A few hundred metres past the 30-kilometre mark, I was absolutely exhausted.
Out of the long stretch in East Coast Park, now headed towards Marina Barrage, I had no clue that we just entered the infamous “death valley”. It was hot, there was no shade, and the next water station was kilometres away. Even with their caps the volunteers were having a hard time too. Halfway through a runner in front of me shuffled to the pavement, squatted down, and laid down on his back, prompting a few of us to gesture for a medic. This was my first full marathon at the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, and though I had planned to slow-jog my way through, I started to walk through some of the remaining distance.
You learn many things as a first-time marathoner. At some of the water stations I heard the others asking for energy gels and bananas (which were either in short supply, or they never arrived). At the baggage deposit area it was intimidating. There I was doing my own warm-ups, looking at and listening to the seasoned runners chomping food, running around, talking about smashing personal records. At the start point many around me were all geared up with their utility belts of plastic bottles and aluminium packets of substances, dressed in black compression tights and gear, and plugged into their music players strapped on their arms.
I jiggled about to keep warm, with nothing in my hands and pockets. No gear and no idea.
But I regret nothing, perhaps except not smearing my lower body parts with a more copious amount of petroleum jelly. Moreover it all went well in the beginning. Views of the central business district and the Singapore skyline – through landmarks like the floating platform and over Nicoll Highway – are breath-taking in the early hours. It was cool, and I was calm. Throughout the run I heard only the collective footsteps of the hundreds of runners.
The marathon is tough because shortcuts do not exist. Especially if you have an ego, told people about the attempt, and have friends tracking your progress on the mobile application. How difficult can it be, I wondered before the marathon, because in the unlikeliest of scenarios I could stride across the course within the nine-hour limit? So from the 15-kilometre mark I got into a routine of fast-marching (all credit to the months of training as a reconnaissance trooper, during my National Service) for a short distance after a water station, yet at the turning point of miserable East Coast Park I knew I would eventually succumb. The further I got into the run the longer the kilometres felt, and more had begun to walk.
In that sense you really have no choice but to finish the 42 kilometres. You only have two questions in your tired, tired mind: where is the next sign every kilometre (with a nice, and where is the next green sign which tells you that the water station is 300 metres ahead? Okay and sometimes you ask yourself why you pay good money to suffer in the blazing sun.
The no-shortcut rule applies to the preparation for the marathon too. Since July I ran three times a week – five kilometres on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a longer run over the weekends – and the farthest I went was 28 kilometres a few weeks before. No surprise that I started to really struggle at “death valley”. As I recounted in October, I love running five or 10 kilometres for relaxation or inspiration, yet after a particular distance or time it becomes incredibly arduous. “I start thinking about how parched my throat is, and whether I should ask the lady at the bus stop for a sip from her water bottle. My mind contemplates giving up and walking back home. My body berates me for signing up for such a silly exercise”.
A friend to me said to me before the marathon that I would be hooked. That running a marathon was a metaphor for life, with its many trials and tribulations and the runner’s final triumph. Maybe I guess. Many accounts I’ve read wax lyrical about how the 42-kilometres have changed their lives, before they dispense advice about preparation and regimes.
I offer nothing. At the 30-kilometre mark I was pretty sure – as an amateur runner who only appreciated fitness after I dislocated my shoulder – that this was going to be my first and last marathon (unless, it is for a cause or charity in the future). For a few hours after I crossed the finish line I savoured the accomplishment, and on the next day I went about a full day of preparations for a conference. My abused body was not happy, even though in a curious way it felt right to resume normal service. Life goes on.