0436: I Need to Run Again

(I tried to go for a run a few days back. I wanted to feel like things were okay, and in many ways, it was a day that felt very much less than okay. This void often drives me mad, and not often does this negativity find its way to the page. I prefer to keep such negativity separate from my writing. At the meantime, I felt like my body was ready for something light. It was a particularly hazy day, but I tried to eliminate any excuses. I jogged a few times down a long road near the campus, back and fourth at a constant pace. There was suddenly the tingling in my right ankle, the soft tease of an injury that was hell bent on staying. I felt so much sadness in my chest at that moment. I just needed to feel ok again, and yet, it just wasn’t going to happen.)

The feeling of emptiness does rise from my stomach ever so often, permeates to my chest, and soon it gets hard to breathe. A lot of people choose to write about these feelings, sing it in a song or turn to something more divine to get them to a safer, more comfortable space. 

I choose to run.

Ever since I discovered running back when I was thirteen and awkward, I’ve been hooked. The feeling of control, solitude, defiance and spontaneity in the face of the depressing familiarity of life—a life that feels nothing more than a blank space when viewed from certain angles, at certain times. I don’t usually feel empty ( I consider myself an optimist, on the most part), but when I do, running always gets me back to where I want to be. (When the wind blows in your face and you’re surrounded by absolute civilisation or absolute nature and sometimes both and people are walking around, cars are chugging along lives are moving on but when you run you are moving through! You break into some routine you never once knew possible but now know to be infinite and you can’t explain to anyone because they’d find you too lame or ask you to channel these feelings into something with more form and precision and you are having none of it. I could go on).

Then I got injured in the middle of last year. It hasn’t been the same ever since, to put it simply. I was foolish back then. When injuries are fresh the key consideration is to always, always give it time. I don’t know how I could have thought of it otherwise. I tried to run it off albeit unsuccessfully and felt a lot of things give way, a lot of pain and a lot of warning signs ignored on the interim.

I don’t think I could ever forgive myself for that. Strange enough, there are a lot of things I can forgive myself for; missed opportunities, failed timings and lost feelings. It sucks for a while but as people we are bound to feel such things, bound to live with such disappointments. Whatever it is, I try to let go of these things in hope of a better tomorrow. I would love to blame myself, but what use is there? At every moment in time you just have to figure out whats best for yourself in a snap. There’s no revealing what the future holds so you’ll just have to feel around in the dark. Sometimes you fail at that, and so what if you do?

But this? This injury was just pure foolishness. I sacrificed something that I could have done for myself. That is one thing in the world you should never have to sacrifice; the things you can find joy doing alone.

I need to run again.

(Lessons learnt:

  1. Don’t blame yourself; the future is a dark space and you’re only groping around madly. It’s okay to fail, just carry on and continue struggling.
  2. The right balance between logic and instinct is the most sought after possession nowadays. People call this wisdom, but I feel that luck and chance has a big role to play in this. What do you think? 
  3. Don’t let anything change who you are. Just keep to what you believe in, and stick to what you love regardless of the timing. The two toughest things in the world to deal with are not knowing what you love when the timing is right, and knowing with absolute certainty what you love when the timing is wrong. Both these situations are very central in shaping who we are and we should be wary of them.) 

10 Annoying Questions that Every Runner Hates

I’m a semi serious runner, or at least I will be once my injured leg heals (faster heal lah I’m sick of waiting) and I also reside in Singapore so yes, it’s hot here, really hot and humid and life here moves along pretty fast and a lot of us have a lot to do and very little time for sports. So when you choose running as your main sport or if you show a vague interest in running, you’re sure to be bombarded by these really annoying questions by all the non-runners out there. So here goes…

“Huh not tiring ah?”

Yeah I think we are well aware of how tiring running is because we actually do the running so when you tell us that it is tiring it’s not going to make any sense to us nor will your opinion be of any value. Yes, running is tiring. But we love it for that.

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Of course it’s tiring…

“Not hot ah?”

It’s hot alright. The temperature here soars to a sweltering 35 °C every now and then and even at night it can be a staggering 31 °C. But look at it this way: the faster you run, the more air resistance, the more the wind cools your face and it’s actually not too bad when you get into the rhythm. If you just walk? Then yeah, no wonder it’s hot.

