Keeping it real at SCHKM 2016

My weekend escapade in Hong Kong was a welcomed one. Though admittedly, it was a rather ill conceived idea at first: Spurred only by an email and a persuasion too hard to resist. Details later. But it all turned out alright in the end.

I remember receiving an 'invitational' email a few weeks before the official opening for the SCHKM 2016 registration. In it stated a special 'early registration' offer to those who managed to clock sub 3:30 in the preceding year. Knowing full well that it was a blatant bait for suckers the likes of me, I sat contemplating on it for a number of days before the expiry date....And at the 11th hour, against my better judgement, took the bite anyway. This method proved harder to resist. Firstly on grounds of the ridiculous frenzy involved on the official registration day. It is literally a race against time. You are up against the multitude of registrants with their rapid-fire-trigger-fingers. You may log on at 7 am on the dot. Yet somehow you are already in the queue. 1954 in line to even smell the site. What are the odds of getting a slot? And even if it is finally your turn to register, the only available slots left are in the second wave (6:45 am)!!! And based on my 2015 experience and the comments posted by many runners who had a taste of it this year, it ain't pleasant! But beggars can't be choosers. You just have to kiss that PB goodbye. 

Who on earth is that crazy about a marathon? And I can say that this is just getting worse. There will come a time when slots are 'sold' in the black market....I sincerely hope it won't come to that. I personally much prefer Boston Marathon's meritocracy approach to registration. The runners will need to verify their official PB to earn a slot in the Marathon Challenge. SCHKM will have to seriously consider this option in the near future as their full marathon numbers continue to grow. Otherwise, all they will get would be a bad rap and a growing dissension. (That said, they may still get away with it though given the trend of a 'emerging marathon market'.) However, done properly, and throw in the corral allotment, they can hope to iron out this issue. Learn from the Majors. Please!

So, I got my slot in the Marathon Challenge at 6:15 am. But the decision to go still hung in the air. I was starting a new job in a new state. And with that, much challenge of even finding a training place was among a list of other more pressing issues of relocation, readjustment etc. Nomadic as we were, it was still hard to settle right down to it, even after a few months. I miss my training grounds in Penang. Here, it just felt weird. Kind of like a hypnagogic state of " I running now?"  

So, the training suffered the most. Life's demands and commitments obviously took precedence. Since Osaka Marathon (end of October 2015), I had only done one 30km and a couple of 21kms passable as LSD. And other training days consisted of 6-9 km tempo runs. At least once weekly, I tried to squeeze in some hill intervals to work the strength. The rest of it was just gym workout on the Elliptical. 30-40 minutes of intense heart-stopping-type intervals. Thus, I was down to only a 4 days training week. I know, it's quite a lame schedule. Passable for a 3:15 but definitely not for a sub 3. Not even with the utmost optimism. 

Naturally, you can just imagine the thoughts going through my mind as 17/1/16 drew near. With this kind of form, why bother going there? What is the point of slogging through the 42.195km just to end up with a mediocre 3:15 or so....

Besides, it was not easy to just wonder off now that I have commitments in the hospital with my own inpatients. It is a hassle. Not to mention also the income lost. (I have to be realistic here la...) Don't forget the flights and accommodation, expenses and hours spent in a cramp claustrophobic cheap airline carrier..(No names!) and the jam endured to cross borders to get to Changi just to board that just doesn't add up. All in the name of a marathon!?!?

Imagine: after all that palava, you finally come to your much anticipated race. All excited and worked up. Somehow somewhere at 30km, you ended up with a human traffic jam due to merging crowds of slower runners. This is what happened to some of the Second wave Marathon runners. The frustration seemed a tat blown out of proportion at first glance but try to understand what it took for some of us out-of-town folks just to get there....SUCKS doesn't it?

