Strong

Today’s workout was simple, yet gruelling, six repetitions of 1.6km, at 1 minute 28 seconds per round. That would be an 8:48 2.4km pace, with 1 minute and 28 seconds rest between each set.

The first set is always the easiest. Sure, you tend to go out too fast, but by the time it’s over there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank. the first set is always the easiest. Remember that.

The second set comes with it’s own challenges, but by and large it is still manageable. Four rounds around the track come and go. I feel a little breathless at the end of it but no alarm bells are ringing yet. Still, I can walk around without a grimace on my face. My eyes are on the ground but my spirits are slightly higher. I think I can do this.

My watch tells me it’s time to go again. Third set. No looking back. After this it’s the halfway point. I run but mid-set my legs feel heavier than I last remembered, and I feel like I’m pushing a bit harder to maintain the same pace which felt effortless in the first set. One round, two, three. I imagine the final bell ringing and maintain a good pace and finish the fourth round. I make it on time but I’m really feeling it now. I’m not sure if I can do three more sets. More often than not it’s at the halfway point that people begin to doubt.

But there’s no time to doubt because time seems to move faster the more tired you are. My watch shows that the rest is almost up. I try to catch my breath and just manage to get my heart rate low enough for yet another pounding.

the fourth set is the second toughest set of the workout. It’s when you’re too far from the finish to really appreciate your suffering, but yet not totally depleted yet so still have some energy. But make no mistake, that energy is running out. I try to maintain my form. I try focusing on my training buddy’s back. I try to look at the floor. I try to look at the sky. I try anything I can to make the time I spend exerting myself feel less than it actually is. But it seems to stretch on for eternity. If set three is about doubt, set four is about trying. When set four is over I try by best not to put my hands on my hips. I go to my bottle and take a small sip of water. This, too, is an act of trying. I prepare myself for the toughest set.

Set five. It’s everything you don’t want from a set. It’s like the problem child, the obligatory vegetable dish, the typo in a blog post. It’s too far from the end for you to hope for anything yet you’re already almost depleted and you just know that you’ll be dead by the end of it. I want to stop. My legs feel deliriously heavy and I’m not able to breathe comfortably by now. I’m almost gasping for air but surprisingly I still go on. I do all I can to put my fatigue on hold and just keep myself moving forward. I cannot stop. Once I stop then everything is ruined. My previous four sets would go to waste. By entire semester would come crashing down. Stop, and the entire world ends. No. Stopping is not an option. Stopping is for people who don’t become better. I need to be better. And so I continue. I continue not because I necessarily chose to or because I’m crazy. I continue because I’ve primed myself to believe that there simply is no other choice.

And so set five is over. Set six. I’m dead by now but set six is the most magical set of all. It’s the set that comes with the light at the end of it. It’s the set that comes with the promise of the end. It’s the set that you won’t stop even if you tried to. Because you’re there, and nothing can be in your way. I run the sixth set with confidence. It’s tiring as hell, but once you go through set five, you don’t think too much about that anymore.

I finish my workout five seconds ahead of schedule. I walk around and feel like a large heat pack has engulfed my body and it’s burning all around but I couldn’t care less because I had finished what I set out to do.

I am not a strong person. I get distracted very easily. I lose motivation here and there, and I don’t follow up with things as well as I’d like to. I’m terrible at doing things that can actually help my life. I procrastinate more than I should. I lose things easily and forget important dates and timings and am always five minutes late. I try to change but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

But when I run, I put all of that aside. I am as strong as I can be. I don’t give up just because things get a little tough. I don’t have very strong motivations, to be sure. I just like running, I guess. I don’t think I need any more reason than that to run. And so I keep it up. I go for every training. Sometimes I’m five minutes late. But I arrive. I keep going. Halfway through the set it feels like death but I keep going. I tell myself that it’s all for some imaginary greater good. I tell myself this strength is what makes the world go round. I also tell myself that if I conquer this then I can conquer anything.

And conquer everything in my own strength as well. I tell myself that I’m definitely enough on my own to just do something I can be proud of. That I’m better than reliance and all that dependency bullshit. That I’m really better than any uncertainty that is around me. Much better. Even if it’s just for one hour during a Thursday evening workout.

I tell myself that that is enough.

