Three months ago early in November 2016, I felt like I was in the form of my athletic life. Make no mistake, I still feel that way now, but back then the feeling was novel to me. It was as if my legs could suddenly go faster and bring me further than they’ve ever had before. It was great.
I was excited for most runs. I was excited to see new sights, to feel my legs go when I told them to go, to feel my lungs burn but still manage. I laced up my shoes that Saturday afternoon and went off on that long run. 15 kilometres starts at my house, goes down Balestier, to Lornie road past Thomson and MacRitchie Reservoir, back down Bukit Timah Road, past Novena and back home.
But fitness, as good an ideal to strive towards, never constitutes a perfect journey. The run started to get tiring. The kind of tired where you’re not breathless, nor are your legs in pain, but somehow you’re just exhausted and don’t quite want to go on. It was only 7 kilometres in, but I told myself that I could manage. I’d gone longer feeling worst before. And so I went down, past the Adam road stretch after Lornie road. The sky was grey as usual, there was a slight drizzle halfway through but it abated. The sun never threatened. It was humid as ever. I grit my teeth, and tried desperately to keep my breath in check.
And so down Bukit Timah Road is when I decided to try go a little faster. Only six kilometres left, it wouldn’t be too hard. The tiredness went away a little bit. I was confident enough to go stride for stride with my imagined pace, before the pavement thinned a little. Vehicles of every size passed from behind, some closer than others, but that’s the danger of running with the flow of traffic: your back is to the cars so you can’t see them coming at you. I keep up a good tempo, passing Botanic Gardens and CCAB soon after. Ok, good. The pace is good. I keep check of the time and the forecast is that I’ll be back home in 25 minutes.
And then the pavement got even bumpier and I went with it, paying careful attention to my knees. And then it happens. I lose my footing when one foot hits a bump on the pavement and I stumble. I try to retrieve my footsteps but it was too late, my steps were impossibly synchronised before that and suddenly the tempo was shattered and I just fell forward.
There are two ways to fall; you either go face flat and get both your knees ruined or you do this break fall thing where you turn to your side and land on your knee, hip then shoulder. It spreads out the impact so your knees don’t have to bear the brunt of the fall. I didn’t expect myself to choose the better option, but I did. I cushioned the fall almost instinctively by turning and rolling over, landing on my side then rolling over on my back, sprawled out on the main road and facing the sky. I might have scraped the side of my knee, and my shoulder was screaming slightly, but I was alive.
I stood up and just continued running. I didn’t think about the pain so much, but just went on. The shoulder started to sting a little, and as the air brushed past my knee the wound would liven up. Eventually I slowed down a little in case of any injury (my knee did still hit the ground regardless), and made the rest of the distance home. I was exhausted.
I write this because upon reaching back I realised how lucky I was. As I rolled over I may have cushioned the blow, but what happened in the meantime was that my entire body went onto the road, and I was left staring at the sky, helpless. It occurs to me now with frightening clarity that there was really nothing stopping me from being hit by oncoming traffic had oncoming traffic been there to greet me from my tumble. All that happened, as I recall now, was me being sprawled out, and a silver van in the distance slowing down a little until I got up and running again. Life went on as usual after that five second incident. There just so happened that the road was empty, and it just so happened that I am alive right now.
I could argue for hours about how running on pavements is dangerous, that running is dangerous. That Singapore has narrow roads and reckless drivers. The possibilities are endless. But the fact is that I’ve always been running on pavements, and running, whether dangerous or not, is not something I’d be giving up anytime soon. All I can say is when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. A hefty probability to swallow, but probability nonetheless. Earlier last year, there was a woman who fell off her bicycle on the pavement and onto the road near my house. A heavy vehicle failed to notice her and crushed her under large wheels. What separates me from her is essentially timing. Any other time of the day could have seen this post never being typed and published.
So what is there to say? Of all our time on this earth maybe 99% of it is spent not thinking about its end. And that one percent happens mostly at times like these. That if things happened slightly different that you wouldn’t quite be the same anymore. Or that you wouldn’t even be alive.
Normally when I run I think of its pleasures, I think of the cool air that hits my face while meandering down damp MacRitchie paths and the thrill of the final bell, but on occasion running places me on a road sprawled out onto incoming traffic. I am cast into the dark realm of could-have-beens but fortunately did-not-happens. I learn that the hand that gives can as easily take away everything, all at once. And that helps me treasure every opportunity I have out there, every last breath I take while I’m still alive.
And that’s the whole point: running reminds me of the things we take for granted, from the simple things like breathing and moving my feet, to the larger issues of life and death, along with the fragility of it all. And that maybe if we considered the things we took for granted and placed just some importance upon them, that we can begin to slowly unravel what the world wants to tell us. That it’s pretty amazing to be alive, let alone sustain this alive-ness in any good measure.
So when I look at myself now, three months from that day I fell down at Bukit Timah, I see someone who is just grateful to be out there. And no matter how painful or demanding or disappointing running may turn out to be, this underlying contentment should always stay. Because as good as personal bests and individual achievements are, they’re not what keeps me running. Being alive and well is what keeps me running. The latter is what I should always strive for.