Sorry for the digression. Anyway, I already said, I took an impulsive 'moment of lapse' kind of decision. Thus, chucked everything aside, packed up and just WENT. The only justification was a rather feeble one: I needed a break. Yes, try telling yourself that when you are somewhere at 35km enroute to the finish. Never mind the lack of preparation. No use crying over spilled milk. What is the point of people saying that anyway? "I didn't prepare well for it, so..." Boohoo...just suck up and deal with it. Either you decide not to do it. Or do it and accept the inevitable consequences. No one asked you not to prepare well for it. You didn't just realized the last minute that it was going to be a 42++km run. It is like going to war without ammunition and expecting to win. A bit silly huh?

Going into it, I knew my form. So my expectation was adjusted and lowered several notches. Still, it didn't mean that I should not try my best. I always maintain that whatever the race with whatever form, Go RUN YOUR BEST RACE. I like this motto. It keeps me real. Because life is too short to make half-hearted attempts.  


Everyone, I mean everyone who ran on 17/1/16 was unanimous about one thing: It was a wet wet day. As for the cold part, well, some like it that way. At least I did. But I dislike the sloshing of soaked socks and heavy shoes. It was like carrying dead weight along for the ride.  

I bumped into Choo Hooi, fellow Penangnite while enroute to the starting point. (Of all places right? What are the odds?) We were both going to 'take it easy' and quickly established that we should pace each other to keep company. But somehow, at the start, as the waiting crowd was advancing forward into the starting pent, I lost him. It was so typical of Hong Kong. Just like the MTR during peak hours: you either move or else others will move you along. So, that was how we were separated. 

I figured no one could sprint forward at the start anyway because of the sheer congestion unless you are the first few in line. So, I took it as my cue to take it easy during the first two km. At gun off, we were almost at each others' heels, shifting and shuffling through to avoid clashing and worst of all, falling. If there is any consolation for SCHKM: It is the same everywhere (Majors included) where there is a huge crowd. Corral or not. But one thing that may reduce this would be Boston's strict adherence to BQ when assigning the corrals. This may ensure a more seamless flow. But there is still the occasional jerk that loves to push others around just to get a step ahead. The Chinese have this saying: The same rice feeds a thousand kind of people. We may wear the same Asics shoes but to equally value or uphold a certain running etiquette is quite another matter. 

There was a slight change of route in the initial 5-6 km. Rumour has it that it was to avoid terror attacks in certain segments. I can't verify that. Anyway, it was all the same to us in terms of elevations and descents, for the major challenges were yet to come. Armed only with a stop watch, (GPS fails as we traverse the tunnels), I gradually increased my pace against the mileage markers while taking care to gauge my effort. The target was to achieve a comfortable cruising pace of 4:15. But due to the initial slower first 2 km, the pace was somewhat disrupted. I ended up with a 44 minutes @10km. It was about then that I caught up with Choo Hooi. We paced each other for a short while until I decided to up my pace to make up for lost time. So far so good. The breathing's still smooth. Helped occasionally by certain segments of descent, I reached the half way point @ 1:31. Along the way, I was glad to witness some speed demons the likes of Sheel Kohli and Alex Tai coming back from the other side. They were both headed towards sub 3 timing. (Sheel eventually did. But Alex just missed it by seconds.)  It was exhilarating to watch the fast runners. That is why I like these turnarounds, it inspires and gives you the much needed morale boost. I remember thinking to myself: Some day, I will fly just like that. 

Passing the half way mark was a relief but I guardedly cautioned myself not to get too carried away just yet. The race has barely begun. I did a quick reconnaissance and felt some slight muscle fatigue though the breathing was still in sync. I kept the same pace and reached 28km by 2:01. Still out and slower by a couple of minutes off the target pace, I attempted to step up my game and see how I fair. But over the next two km, I began to sense my pace dropping. Tiredness has crept in. I felt 'uneasy'. Yet, this wasn't quite the infamous 'wall'. (I have experience the wall before). The will was still strong but the pace has begun to fluctuate. It was getting harder to sustain ~4:15-20 consistently. 

I reached 30km at ~2:10. Somehow, it dawns on you that the race has finally begun. This is when things get a lot tougher; and whatever you think you are made of will eventually boil down to this: It is undoubtedly the point of separation between the well prepared and those who thought they did.