 

 

Running has to be a Labour of Love

I don’t know why, but writing about running makes more sense when I’m injured and can’t run. But that’s what it has come down to, at least for the coming week. I did a few too many speed workouts and the area around my hip flexor feels slightly off. I can’t really walk a few steps without feeling a slight pain inch up my upper thigh. This was probably bound to happen given that I was training five times a week at one juncture.

As I was hobbling along today I realised just how tough running actually is. Not that I thought a lot about it as I was training. There’s no point questioning so much. When people ask me why I like to run I always have my answers on a template and it looks something like this:

I like to run because I can explore the area. I like to run because it feels good to feel fast. I like to run because the improvement I make is often very tangible, and I like challenging myself in that way. I like to run because there’s nothing like feeling the wind play with your hair. 

All these reasons are good reasons, but they often fall flat the moment I’m injured. When I had my stress fracture two years ago I hardly talked about running, mainly because I was ashamed that I couldn’t run, but also because all the above reasons felt more and more like a distant memory to me. And besides, different things began to take over my life when I was injured that in one way or another filled the void left by running. I found out that I could write when I was sad, and there were other more dubious means to get high without running.

In those moments without running it was as if I never ran and that conjuring these thoughts of running would only serve as an unnecessary torture. Like the reminder of a past love.

And maybe that was it, we don’t want to be reminded of past glory in all its various forms, because more than just showing that we’re no longer as good as we used to be, it also shows us the transient, passing nature of greatness itself, and that it can be a  very scary thing to possess in the first place.

I would say that right now I’m faster than I’ve ever been before, but with all that ability comes the nagging fear that this can be all taken away from me, as it has for this week. In a sense I’m lucky to have had past experience with injury to be wise enough to not push the limits. And so I rest for now. But as hopeful as I am for progress, I am often cynical and remind myself that this might just be it; the height of running glory might be here and now. I can do everything to prevent myself from injury and stagnation and it might still go awry. I might look back not long from now lugging a satchel of memories of my glorious past. I’m all too familiar with that sinking feeling.

Injuries bring forth all these insecurities. I am the adopted child afraid of being sent back to the orphanage should I misbehave. I try very hard to prevent all these problems from happening, and as I do I start to slowly discover why it is that I truly like to run.

A friend once told me that he doesn’t run because running was too easy, and anyone could be fast. You just run all day, and that’s it. He would rather play a ball sport that depended on something more interesting like team dynamics and agility.

My coach would agree with my friend on the first part of his claim: that running was easy. My coach told me on our first training that every athlete comes to him with passion, but the mark of a true runner is someone who does everything else right outside of their passion. “Running is the easiest thing to do, anyone can run. It’s your (and he would pause here for dramatic effect) lifestyle that I’m more interested in.” And by lifestyle he meant everything from the hours of sleep to the temperature of the water you drink (no cold drinks is the order I’d been given). And so from there you see what it really means to be a runner: not about being fast or feeling fast, but about the ability to protect and nurture that passion. Running is like the hole in the donut. It’s everything else around it that really matters, but yet it is the hole that defines the donut.

I’m still learning that lesson. There are days when I make mistakes, and let my guard down. I sleep a little late and drink with my friends on occasion. I sometimes fail to plan my meals properly. Little things like that tend to go wrong, but I’m learning. I’m also learning to love the entire process of nurturing. You can’t love your performance whilst dread rehearsals and say that theatre is your life. And maybe it’s the same for running, and everything else. I may be wrong, but I think true passion probably doesn’t work around a bunch of concessions. You either love everything about the process, or end up convincing yourself to.

So my friend was right, it was easy to run. Anyone can run. But to be a runner? It takes a whole lot of dedication, a whole different way of life. True passion isn’t just about love, but loving the labour of love.

And as for the satchel of memories that I’ll carry into the future? I think future me would be proud if I did everything with love right now. I have my shot at some degree of greatness. And if I do everything I can to protect it, I can look back and have no regrets.

So why do I like to run?

I like to run because I loved everything else that came with it as well, and that has slowly become the way I live. 

You know what, I’ll just stick to the first answer if anybody asks.

Being Alive Keeps Me Running

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.

How Running Saved My Semester

As the semester draws to a turbulent close I find myself with a lighter heart, and even though the workload mounts I feel like everything is well within my grasp, and this wasn’t something I could have said confidently 2 months ago. Things were darker back then, a lot of issues were unresolved and I was just beginning my journey through an overloaded semester. I think I was a little crazy then to think that I could have done it, but I’m here and still persevering. I have good explanations as to why.

