe because it hurts to love something so much only to finally be validated in some form or another.

I soon discovered that I could not really walk, and so hobbled my way to the meet up point where Szu was waiting for me with open arms. I raised up my hands with a medal in one and a banana in another, and she walked towards me with a big smile on her face, the smile of someone who had never doubted me for a second even though I had doubted myself a thousand times over.

“I did it,” was all I could manage.





The best part: the beer after the race


This is the Fire of Leaving Pain

Time passes. Collect a scroll and kingfisher plush toy when you pass go. Roll the die. Pick up the community chest card. Pay rent. Collect wealth.

As much as we like to see transitions as emotional farewells, they too, are transactional. After all, a transition is a transaction, you exchange your time in college for a place in another firm, another company, another higher institution of learning. The time here is but wind that billows up our sails, that pushes us along to the next destination, the next port of calling. Our time was a transaction from the start; we pay school bills to get food and housing and education, we talk in class to engage our ideas with others, to better learn, to get that better grade. We get that better grade to attain a number on a transcript, to show our future bosses that we know what we are talking about and aren’t just filling pillows with fluff. We send emails that start with “I hope you’ve been well” to professors we might not even want to know anything more about other than how much they’re going to care if we submitted an assignment 2 hours late, or if the final exam would be testing so and so topic. Our time here, if put bluntly, is a transaction. Four years of accruing knowledge, forming relationships that will bolster us into the future. We work hard and play hard in order to say that we gained something when we finally put on our robes and walk onto the stage sheepish and awkward, in front of some people who matter and many who don’t. We shake hands, we receive a scroll not even real.

What a waste it would be to think of everything as transactional, to think of everything as just passing through and so not worth holding on to. Looking at the line of students walking forward to collect their scrolls, one might think of this entire endeavour as that of a production line, producing fresh graduates to churn out into society. Cliche, but many cliches turn out to be true.

The only way to burn down this notion of transaction is by using fire. This is not your primary 5 camp campfire, but the fire of leaving pain. It is what burns and cooks you from the inside as you walk out of a place you thought you could never get used to. It is the warmth of conversations with one another late into the night. It is the first conversation to the last, every one of them leading to this final reckoning like breadcrumbs that form a beautiful trail. This fire is the sting of absinthe that made us honest. It is our acts of kindness that touch us and made us cry, of coming together in times unimaginably tough as we held candles in Elm and remembered. It is every argument we had, drunk punch we flailed, heartbreak we experienced, people we swore never to talk to again, people we swore to fight for till the very end until we cannot fight any longer and our muscles all ache with trying.

Have you ever stayed up with someone till 3am? Talked to them about nothing at all yet everything? Held each other’s emotions on the edge of a knife? It appears that graduating from a place like this is precisely like a 3am talk, where time flows slow to the point of almost-stillness. Both of you still know that the inevitable morning will come, but the magic of 3am keeps our reservations suspended, we believe that we are, for lack of all better expression, eternally bound in the moment. What is it about transitions that prompts us as such?

Suspension is just the word for the occasion. We are indeed suspended, within our own thoughts, with the place we inhabited, with each other. It is a stubborn suspension that refuses to let go just yet, that still believes, like a 3am conversationalist, that there will be time yet. As I walked up the stage, received the scroll, I looked to the crowd and felt suspended, felt very light as if something was carrying me somewhere which I had no knowledge of.

Notions of suspension aside, I want to ping back to the notion of fire. The fire of leaving pain, that burns and swallows, that stays in our minds longer than the duration of the carnage, which sometimes is only for a short while, that last all of a few seconds when your chest constricts when you realise that this may actually be the last time, that this conversation, this drinking session, this confession, this farewell glance, is all that this school could offer until security stands at the door and asks you to leave. This is the fire that burns and warms, it is the fire that destroys all notions of transaction.