“Not boring ah?”

If the scenery and the cars and the random passersby and the possible contact with nature isn’t enough, the pain you feel towards the end of your run should excite you a bit. If it doesn’t, then run faster. More scenery passes by and there’s more pain. Not boring at all, trust me.

“You siao ah?”

Yeah we’re crazy but you’re lazy.

“Where you find the time to run ah?”

We find it where you find time watching TV, using Facebook stalking your crush or playing street soccer. We find it when we most want it. YES! We actually want to run and if you want to do something you wont ever NOT have time for it.

“How you even breathe after you run so far ?”

Breathing is really simple you just breathe and like even when you’re running breathing is still breathing and it’s really the same process. Bet you didn’t know!

Eh did you sign up for the 10km marathon?”

I need to make this very clear. A marathon is 42.195 km and it’s a tribute to that messenger who sacrificed his life running so far. Hence a 10 km, at best, can only qualify as a “quarter marathon” while 21 km is called a “half marathon”. Anything more than a marathon is automatically called an “ultramarathon” so don’t just bunch every distance as a marathon. By right, anything less is just called a “run”.

“Why you don’t cycle or swim?”

Yeah we get it! Cycling is faster and there’s more wind and more classy cos the bikes can be branded and swimming is cooling. We totally understand but sometimes in life the best option isn’t always the most suitable one. We realise that running can bring us a certain kind of joy that cannot really be rationalised. Can you understand that?

“Got win the race?”

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I don’t know why people think that running is like the world cup finals where one team wins and the other loses. In actual fact there can be as many as 16 to 7000 runners in any long distance event. So to answer your question, no. No one’s going to win unless you’re lucky enough to ask that one guy who probably runs so much even I’d ask him the above questions.

“Never win the race ah….but you cannot just run a bit faster meh?

If I could I would. Seriously. Running isn’t very complicated. It isn’t like soccer or poker where bad decisions on the day itself can cause you to lose spectacularly. In the running world it all comes down to training and consistency. It’s not some last minute bankai kind of thing that people think it is, so STOP asking if we could have been faster. We love our sport and giving any less than our best is the ultimate disrespect to the running gods.

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It’s a passion, you love it more and more with every step you take 🙂

Coaching and the Gift of Running

“I want you to feel like you’ve just died. Yes, the feeling is similar to death. If you don’t understand what I mean after the race, then I’m sorry, you didn’t give it your best.” Motivating people is hard work. The approach is always the same, but the persistence makes for a tough job. The boys will look up at you and nod, they will give you some assurance. But in the end you’ll need to remind them again and again. The world out there is full of temptations; it isn’t easy to stay motivated.

I volunteered to take charge of the long distance component of the school Track and Field team. The school I was working at being St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). There were two reasons for this. Firstly, it was because I was from the exact same track team six years back. The teachers still remembered me from back then and when they invited me to coach the boys, I was thrilled. Those days on the track were some of my fondest memories of SA. Secondly, it was because I basically loved to run. It sounds crazy, but there was something to be said about the feeling of taking long strides with the wind in your hair, hearing nothing but the sound of birds and cars, the sound of your own heartbeat, being with no one but yourself. It was amazing to me, and it brought me through tough times, school, and army, as well as dealing with being on my own. It helped me appreciate a lot of things. So yes, I latched onto this opportunity like a lazy sloth on a sturdy branch.

In the first few trainings, I could sense that there was a lot of work to do. The two teachers in charge, Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had been struggling to get things done because the coaches kept changing in the past and a lot of the boys were half-assed about track. I really admire their efforts because they didn’t have substantial background in track, and it was made harder because the school didn’t give it as much support as the niche sports (mainly rugby). At the first training, some of the boys would start walking during warm up, or weren’t serious in their stretching. I had to give them some talks about pursuing excellence and what not, but I wasn’t sure if that was particularly effective. I concluded that the boys didn’t have that desire. The culture was lopsided and they lacked an identity. A lot of them were in it for the points. Just like the problem I had with teaching literature, many of them chose the CCA simply because they had no other sport to join.