For some strange reason I fell down over the weekend while running in the rain down Bukit Timah Road.  My knee swelled up the next day and so I had no choice but to hang up my running shoes for the week. It was the worst of times, but also the best, because week 13 meant I had four assignments due, and it also meant that having more time to do them, and taking a rest from running may have been the better course of action. So the last few days were spent reading and icing my legs, doing my assignments till late into the night and trying my best not to think so much about running. After all, it was the first time in two months that I hadn’t run for more than two days in a row. And so I was granted a small space in my little corner to reflect on what precisely running has done, both to my semester and my life.

At the start of the semester when things were really bad and uncertain I made sure that I would make the most of every training session. I couldn’t sleep very well at times and I messed up a few crucial races, and hated myself for that for a while. It was just this self blame that I had to convert to better results in the future so I spent the day looking forward to every training session. When negative thoughts crept up I imagined the feeling of the track, the bright lights and the people that would be running alongside. Running was the safest space for me. I sat in classes sometimes feeling terrible but always I knew, running would be waiting for me at the end of the day. And that was how most of the first few weeks passed; sometimes aimless, sometimes lonely, but always eager to get running.

And then on Saturdays and Tuesdays were the long runs, stretched out languorously over Clementi or MacRitchie reservoir. I would look forward to those too, because they were long 45 minute to 1 hour periods where I could be on my own, truly away from everyone and just challenge my own self doubts in the simplest, most brutal manner I knew. Any accomplishment I felt was truly my own, not dependent on anyone else but myself. Sure, long after I’d done my stretching and showered the trials of the day would encroach upon me again but in those few moments I felt like I could truly be free. And it didn’t just feel like freedom, it pretty much was freedom.

I allowed weeks to pass this way. I measured my days by runs. I marked my routines through rest days. I sat in class restless at times, looking forward to the next training session. The training would end and I would already look forward to the next one. I didn’t let my mind wander so much to the sadder things that could have easily taken over. When I heard that an acquaintance passed away late in September I was walking towards training, and I remember running with a heavy heart but running anyway. I struggled that day but I kept thinking to myself just what a privilege it was to be able to run, to be alive. That maybe if I couldn’t run for myself I would run for those that could no longer run, and that if I could find joy in something so simple then I could find meaning in every other challenge in my life as well. Running is, after all, the ultimate act of continuation.

I planned my time around my runs, I did work beforehand so I had more time to run, I said no to social gatherings and drinking sessions just to sleep earlier, to be more prepared physically to deal with the workouts. I tried not to compromise too much because I knew of the slippery slopes that awaited, how one thing could lead to another. In many ways sadness works in the same way. Give yourself some allowance and the whole mind and body slips into despondence. If i could keep to my runs, I would be able to hold everything else together; student organisation meetings, friendships, rest times, study times. I built a coherent structure to keep my life in order and in the middle of it were these runs.

And then the runs became the framework for my thoughts as well as for every other challenge. Sometimes during a run things would get tough and I would think to myself I can’t do this anymore, but I look at my life and notice how I still continue living and trying despite everything. And so I go on running, because if I could do this everyday then surely I could do this for something simple like a run. And the same applies from the other perspective: when things got tough in life I would look at the run I completed and think to myself that hey I completed a run which is basically the toughest thing anyone would have to endure. So going by that logic I must be able to go through life as well. One thing led to another and I would persevere no matter what, through 11km tempo runs to assignments due the day after. I could do it, because each experience validated the next. I could endure anything because I wasn’t raised to start walking 6km into a 10km run. I was here to fight.

So here I am at the edge of the semester, deep into week 13. I’m deep into a fight that’s almost over. And I can’t wait to get back into it. The road is dark and the miles are long. The street lights guide me home, but it’s a long, long way from home. But that’s okay. I’ve done this before, and time and again I’ve made it. Sure, when I ran in the rain down Bukit Timah Road I fell down, but I got back up. I’m no pushover. So bring it on, week 13. By the end of this semester you’ll just be another completed workout and me a stronger runner.