Because, put simply, what transaction can there be that places this burning sensation in our chests? We transact to feel secure, to feel like we have garnered enough resources to live a good life. The fire of leaving does the opposite, it makes us do stupid things that may potentially hijack our well being. It makes us stay up too late, drink too much, talk too much, feel too much. The burning sensation in your chest, the warm afterglow we feel as we walk off the stage and say goodbye to all our friends, is entirely counterproductive to what a transaction aims to achieve.

And for that, may we forever have a part of ourselves suspended. May we never let this fire burn out.

A Voyage into Unknown Possibilites: My journey with middle distance in a nutshell

After a satisfying cycle of 1500m training which culminated in me making the IVP 1500m school team, I fell sick. I believe that in every training cycle, one has to expect to fall sick once, and this was the best and worst time to fall sick. It came right before the family trip to Italy, and so there was going to be a self-declared break from running anyway. But make no mistake; I wanted very much to run down the streets of Venice and along the ruins of Rome. But this was cruelly denied to me when my cough became almost hacking, verging on pneumonia. There was nothing I could do but be patient, eat too much pasta, drink too much wine, and hope that I recover as soon as I could.

By the time which I did, it was a mere 2 weeks before IVP, and I resigned myself to just having faith in my training. Just 2 days before the race, I felt like pulling out altogether. I couldn’t see myself being fit enough to represent my school. I was doing a mere 8x200m workout and saw myself stopping after 5, badly panting, wheezing, lungs not used to the pace and the pain. And I was doing this at my target 1500m pace.

That was when I saw Vanessa, who happened to be doing the same workout and so we completed the last three 200m repeats together before I asked her for her advice on the whole situation. She told me simply that if I tried my very best during the race, that I had nothing to regret. Which was exactly what I needed to hear. Because I was not at my best by a long shot; all my training had been compromised by sickness and I was a mere shadow. But though the body was weak the mind was still very much in it; I still had the ability to try my best at every moment. Be my best no, but try my best always.

And so the day came to run the race, my last 1500m race. I was a bag of nerves, and Szu Jin was on the bus with me trying to calm me down. The bus ride took longer than expected and so I had to rush a bit, scrambling to wear my shoes, get a last minute massage from Chun Meng, and then do a few laps to warm up. All this rushing calmed me down, and I was able to better focus. I saw my parents and brother make their way to the stands as I was walking to the holding area, and that somehow gave me more assurance. At the holding area all the athletes looked sufficiently nervous, and that, too calmed me down, as contradictory as this sounds. Perhaps as runners, we live for the contradictions, where any challenging situation can be turned on its head.

The race started at the pace I imagine my 2.4km to be run at, a dead slow crawl that went on for the first two laps. The splits were called out and all the runners were looking nervously at each other, not sure what to make of the situation. I tried to stay with the front pack, was wary of drifting too far back. And then, at the last 600m, the gears shifted, the first runner accelerated away, and a few of them followed. I was sure to stay close by, but as I was to discover, was not close enough. I overtook one or two stragglers towards the start of the last lap, and could see fourth place just 30 meters in front. But there was no sign of slowing down from him. The last lap was thus spent trying to live with the pace, and wary of being overtaken at the end, I looked back a few times and crossed the line 5th.

If you told me two days before the race that I would get 5th, I would be pretty stoked. But the fact was that the race panned out so tactically, that I might have been able to squeeze out a better result had I just forgot all common sense and followed 3rd place and then, who knows what would have happened? I just didn’t have that vision. But I wasn’t too sloppy over the past two laps either, covering 600 meters in just under 1 min 40 seconds. So I don’t think that I could have gone a lot faster given the circumstances.

I was always a 5th place sort of runner, and I think I’ve come to accept that. It’s not too sloppy for sure, but just never podium material. I got 5th for my A division 1500m finals, there was a small 10km race I once ran where I attained 5th as well. Then there was this. I might be a 3rd place runner at best, but the race just wasn’t my race.