It was the loneliest 12km. I plodded on; Careful not to overexert the quads and gastrocnemius muscles for fear of cramps, while fighting hard to maintain that pace (for whatever remained of it!). I was racing against time. Yet time was slipping from my grip. Although I knew that sub 3 was then out of reach, I still had not given up the hope of at least a respectable time.

Let this not be a wasted trip! 

No half hearted effort! 

These thoughts were constantly reverberating in my mind. 

Reached 34km @ 2:30. And it was clear that I was slowing. A lot. I could only hope that the remaining 8km had more to offer. At this point, every yard covered was a yard gained. Yet with each passing moment, the fatigue grew. The quads and calves were crying out in agony and fierce protest. It came as no surprise that the last remaining 5km was a struggle. Cramps felt almost imminent. And the tough part was trying to pacify the cramp and still maintain some sort of respectable pace....

...But isn't this just part of the challenges of marathon? The very moments where we earn our keep? The litmus test of our true quality?...

You know that this is the moment. The point of 'transcendence'. (Seems like a big word but actually it is just often misunderstood). It is where you have the choice of evolving into a higher form or remaining as you were. The tendency is to slow down. To give up and call it a day. To admit defeat and lick your wounded ego. Or, you can rise above it and gather all your courage to push forward. With every ounce of the will, spirit and will fight that last fight!

I chose the latter not because I was so courageous. Neither was it a matter of mental strength. But my hunger for transformation was greater. My need to transcend that mediocrity was stronger. There is the thirst for life that can only be answered by such a struggle. And in that struggle, there is a new life emerging, much like a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon.

Of course there was nothing poetic at the moments of struggle but a violent tugging and shearing at the soul. We only make sense of it on hindsight. Truth be told, the only recurring thought was: I was not willing to waste my trip. But in real-life translation: I just wanted to make every run count. That way, I could always make every run a gain no matter what kind of condition I am in. Thus, it transcends the hours and minutes, figures and paces, numbers and calculations, technicalities and strategies. All the above. Finally amalgamated into a whole. That, in essence, is a transcendence experience.

If I lost you somewhere along the transcendence issue, I apologize. But perhaps some would be nodding away emphatically because you have yourself experienced the same. Nevertheless, I was just trying to pen it down as accurately as I can. So that one day when I look back on it, I could trace my steps to see how far I have grown from this.

So, my struggles. It was never pleasant. I would be hard-pressed to muster a smile out of my face in front of the cameras at this stage. Couldn't be bothered actually. But what was going on in that mind was a constant 'Forward! Forward! Forward!'. The legs were not quite following orders at that moment. But somehow, the mind was still able to counter that mutiny and forge an override. I had to make that moment last as long as possible until the end.

Pace was slowing. But what the heck. Just give it all you've got. At the last couple of km, after downing my last gel 2 km ago, the cramp finally came knocking. However with a bit of adjusted pace, a full blown seizure was abated. I even managed to step up the pace a little at the last km to finish with a time of 3:11:53.

They say the best reward in a marathon is when you cross that finish line. I can agree with that to some extent. It is no doubt a great relief to clear that final electronic mat. But for me the best reward is in knowing that you have done your absolute 100% on that particular race day. And came out of it victorious against your darkest enemy: Fear and doubt.

And from it you grow a little stronger inside. Not necessarily physically, for the measure of a man's invincibility does not just consist of such, but more so in his spirit, where he can soar to heights no other can reach.

I will be back for more of that next year!


  1. Nice write up, Francis. I often ask myself why I'm willing to put up with hours of flight time and weeks of training just to run a marathon but at the end of the day, irrespective of what time I come in, the accomplishment of giving it my all makes it all worthwhile. Jamie and me were just talking about how difficult it's getting for us to keep training for marathons these days but your accomplishments always spur me on on days when I think I can't. Under-trained or not, still a damn good job in HK, Doc. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Nick. Believe me when I say that it is definitely a struggle to just hit the road some days especially when I have had a rough day at work. There is just no desire at all to run. But some how, at the 30km onwards, I was reminded of the reason once again. It is good to come alive! That is why we all keep going back for more.


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