 

What Happened on Sunday Morning

The starting gun goes off at about 6:30 in the morning, and I am excited. It doesn’t take more than 5 seconds to get past the start line from where I stand in the start pen, and before I know it, I am in full stride, with the morning wind blowing in my face. All of us are running down Nicoll Highway and I feel good, with lots of energy in my legs and my breathing is stable. I remind myself that only 50 meters have passed, and that 9950 meters lie ahead.

My pre race routine has been largely contrived out of a series of past failures involving too little sleep, the wrong breakfast, the wrong methods of hydration and improper stretching. Today I am smarter; I wake up at 5 am with 7 hours of sleep in my veins and I pop two slices of banana walnut bread, before drinking a mixture of water and Pocari Sweat. The previous night had me icing my legs and massaging any sore spots. I also remind myself that this was my first race in a little over two years. How it got to that, I will elaborate on a few kilometres down the road. Now, back to the run.

There are a barrage of runners vying to get into good positions, overtaking, squeezing and jostling about the first one kilometre or so. No one seems to be settling down to their actual race pace, because I can see in the way they run that they’re straining pretty hard. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, maybe it’s the herd mentality. People don’t want to look like they’re losing out in any way. I keep my pace in check, looking at my watch and guessing what distance I’m at, what pace I’m running. I don’t have a GPS watch so I do all this with experience, measuring out stride and distance, and with reference to the occasional distance markers that pop out every kilometre.

Passing the national stadium and across the bridge to marina barrage had me at 3km with a timing of 12:09. This is too fast, it seems, for I am going at just a little over four minutes per kilometre. Put this into a 2.4km context and you’ll get roughly 9:40. My mind tells me to slow down, but my body feels totally fine. I’m still maintaining a good breathing tempo, and the best part was, I wasn’t even trying that hard. I felt like there were tougher sections of the race still to come.

At 4km my timing was 16:12, still a hair above 4 minutes per kilometre but a good indication that I was still fine was the fact that I bothered checking my watch for the pace. I turned my head and looked at the view to my right, the sun slowly making its way above the horizon as it lit up the Singapore skyline which reflected itself off the Singapore river. Everything was in various shades of blue. The foliage on the left gave off a pleasant scent that was almost sweet, yet strangely damp. What a privilege it is to run.

5 kilometres passed in 20:10, and to my pleasant surprise I was still overtaking people. I figured that if I ran faster for the second half of the run, that I could potentially go under forty minutes. I struggled with that mindset, debating silently on whether I should (literally) make a run for it. It seems strange that I would even consider not running faster, because to the observer it’s very easy to say “Just run faster lah, what’s the harm?” But I know after some experience that running fast too early in the race can incur the greatest of harms. You could slow down at the end, be overtaken by a few runners and end your race disastrously. Or worst, you could hit the wall altogether and start walking. I had already ignored 2 water points and overtaken some of the more overzealous runners who suddenly felt like they needed a drink, all just to keep to my pace. I was finally running across Marina Barrage, towards Gardens by the Bay. I gave speeding up some thought, keeping my eye on the runner in front of me. He was a bearded guy and breathing intensely but keeping a good pace. Most of the runners fade out around here, but this guy was a fighter, not allowing me to overtake him as we proceeded on our mid-race jostle. I had half a mind to start a conversation but I decided that there were better places for that. We took turns leading (it sounds like a dance but feels nothing like it, mainly because I can’t really dance) and eventually ended up shoulder to shoulder by 6km.

We passed the 6km mark and I looked at my watch. It said 23:58. I had sped up to go under the magic 4 minute per kilometre pace without even meaning for it, all because I was trying to chase this guy over the past kilometre. Both of us proceeded to overtake one female runner of African origin, and then a tall Caucasian male, before we hit the end of the garden and onto East Coast Parkway, parallel to the Helix Bridge and with Marina Bay Sands to my back. It was on this uphill that I passed the seven kilometre mark, and finally managed to shrug off the bearded guy. I don’t mean to frame him as a villain or anything, but there’s some satisfaction in saying goodbye to a guy who you’ve been trying to chase for a few kilometres on end.

But of course, it all came at a price. I didn’t check my timing at seven kilometres, and I was beginning to lose my running form. My breathing was harder and more irregular and I was grimacing. Basically, I was slowly dying. The only remedy for this sort of exhaustion would be to get to the finish line as soon as possible. Three kilometres left, and I told myself that I could do it, though through the pain it was hard to see a way this could end well.