Running 1500m has taught me a lot about living fast and dying perhaps too early, I think the distance is a firm favourite for me because I was always disproportionately better at it than other distances. I could come within a couple of seconds of people who ran 4, 5 minutes faster than me for 10000m, and I could close down on those whom I thought were untouchable. It was the one event that kept giving me faith that I was a decent runner, and the one event that everyone was scared of but I loved. Training for the event made sure that if you’re head to head with me in the final 100m of a 10km, then you’re most likely going to lose to my kick. It was that kind of event that started to define me as a runner, someone who might not be so good at the longer distances but has a violent tendency to outkick in the shorter ones.

But I think all that is behind me now. I think if making it to IVP finals is the culmination of all my middle distance prowesses then I’ll let it be. Running the 1500m has given me a lot to chew on and love about running, and I know that it’s time to move on. There’s a lot more to running than going for the 66 second last lap, or blazing through in 2:55 per kilometre. And so I’ve set my sights on something perhaps more ambitious and straight out insane which I will talk about more at a later date.

In the past, running was always running to me, with only an objective to move forward, to test my limits. But now I’m learning that running has many layers to it. It gives in many weird, unexpected ways; at the end of a 5x600m workout when you’re breathing harder than your mother when she birthed you, to a 28km long run when your legs are screaming before your lungs do. All these are immensely rewarding to me and I love every moment of it. At the end, running is but a great voyage into unknown possibilities.

The Thrill of the Chase

With the starting command I ran forth and tried to stay with the pack. It was smooth at first, the entire group going at close to 4 minute pace, which was actually quite manageable. I stuck close to them, and we wove through west coast park, down the underpass out to the other side. And then I started to lose contact. There wasn’t much of an increase in their pace at first, but a slow, sudden realisation that I just wasn’t that fit. It was like, watching a cup fall off a table from a distance, and not being able to do anything about it. The rest of the run was abysmal. With the entire lead group out of sight, there was really no need to fight for anything anymore. Whatever dignity that I thought I could preserve was inconsequential. It was my third and last try and I canned it.

After the time trial I was quite broken but tried not to show it. I acted as if this was precisely what I was expecting of myself. The past few months leading up to August had been turbulent in terms of training. I hadn’t had a consistent pattern of workouts; my internship was hectic, as were intermittent meet ups with friends, drinks, parties and what not. There was no winning formula amidst all that mess. I gave everything during the workouts, but the truth was there was no consistency, and so all that effort was for nothing. Sometimes I would fall sick, sometimes I would let excuses get in the way and skip trainings. It was very unlike myself.

I also lacked a lot of focus. I wasn’t even sure which distance I wanted to really do. It was supposed to be 5.8km, to prepare for SuniG cross country which i failed utterly to qualify for anyway.

After the entire disappointing period was over I gave myself a week off serious running. I went to Hong Kong for a vacation, and did a few easy runs in Singapore. And in that time, I developed a training plan from a Jack Daniel’s (a sports science expert, not the alcohol brand) training guide that meticulously highlighted what each and every training should serve to do.

With that I started to train. The training was divided into phases, with phase one being base building, which I took 3 weeks to accomplish. These three weeks were by far the most relaxed; just easy runs, 3 times a week, and nothing more. At first I trained 4 times a week without fail, 3 easy runs and one moderate run. I was always raring to go faster but I knew that I had to pay for my past foolishness with patience. I churned out the long, slow miles around the NUS soccer field, running 30, 40, 50 rounds each time. Sometimes people joined, sometimes I did this alone.

I started the training thinking that I would be training for 10,000m at first, but halfway through I decided to switch over to 1500m training. This was because I felt a sense of incompletion from my previous season training as a 1500m runner. I had gotten injured mid-way through the season and never reached full potential. This was my last chance to seal the deal.

But first, there had to be some lifestyle changes. I drank substantially less. I was lucky because this training phase coincided with when work started to pile up over the semester, so many of my friends had to sense to tuck away the bottles and bring out their books. I rode this wave of self-discipline and replaced the whisky with 100-plus and coconut water. I also ate more carbs to supplement the long distances and generally didn’t stay up till too late (and of course, replaced suppers with breakfasts).