I was determined to change that. The methods are simple, but the persistence is hard. I made sure I was there beside them for the first month, running with them, shouting at them as we went along. Then just when they were about to give up I would shout, “SERIOUSLY, YOU’VE DONE FIVE SETS JUST TO GIVE UP ON THE SIX? ALRIGHT, GIVE UP NOW. I DARE YOU. GIVE UP LAH, COME ON, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU WANT TO GIVE UP ANYWAY!” A lot of them gave me exasperated looks, and some even gave up now and then.

Pushing them hard on the road...

Pushing them hard on the road…

And on the track.

And on the track.

No matter, I told them, I wasn’t going to give up even if they did. Upon reaching home I would text the group, prepare them for the next training, or tell them to jog over the weekends. I had to keep reminding them that it was a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot just hope to do things at the last minute and not put in consistent effort. I always linked it to studies and how you can’t study for the ‘O’ Levels one month in advance. I probably bored them to death, but I was persistent. I was once their age, and I know that with regards to running this sort of motivation is needed. In soccer or rugby it is very easy to find motivation; the entire world seems to be glorifying ball sports, and so it’s very easy to get caught up in that. What running instills in you is something more deep seated, and that is a sense of personal achievement. This was a mindset that was sorely missing in these boys, one that I had to help them discover.

I think being relatable helps, and it helped them believe in me. Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had a lot of experience in guiding the boys and planning out trainings, but they valued me because in all probability, I could relate better to them. I was in the boys’ shoes just a few years before, after all. We would talk and joke during and outside trainings, and it always made them feel at ease. The pain you feel would be less than the actual pain if you knew it came from a benign and understanding source. I had to be that cool, kind coach that only wanted the best for the kids. The balance between tough trainings and supportive coaching had to be discovered there and then.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa's birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn't.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa’s birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn’t.

What really encouraged me was our Intra School Cross Country. The upper secondary track boys got 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th! One of the lower sec boys clinched 1st, with two others in the top twenty. Sure, it was only within the school, but it was highly encouraging to them, and even more encouraging for me. A few weeks later, some of the sprinters attained second for the 4 x 100m during the Akira Swift Track and Field meet. They were presented with their medals before the entire school. Those were proud moments for us, and I told them later that nobody was going to shove us around, not rugby, not soccer. WE are runners, and as runners, we have to be the best at running. In time, we showed the entire school that we certainly weren’t just a bunch of ball-sport rejects, but a serious force to be reckoned with. I was in charge of these boys and no one was going to belittle us.

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The almost-clean sweep of 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th for the Intra-School Cross Country.

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Closely followed by a 2nd place for our 4 x 100 team at Akira Swift!

Training continued from that positive result, up till now. There was an Inter-School Cross country in between, but we didn’t fare as well for that. I kept telling them that they should only focus on themselves and not the competitors from the other schools. If you feel you’ve tried your best, it shouldn’t matter what your competitors did. They’ve probably trained harder than you in the past, so you cannot expect any miracles. Miracles are for the operating theatre, not the start line of a race. The miracle comes from the months of hard training, the sweat, the tears and the cries of I WON’T GIVE UP! The true miracle is the persistence of your mind. Well, I didn’t actually say that word for word (it would be epic if I did), but I articulated these thoughts to them well enough.

Sad as it sounds, I will be having my last training with them come Friday. I would love to continue with this bunch and send them off to the nationals in April, but I have my own commitments to attend to by then. I really do wish them all the best for that. They’ve been such a joy. Some of the less motivated boys would even text me now and then asking me “Sir, how should I train over the weekends”, or “Is my method of training good enough?” I am encouraged that some of my persistence has paid off, that this “culture of excellence” thing is slowly creeping into their minds. I think that beyond the long runs, dietary advice, painful stretching and reminders to run on the weekends, the best gift I could offer them was a renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is a special gift the running gods had granted me so many years back, so I feel it is only right if I helped them discover it as well.

For one last time, Up and On!

You guys will be missed. continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

You guys will be missed. Continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

Getting Back on Track

As you may or may not know, I spent the last three months nursing an ankle injury. Quite similar to my knee injury during JC2 right after my track and field finals (thank God!). Its a funny story really, one that features a good serving of stupidity. Much more than a days worth, definitely.