As if on cue the Caucasian man I overtook earlier overtook me to my left. He had a manic look in his eyes, and with more than two kilometres to the finish line he was leaving everything he had on the roads. I followed him intensely at first but my breath soon got out of hand, and I slowed a little. I looked around desperately for the 8km mark, but there was none. I swung my arms harder and reached the water point ahead.

I grabbed a cup of water, and mustered all the previous experiences of drinking water whilst running to take a gratuitous sip, before pouring the rest of the water on my head. The water lapped my face and flowed down my chest like it does in seductive shampoo commercials though I looked neither fragrant, clean, nor seductive. I noticed that the Caucasian guy slowed down to grab a sip and so I ran right past him! Yes, this was my time to shrug him off.

But of course, that didn’t happen. He was back at it again, overtaking me from the right this time, and I got down to chasing him, staring at a particular spot on the back of his running singlet and listening to the sound of his pant legs rubbing against each other, a sound of pure inefficiency with the moist friction creating a squishy sound. I stared long and hard at his back, reducing this man into these two concepts of sight and sound and just chasing after them. 8 kilometres had passed and certainly there was no marker, so I had no choice but to wait for the 9 km sign.

The man suddenly sped up. The back of his singlet got further and further from me, the sound of his squishy pants fading. It didn’t look as if I could catch him. Then 9km passed by, and I glanced at my watch. 36:16. I had slowed down considerably, and calculating the odds of going under 40 minutes, I realised I had to run under 3:44 for the last kilometre.

I just couldn’t do it, I told myself. It was already quite a chore having to maintain a 4 minute per kilometre pace, and the fact that I hadn’t managed to do it by nine kilometres definitely meant something. Besides, I just came back from a yearlong injury, I couldn’t expect myself to suddenly surge to a good timing so quickly. I had to take it slow, take it slow, take it slow.

To be honest the past year had passed by in stages leading up to me running again. I rested for a good portion of 2015, and the first few months of 2016, not running at all and not doing any impact sports (not like I was good at any). Like I said, this was the first race I had participated in in 2 years. The last run was back in the end of June 2014, where I blazed to a personal best 10km and got injured soon after that. I did get the coveted under 40 minutes I was dying for, but I got injured for almost 2 years after that. It was not worth it. I tried to run, again and again, giving myself excuses, finding shortcuts that involved anything but giving my injury time. That was the first stage, that of denial. When I finally accepted that I couldn’t run without risking permanent injury came the second stage, that of pity. I stopped exercising and developed a hodgepodge of bad habits all in the name of resignation. Then at the start of this year I decided to reform myself. That was the third stage, where I started doing meaningful Calisthenic workouts and going for swims at least twice a week. I signed up for physio sessions once a fortnight and understood the limitations of my body. I felt fitter, fell into better habits and waited patiently for my body to heal. And heal it did. By March this year I started to run again, but besides running I had picked up all these lessons along the way about how to respect a body that needed it. To accept my body for its limitations and work with them. Besides running I had been doing other things like underwater jogging, strength workouts and some specialised stretching, all in the bid to get back to shape. It has worked so far, and I have learned that determination and discipline go beyond the time between putting on your running shoes and taking them off. For discipline to be effective, it has to become a lifestyle.

To put it simply, I am learning how to be a strong runner, and not just a fast one.

I looked as the Caucasian man ran further and further away and smiled to myself. It’s okay, I thought. Another day will come and another battle will be fought. We can lose some of our battles and still end up as whole people. Of course, that wasn’t exactly what I thought, but I rationalised that it would be ok to let this one go. I ran up the remaining section of the park connector, that led to a road. Around the bend to the final stretch, I looked at my watch and it barked back the timing: 38:30, one and a half minutes to 40:00. That was when all rationality flew out the window.

One minute and thirty seconds feels like forever when you’re in a planking position, or stuck in a boring class. But if you have the right amount of adrenaline and are sprinting for the finish, one and a half minutes collapses upon itself and feels like a much, much shorter amount of time. After turning into the final bend, something clicked and I just went for it. The cries of caution left my head. I suddenly believed that I could do this; that I could actually go under forty. The Caucasian man was a good forty meters in front of me by now, but that didn’t bother me in the least. I was in the zone, the crazy part of the workout where you’re in the last set but you somehow manage to squeeze out enough to produce a last minute sprint or in the dying seconds of a game where you score a miracle last minute goal. It was that sort of frenzied determination that ran through my veins. In many ways it’s better to chase than to lead, one being that you have a higher chance of realising your full potential.