Phase 2 came along and the workouts at first looked really easy on the program. They consisted of 8 x 200m at 36-37s, with 200m jogs in between. It looked a far cry from the gruelling 14 x 500m I did when I was training for SuniG. But when I did the workout, it took the air out of me. Who knew that just doing such short repeats could have me huffing and puffing at the end? And then I referred to the program, and saw that in another week would be the 400 repeats at 74. I was in for a treat.

It got better after a few workouts; I figured out how to properly jog-rest to give myself the most efficient rest, and also found some of my middle-distance kick back.

After 3 weeks of this, I realised that Inter-club was around the corner, and that I was going to do the 1500m very underprepared; having only done 200 and 400m intervals.

I was a ball of nerves before the race, having gone to the toilet twice before to ease my bowel movements before stepping up to the start line. When the race started I decided to keep the pace conservative, letting myself fall back at first before catching up nearer to the end. It was gruelling. During the second last lap, doubts rang in my head; and I wondered what all that training, planning and time spent away from friends and work was for. But then when the final lap came along I told myself that I’d done so many 400m intervals at this pace, and even more 200m intervals. There was no stopping me from this point on, and I found myself, surprisingly, within the same straight as some of the faster runners whom I thought would be much further ahead. I finished 6th in 4:29, and it was a much better result that I expected given that I only had six weeks of training.

When I finished the run I could only feel lactic and pain in my quads, calves and glutes. But those sensations brought me the greatest happiness. Right after the race I was already looking forward to the next few weeks of training.

I write this into the 9th week of training and finally getting a taste of longer intervals, and feeling more pain, more misery and more trepidation than ever. It makes me happy to know that this is still nowhere near what I might be capable of, and that a lot more tough trainings lie ahead.

It would be nice to finally run a great timing, but I think these past few weeks have been invaluable to my understanding of the sport. I’ve progressed from running 4 times a week to 6, and from long easy runs to soul sucking intervals in the rain, the sun, under floodlights. The process isn’t all fun and games, but it has brought me some of the greatest satisfaction that will be difficult to replicate during a race. I enjoy this because I know this is something that I will always have for myself; that I spent this amount of my time of my youth trying to push my body to the fullest. When I’m older and have less time to myself, more things to think about, I will look back at this short period of time and not have any regrets.

Phase 3 of training is coming up, and it’s another 5-6 weeks to time trials, and there’s everything to run for and I can’t wait to run every last mile to get there.

Spring Came and Went in a Week

Spring came and went in a week. In the middle of April the weather was still a chilly 5-10 degrees celsius but when it turned to May saw a shooting up to the twenties. I took my coat off, the trees wore their leaves and endowed themselves with flowers and the birds called out unafraid.

I believed that as long as winter stayed that I would as well, that I’d stay here in my room forever wrapped in woolly warmth and hearing the cold wind pound the side of the building. But spring came and went in a week and by the week after, I had already packed my bags and was gone.

It all feels very fast.

I thought that I’d always be suspended in this space that I had slowly started to call home. Not that it was spectacular, or much of a home. I didn’t make many friends, and many nights felt like they could have been potentially lonely. Not like I was savouring every moment and writing about my day to day like I wanted to at the start (didn’t really get to it in the end, did I?) At the start I would take pictures of dining halls and lecture theatres, frame a bare tree onto the backdrop of blue sky. I would step on snow and feel it crunch under my feet as if trying to warm it up. Everything was beautiful back then, but so so cold. So cold that water on the ground turned solid black. So cold I would look into cameras and force a smile. But that changed soon enough because the story was never so rosy.

Soon I fell into a routine. I felt like a body at the mercy of some tide that swept me along and I went with it. For the first time in a long time I had a chance to hit the refresh button and be in a place with people I didn’t know so well at first, in a place that was so far from home that soon any thought of it faded away, though slowly at first. I wasn’t fighting anything anymore. It is incredibly selfish to say this, but it was just me out here and I let myself be. I just let myself float. Where I was floating to or how long I could stay in this position didn’t quite cross my mind. I lost the sense that duty and accountability (remnants of back home in Singapore) and I felt the damning need to put myself first in a country where everyone seemed to be doing just that.