It was book out (I’m still in the army at this point) and it was peak hour. You know how the traffic is in Singapore. Pretty congested to say the very least. So I brace myself for what is to be a very long ride home. I mean, it’s Changi to Boon Keng (Do you guys even know of Boon Keng?) That’s when I start to think for myself. Maybe I don’t have to face the traffic… And that, my friends is when it all goes terribly wrong for me. When it comes to running, I adopt a do first, think later approach. Because when you start to think, let’s be honest — you’d never ever run again. So I just put on my running shoes absent-mindedly, held my credit cards and my phone in one hand and I was out there door, or the gate. Whatever, you get the idea. The amount of thought I put into this? Not enough, apparently.

It’s not long before I realise that 18km without any real build up wasn’t exactly beneficial for my body. Besides, I was also wearing the wrong pair of running shoes for that distance (I know right, different running shoes for different distances — what a creep). This pair didn’t have much of a sole so in the end, the results were rather predictable. It just hadn’t hit my brain yet that I may just be hurting my body in the process of my commute home.

My ankle hurt after that but that didn’t seem like a good indication to stop. I just kept on running. The pain wasn’t so bad at first. It came and went, like passing clouds. It didn’t really bother me so much. As a runner you’re trained to trick yourself. This pain is real, this pain isn’t (all pain is real by the way). This pain can be overcome, this pain can’t. You had to make decisions fast. Categorize things. Lie to yourself. To give up or to press on? And of course, I wasn’t giving up. And that is my greatest flaw. I chose to be brave at the wrong time, and I only chose to be brave for myself. Its the sort of payback you get for being young and thinking your body can last forever.

It was right after I ran my personal best 10km at Jurong Lake (under 40 minutes!) that things started to get bad. And I mean, really bad. On a short training run it became obvious that I wasn’t going to run again anytime soon. The passing cloud became a thunderstorm. It blocked out all the sunlight. Well, enough with the metaphors. Basically, it fucking hurt.

I was in and out for a while after that. I waited, to no avail. After a month or so I tried pacing my friends for the 2.4 km run and paid for it after. I even tried to go for the army cross country trials. Looking back, it was like throwing alcohol into a burning building. Bad as the situation already was, doing that could only make things worst.

I went to a sports doctor and got an X-ray done. Everyone suspected it was a torn muscle or strained ligament. It showed symptoms of such. Slight pain when you put weight on it, slight limping at its worst. But what the X-ray revealed was a hairline crack in my tibia. In other words it was a stress fracture on my ankle. Holy cow. Who would’ve expected that.

From that day on, I treated running like a nun treats sex. I simply didn’t do it anymore. There wasn’t any point. To see that X-ray, that 2 cm line on my bone, it frightened me. It made me rethink everything. There was something more important than pursuing the things you like. Maybe this thing you like is an extension of yourself. You don’t feel like you are yourself anymore. Like a singer who gets throat cancer or a butcher who breaks his hand.  You stop doing what you’ve known for so long. You feel down for a while. You’re unsure about what to do. Its a stifling feeling — yes it is. But then it hits you, that this is exactly the affirmation you needed — that you really loved the thing you’ve lost. Sounds pretty damn cheesy but what absence has taught me is to treasure the presence. When I’m well again, I’ll know exactly what to do. Pursue running with passion, but never never to overkill.

I stepped out of my house yesterday morning and went for a light jog. Its been three months and I haven’t felt any pain for a month now. I ran a few kilometers and kept taking notice of the injured ankle. As far as I could feel, all was good. I reached the last part of the run, realizing that my fitness had plummeted. A few times, my lungs almost gave out and threatened to slow me to a walk. But no, I realised through the whole thing: this is what I love. And somehow when you believe in something so much, you’d do everything to make things happen. So I finished the run.

But I guess finishing the run and accomplishing things in general isn’t the most important thing. I remember this running quote I once chanced upon. “Run hard, run far, but never outrun your passion for running.” These three months have taught me that giving up your dreams when you have to and putting them on hold may just be the best way to pursue them. Give these dreams respect. Because when you’re so into something its all too easy to lose yourself and lose your passion in the process.

Next stop will be Standard Chartered Half-Marathon in December. Who knows how that will go? I guess you never know. And that is the beauty of running for me.