I stared at the man from afar and crunched my face in pain. 40 meters became thirty, then became 20. I was running out of real estate before the finish line, but my legs gave it a final push. I stared intently at the back of his singlet. My calves burned with lactic acid and desire, and my lungs were on the edge of collapse. My heart felt light.

I overtook him with about 10 meters left, and crossed the finish line smiling.

That was about the same time I stopped the watch and looked at my timing.

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Shaking hands with all the relevant parties that crossed the finish line soon after, I left the finishers area feeling like I had just taken part in something very special. I think for most people who observe us running, the activity we partake in will always be just as it is, a run, one that we drag themselves up on lonely Sunday mornings to suffer in. For me, and for us runners it is very different. What happened on Sunday morning was the absolute triumph of patience and dedication that I observed in every last runner before and after me. There were determined faces; those that panted and strained and had the courage to go out hard. But more than just the running, for me this run was about the not running, about the time I had waited to finally get back on track and do the thing I loved, and feel good about it. I know I would have felt the same way whether I went under forty minutes or not, for what are numbers when placed beside the determination of the human heart? I would have been proud of myself for at least trying, proud for sticking it out with my broken bones.

In running you never ever get there, and you never ever win. Even if you win a race, there’s a faster version of yourself waiting somewhere down the road, and it’s always going to be up to you to chase him. If there’s anything that running has taught me it’s this: that human potential is limitless.

After collecting the complimentary finishers medal I had the privilege of watching the sun slowly rise from behind a dark blue horizon. It slowly edged its way out like a koi reaching its mouth up for floating fish food, emerging from murky waters with a hue of brilliant orange. It lit up the entire sky as more and more runners finished their race, almost like a well-timed grand finale. Soon the entire sky was a bright yellow, shining brilliantly, brightly, warming the earth and her sweaty human bodies, alive with running.

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Why I Run

Today I had the blessed opportunity to go for a fifteen minute run. This was recommended by my physiotherapist 2 weeks ago, and so today I tried it. This is what I have to say.

Firstly I felt that it was tiring. I haven’t been running for a while, and instead have substituted this with swimming and a bodyweight workout that have both gotten me feeling considerably fitter than I had been feeling last semester. I don’t actually want to be moulded into what society feels every man should be, the strong muscular anchor of emotional stability and physical sturdiness— I just wanted to do the things that make me happy. And I must confess, doing all these other workouts really got running out of my mind. When I finally ran today I felt heavier than I had ever been. I put on about 2 kilos from all the working out, so I guess this amounts to no surprise. It was tiring.

But then it felt really liberating. After a while I realised that I was free, free to run around my neighbourhood and truly explore. That was what running has always been to me, a means to explore, discover and create. It was never a chore, never a reason to keep fit. It was more than that. As I ran past stationary cars stuck in the rush hour jams, pedestrians walking back home and buses packed like a can of sardines I finally realised that this was perhaps what I was always meant to do. You know that you love something when you see it in a vastly different way than everyone else. To me, that’s running, pure and simple.

The hope of the moment is, that I get to really run again. I’m not contented with these fifteen minute reveries the same way long distance lovers will never, never be contented with hour-long Skype calls. It just isn’t the same; I don’t feel like I’m communicating with the earth the way I was meant to. I have a twenty minute run due next week, and I hope to monitor the state of my leg closely. I don’t want to miss a moment on the road. Every step I take is like one taken by a prisoner on parole, I miss this freedom more than life itself, whilst knowing that they could very well mean the same thing.

For when I run I feel a weird mixture of things. It feels like I’m running away from everything, yet at the same time I feel like I’m running towards myself, chasing a version of me that I really want to be, the resilient, never say die attitude that I hope to espouse at every point in my life. Yes. That’s what I really chase in the few minutes that I run, this version of me that I hope can be as strong in real life as on the road. It’s this version that really escapes me in my daily life, anyway. That’s why we call it a chase.