I quit Instagram, and didn’t really update this blog. I did this partially because I did not want to see the world through a screen, but now that I look back, it was really because all these platforms would invariably remind me of home. And home came with its burdens. Manifold burdens. It came with feeling too much and wanting to be somewhere else when you’re at home, and home when you’re somewhere else. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that I didn’t want to be somewhere else, even if that somewhere else was home. I knew deep down that I was not made to always miss, or always chase, or always feel lacking. I wanted to just focus on things that were in front of me and feel that those were enough and in turn feel that I was enough.

The only way to feel that way was to be in those experiences the best way I knew how. Winter was so cold and dry that I forgot what the wet and humid Singapore eternity felt like. It probably feels like this: when walking two blocks resulted in a patch of sweat on your back, or when your hair would stick to your forehead (I know now since I’m editing this back home). The sticky sensation that often prompts a shower. I forgot about these minute sensations almost entirely. And if I could forget something as simple as that, what could be said about other memories of home? Sure enough, I could no longer imagine how food back home tasted like, or how exactly the streets smelled of damp soil after the rain. I forgot how my dog would curl up beside me when I was back home and lying in bed. I forgot about how it felt to run in the warmth. I let routine wash over me in the cold and the darkness. It chiselled me into something different.

They say that every single cell in your body is replaced such that your physical body seven years ago is entirely different from your current body. The replication is immaculate, with the old cells passing down their information to the new cells (this is definitely not how this works, but for the sake of allegory please grant me this) and one seems like the same person with the same features and much of the same memories. And with that, you appear like you are you. I wonder if the same can be said for a table or a chair. If you take one screw out of it today, an armrest the next day, and replace every part of the chair over a sustained period of time; would we still say that it’s the same chair? Does the chair retain its essence and remain as the chair at the start?

As I spent 4 months in Yale I ate the food from here, talked to the people here and ran down roads dry and cold. One thing that remains certain is that parts of me, like the chair, were constantly being replaced. My cells were dying and replacing themselves with the nutrients from food made far from Singapore, my brain cells encapsulating new memories made oceans away and my lungs taking in air that didn’t come with the weight of humidity and growing used to it in ways too subtle for me to understand.

And in that way I feel that the person I could confidently say I would always be in December is not the same person who writes this in May. In December I was wary, unable to think of any new experience as being intrinsically valuable, I was always finding a way that an experience could be better, more precious. I was trying to settle but could not. When I travelled I couldn’t sleep well. I was restless to no end. I was always conscious of how I wanted to protray my life. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t the person that I wanted to be at all. As the months went by, from January to April I learned to settle. The world turned on its axis as cells replaced themselves. Yale, as big as it was, was my teacher. Buildings that looked like heritage sites at first began to look less spectacular as time went by. What seemed extravagant began to take a practical foothold. The cold became less of a novelty and more of an accepted fact.

Maybe it’s good that things live and die, and that our bodies replace themselves every seven years. I let conversations flow and drinking sessions show me the way. I talked to many people and then just a few. I didn’t talk to myself but there were many hours in my room alone, so I might as well have. I travelled to a few places and loved every moment so much because I let myself just not care so much about the experience. I let it hit me but, but wasn’t bothered if it didn’t. Time gives us all the chance for growth and reevaluation and the fabled letting go. I found all that in the cold of winter, and realised that I had found it when Spring hit like a car against a concrete wall.

I didn’t find myself, that would be too cliché and frankly arrogant. And also a little millenial. But I’d like to think I made some progress. I wrote a few articles. Made a few good friends (never write anyone off because of what you think they’d be like, and always try to understand people with all your heart because everyone has a story to tell). I seriously felt like writing was not something that I was looking forward to as much as the days went by so I dug something out from the past, polished it and posted it online and its reception was encouraging (I believe that Singaporeans have a heart, and it is this heart I write for). I wrote a long manuscript that I am still embarrassed by but will whip up to perfection. But am glad I stuck to writing, even at the lowest points where I severly interrogated my passions. (I also ran a lot. It was cold and my ears almost fell off but I got used to it.)

The lesson from this time abroad if there ever was one? 6 months ago I almost didn’t apply for this. I was stuck in a metaphysical winter in my mind that just wouldn’t thaw, and wouldn’t budge and if not for Zhi Hao telling me to do it I might not have. Have I not done so I would have been in Singapore the entire semester and not have had this chance to know how much more I could have become in those months. Entering this country in the middle of one of its harshest winters felt like the blooming of another sort of spring. The lesson is perhaps, to slap that voice in your head now and then.

Winter lasted for 3 and a half months before spring came around in less than a week. Jackets came off, smiles returned to faces. By May it already felt like summer. In the heat that I dreamed of for months is where I find myself again but in between then and now a lot had changed.

A Town Called Jejune

Deep into the night. 2 am. An email comes in.

Something about rejection.

My heart sinks to unimaginable depths but almost immediately rights itself. I don’t think I gave my best, and that is the single most frustrating thing I have to work on. I felt in the past few months there was a blockage in a pipe somewhere and the pipe wouldn’t flow. Perhaps think of an artery that has been blocked by fat. Something like this happened to my grandfather before. Why do old men always enter my consciousness? Why are they always magical and have powers? Whatever it was I was stuck and didn’t write a word of fiction for many months on end. It was as if an entire world inside of me had moved out for the winter and left me slightly empty.

The inhabitants only moved in recently, just over a month ago. I’ll call this town Jejune. The Jejunians were a group of soldiers, two old men (one on a wheelchair and another a cookhouse uncle), a young couple and a group of three friends who met in the army. They lived and talked to each other, loved, lost and hurt. As did I. And I gave them what I could every now and then so they had just enough to survive. I didn’t let them die; not on my watch. And I’m proud of that.

In any case the rejection was for a submission I made with a collection of short stories. It could have been worst. It always can be worst.

But at 3 am as I write this I feel a keen sense of revival. I will continue building up this home. I’ll build a wheelchair ramp for the old man on the wheelchair, I’ll take very careful notice of the way it whirrs as it ascends. I will give all the soldiers a face and a house to go back to with parents who miss them. I will make lovers fall in love again and books fall out of shelves. I will plant the trees on that island one by one until from a birds eye view everything looks green. I will imagine children, cats, dogs, pineapples and old hamburgers left to rot and maggots that turn not into flies but grasshoppers and a tombstone of a friend long gone but someone still loves very much.

I will write because, let’s say I didn’t write. It would be imaginable, that’s what it would be.

When a Son does not Return Home: Deaths in the SAF

A full-time national serviceman died on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, while taking part in a military exercise in Australia’s Central East Coast.

3rd Sergeant Gavin Chan was guiding an armoured military vehicle out of rocky terrain when it turned over on its side, striking him unconscious. He was evacuated by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening at 10:36pm. He had just turned 21.

Described by his friends as someone who was friendly and cheerful, Gavin performed his tasks diligently.

His photo was splashed across news websites and on Facebook shares; a young man wearing a well-ironed parade attire, donning a black beret with a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) emblem shining on it. He was smiling at the camera, a state flag behind him to his left.

Almost every Singaporean who was registered as male took such a photo, the kind where you wore your military best and stood in front of the camera and smiled, or at least pretended to. And then they’d give you a certificate that came with the picture, the symbol of the country’s pride in your service.

This was a photo that I had to take as well. When I smiled, I didn’t expect to die in the next few months, and I’m guessing the same for Gavin. Like the rest of us who served, our smiles were the smiles of optimism, of better days to come.

I am not intimately familiar with this particular case. I have left the SAF for more than three years at the time of writing this, and it’s a part of my life that is largely behind me. Some of my training was dangerous. I had to trudge through dense jungle traversing ridges where two steps to the left or right would result in a headlong tumble into the unknown depths. I had to endure thirst and hunger because our food had to be rationed properly when we were on weeklong missions in the tropics. I had to throw a grenade with my trembling master hand. However, not once did I feel like my life was in any real danger.