It reminds me of things that I’ve missed out on in my life as well. Missed opportunities, moments where I could have helped someone or proved myself to be a better person. Sometimes both. And yet. I run to help myself deal with all the times I fell short. I run to make up for a lack. A lot of why I choose to write is reflected squarely in running. I don’t want to think that I’m running away from myself. That would be terrible, wouldn’t it? The feeling that you are constantly escaping from what you really are? I see a lot of people saying stuff like “you (perhaps their lover) help me forget” or “with you everything feels alright, I can escape from all this that is life”. But I don’t want to escape. I want to see myself for all I am, and square myself up and say to myself “I accept you for all you are, all your frailties and insecurities. You’re a beautiful person inside and out and I am glad to be in this body”. I feel like only I can ever tell myself that and that only I can be the medicine to the ailment, you know? I want running to help me realise that. To help me be okay with this person I am, and in fact, more than ok. I don’t want to march into someones life and use that person as a remedy for my lack, I want to be so much more than that. And same vice versa. It’s quite a leap, but believe it or not, running helps me see this version of myself that I want to be, before anything else.

And so that concludes the run. It is exactly fifteen minutes when I stop, in front of the neighbourhood fitness corner. I do a few sit-ups and pushups, divide these into three sets of consistent effort. My muscles ache and my breath is short but I love it. I lie on the floor and let the sunlight bathe me in warmth. I sweat, I pant, I smile to myself. The HDB flats loom over me, bathed in the evening sun as well. An Indian man walks past and just stares at me. A Chinese couple sit at the bus stop nearby and talk about what life has in store. I am in the middle of it all, a ball of sweat, struggling, yet feeling so good for it.

One day I will run again, for real, I think to myself.

 

 

1933 and the Sadness that Followed

Tonight I was supposed to meet this friend at the train station, and so took the bus from my campus, off onto the flyover and smack on the slippery roads freshly sprayed with light rain. It was a cooling day, and I felt less tired than I should have.

On the bus my friend messaged me, telling me that he would be fifteen minutes late, and so I decided to take a rest stop halfway.  After all, I didn’t like waiting around at stations. So I stepped off the bus, into the sort of weather that invites you with open arms to linger in its presence, the fleeting moment after rain and before sun. Perfect weather, really, where mist and cool air meld into each others presence.

I looked at my watch, and it read 19:33. I walked a bit down the hill and towards the stands of the NUS track, where a low hanging mist sat over the entire area, footballers and touch rugby players kicking and tossing about under this light blanket. I sat still and took out my book, reading the words of Milan Kundera. That was when I saw them, a bunch of runners, jogging slowly around the track, a spring in their step, invigorated by the inviting weather, a few of them turning around regularly talking to each other and caught up in each others presence.

I felt a stab of sadness all of a sudden, one that was bitter and resentful all the same. The runners kept on running, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and what not. So engrossed in their jog, nobody would have noticed if a green alien shot out from my chest. The coach looked on and talked to a few of the runners at a time, giving them advice on a higher kick, a more upright running form. The kind of thing a good coach would do.

If I had to narrow down this sadness to a specific source, I would blame it on memory. I think what running gave me wasn’t just an escape, but random memories of pain and triumph. Take my 1500 meter finals where my dad came down to support me in the rain, my quarter marathon in Thailand where I made friends with a Thai runner. Those failed runs where I would walk back, disgruntled but hopeful for the next run, heart beating in my chest, convinced that despite all these setbacks that I’d never give up . Where have those days gone?

Since my injury I had been asking myself if there was ever a substitute for running. I tried to swim, cycle, do some tabata workout. It all didn’t make me feel better, and even if it did it just never felt the same. I’ve lazed around a lot and although my environment has changed I still feel a gap inside. Without running, it just wasn’t the same. People always think that such gaps need to be filled by wholly significant things like lovers or religion but to me it had always just been two things; to write and run. We don’t need validation from another, but sometimes find answers within ourselves, to search deeper for something elusive. Even if you never find it, the journey itself should have been sufficiently rewarding and nostalgic. Again, I hope I’m making sense. I just want to be a better person and sometimes I try too hard and make no sense in the process.

The mist hangs over as I nurse this indescribable sadness. I could have been in there, running with these people, making new friends, and having people around me that shared the same passion. But I was denied, and cruelly so. What I had wanted so badly had finally materialised before my eyes, this elusive track and field team; one that physically exists and trains on Monday nights under brilliant floodlights.

The only difference was that I wasn’t part of it.

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