The assumption that our sons come back home safe is part and parcel of national service. In peacetime Singapore, anything less would be a tragedy.

Gavin’s parents told the media at the wake of their son, that they had no more tears left to cry. They were both wearing white, and both looked like they hadn’t managed to catch any sleep in days. “He wanted to do social work,” said Mdm. Lim, Gavin’s mother. Gavin had planned on applying to study overseas, as he could not get into a local course. On weekends when he booked out from camp, he would come home to wash and iron his own clothes. “He was a responsible man,” said his father, Mr. Chan. “He knew what he was supposed to do.”

Gavin’s parents eventually thanked the SAF for its assistance rendered to them in such a difficult time. They also thanked the organization for flying their daughter from Wellington where she was studying, to Queensland to retrieve Gavin’s body.

Not every parent who loses their son in the time of duty is grateful to the state.

Private Dominique Sarron Lee died on April 17th 2012, after succumbing to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during an army exercise. The combat medic attached to the platoon did not have enough experience dealing with allergic reactions of this nature, and by the time he was transported to the National University Hospital he was pronounced dead. It was only one and a half hours after the incident.

Like Gavin, Dominique was only 21 years of age and died days after his birthday. His mother wailed uncontrollably during the funeral service, and his father spoke some quiet words over the grave. His younger brother, Daryl, played an acoustic rendition of Mr. Big’s “To Be with You” during the service. It was one of Dominique’s favourite songs. Posted on a Facebook page set up in the memory of Dominique was a picture of him and his younger brother when they were just toddlers. “It was from you that I first learned to think, to feel, to imagine, to believe,” read the caption posted by one of his friends.

It was later uncovered that the then platoon commander, Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, had thrown six smoke grenades instead of the stipulated two. This was due to unfavourable wind conditions which made smoke cover for the troops particularly difficult to achieve. The excess smoke, however, might have contributed to the severity of the allergic reaction. The lapses in training protocol was what prompted Dominique’s mother, Madam Felicia Seah, to find answers.

Her attempts at justice would later captivate an entire nation, as she attempted to sue one of Singapore’s most powerful organisations for negligence. She would eventually fail. The Singapore high court struck out the lawsuit filed by Madam Seah in 2014 under the Government Proceedings Act, stating that any member of the armed forces cannot be held civilly liable for causing the death of another while on duty. Both Captain Najib and Captain Chia Thye Siong, the safety officer at that time were protected under this law. They were only punished with fines and delays in promotions, and were charged under military instead of criminal law.

“How do you expect me to move on? I’ve tried, but still cannot,” said Dominique’s mother during a news interview in 2013, one year after his death. She visits him every day at his grave at Lim Chu Kang Christian Cemetery, spending an hour cleaning his grave and talking to him. His grave is black and shiny, with an electric guitar at the side of the tombstone and a large speaker on top of it. Placed on and around the grave are various memorembilia, toy cars and miniature jukeboxes, a small vase of flowers and a Hoegarden beer placed at an inconspicuous corner. On the roadside of his grave, the grass is specially mown to form the words “SUPERFLYDOM”, which was what his close friends referred to him as. Madam Seah told reporters that she still cries herself to sleep every night.

Until today, many of her questions remain unanswered.

In a Facebook post early in 2016 that was shared more than 13,000 times, she apologised to her eldest son. “My dearest Dom, my heart continues to bleed for you. It has been 3 years and 10 months since you were taken from me and still, I haven’t been able to get any closure.” In the post, Madam Seah mentions the two officers who were granted statutory immunity despite failing to follow the standard operating procedures. She also had to pay for their legal costs, or in her words, “pay[ing] them for taking away your life.” She continued, “In the past 3 years, I have been worn down, beaten and defeated by the very government I taught you to trust; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very system I counselled you to have faith in; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very people I advised you to respect and honour. Dom, forgive me. I taught you wrong.”

The SAF eventually waived the legal costs of the lawsuit. This was after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen urged the courts to do so, stating in a Facebook post that the legal system “need not add to the pain and anguish of the family of the late [Private] Lee.”

2012, which was the year before I enlisted, saw the death of five men during their service for the army. Dominique Sarron Lee was amongst the five, and by far the most high profile case. It was five cases where a mother’s fear was realised. When sons did not return home.

When I enlisted in 2013, I hugged my mother before walking off with the other enlistees. As I walked off my mother shed a tear, and I remember thinking that she was silly for doing so. I was going to be ok. We were young men who had to serve whether we liked it or not.

I told my parents over late night phone calls that the deaths from the previous year’s incidents had resulted in safer trainings due to reactionary measures put in place. We were not allowed to walk under the rain in case of lightning. We could only wear one layer of clothing so as to prevent heat injury. Anyone with allergic reactions or a complicated medical history had to wear a yellow wristband and be closely observed by instructors.

I could tell that what my parents wanted above anything else was to have me home safe every weekend.

Love is sometimes an act of following a simple routine, to have your loved ones do the same things again and again. Gavin’s parents recalled his simple wish for a chocolate cake on his 21st Birthday. “A 21st birthday to a boy or girl – at that age – is an important day. I wanted to buy him a good dinner but he refused to accept it,” said Mr. Chan. “He just wanted to have a chocolate cake, that’s all.” “Every birthday… always the same chocolate cake,” echoed Mdm. Lim.

In a Facebook post, Dominique’s close friend Timmy Low wrote about their correspondence and friendship. They made plans to go out for drinks the night before he passed away.

“Take care bro, I’ll see you then”
“Will do bud, be safe”

The meet up never materialised.

Perhaps this was why I was determined to keep to my routines when I was enlisted, or even beyond that. I would have at least one meal with my parents upon every book out. I would sleep on my own bed no matter which friend asked if I wanted to stay out late or sleepover. I would not miss any birthdays if I could help it. I would not get into trouble in camp so I could book out on time.

My parents kept up the same end of the deal, fetching me to and from camp without fail. Once on a rainy Sunday evening my family car was knocked from the back, and my parents had to pull over and settle the damages privately. My father got back as soon as he could so he could drive me to camp on time. I could tell that the incident put him a foul mood but he didn’t let it show. They wished me well as I trudged off to camp later, umbrella in hand. Another time my expected bookout time was delayed by two hours. I had already told my dad in advance to drive over, and so he did. He waited two hours in his car outside the gates. He didn’t complain when I got in, but drove me for supper instead. Driving home without me was out of the question. Routine was routine and we stuck to is as a family.

You take whatever time you have with the people that matter because you never know what might happen in the months after, or even the next day.

When Gavin’s parents were asked how they were coping, both broke down in tears. “To lose a son, it’s very painful,” began Mr. Chan. “To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that.” There were a half dozen voice recorders pointed at the parents, forming a neat semi-circle on the white table. Cameras were snapping away.

It is easy to think of death and the nation as abstract notions, forces greater than us that we find difficult to fight. But in the fight lies all the meaning in the world. It is because of the fight that Dominique’s mother had established a new routine, a new way of loving, one that she pursued fiercely to honour her son.

In the years that followed Dominique’s death the nation watched as his mother was pushed to a corner, resigned and defeated, her quest for justice unsuccessful, culminating in an emotional plea. “What we want is justice, what we want is closure,” an exasperated Madam Seah told the media. “After [all these years,] we cannot get any closure.”

Gavin’s parents could only find the strength to thank an organisation that indirectly caused the death of their son.

Perhaps our undoing lies not in the large forces of death and society but in the disemboweled routines and emptiness of the everyday.

Defeat lies in the bed untouched, the slice of chocolate cake left in the fridge for no one to eat. Grief comes in imaginary laundry cycles and clothes never to be washed again, never to be ironed again, never to be placed in cupboards too high for a mother to reach. Bereavement is a father having two glasses of beer to himself, leaving one untouched, listening to his child’s favourite song in the background and for the rest of his life because his child cannot.

All they can do is continue loving.



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