Thursday, December 15, 2011

How not to run a marathon

This is a bit late, but I'm sitting in the Hong Kong airport with a five-hour layover before I get to go home for the holidays. So, it seems like the perfect time to catch up.

On December 2, my students finished up their studies at Sebasa with the ever formal closing ceremony. Top scoring students are honored, Police hymns are sung, and many, many hands are shook. I feel like I hardly got to know these guys because I was working with UN mission-bound officers for nearly a month. Still, I felt very proud of all of them, and sincerely wished them well as they headed back to their posts

Now, I can think of no better way to celebrate the closing of a session at Sebasa than to jump on a plane to Singapore and run a full marathon. Wait a minute.

Let me back up. Since I arrived back in Jakarta, my lovely runner ladies had been bugging me about signing up for the Singapore half marathon. My strategy to avoid this certain disaster was to drag my feet with thinly-veiled work excuses. "Well, I just never know when the (Embassy/Ambassador/President) will call me up with a favor. Gotta be prepared..."

It worked! I managed to hold off long enough until the registration had closed, and then I put on a pretty good show about how sorry I was that I couldn't join them. Shucks. It's not that I wouldn't have fun traveling to another country to run an endurance race with friends. However, I had been less than diligent about maintaining any sort of regular training schedule. The last time I did a marathon, I trained for the six months leading up to it. Also, I had a nagging foot injury that promised not to get better with 2+ hours of running.

My victory was short-lived, alas. One of our mutual running friends had to drop out last minute, freeing up his registration. The girls were quick to snatch it up for me. Well, alright then. It can't be that bad. Or it wasn't until I realized that this particular registration was for the full, not the half, marathon. Oy.

For one month, I took to the treadmill and track trying to ensure that I, at the very least, wouldn't die. On December 3rd, I flew to the land of the Merlion and met up with Miranda, Lina, and Nani. They picked up my race packet and informed me that my race would begin at 5am the following morning.

There are a few differences between running a marathon in Northeast Ohio and Southeast Asia. Beginning the race at 5am is one. We had to be at the line at 4:30 to get into our correct 'time zones' (i.e. stand with the folks you think you'll finish with). I got there at 4:30, the exact same time the 19,999 other participants showed up. There were lines everywhere. Lines to drop off your bag, lines for toilets, lines just to get to the start line. I made it through the bag deposit and lined up for the toilets. Curious, I finally asked the man in front of me about the time. He casually turned and told me that it was 5:11, eleven minutes after the start of the race. I looked around. There were at least 500 people still standing in lines. Not wanting to delay the inevitable any longer, I decided to head toward the start. Better get this thing over with.

I took my cue from the dozens of other late comers and strolled casually to the start. It was lit up beautifully for the holidays, so it was nice to take it all in. An Australian emcee was just as dumbfounded as I was, commenting on the racers still trickling past nearly 20 minutes after the gun.

I felt good for the first half. It was fun to run in the dark. I got to enjoy the beautiful city while it was still quiet. There were not as many cheer sections as the Cleveland marathon, but then again, it was before 6am. There were a few groups of kids beating on drums, so that was nice.

Running with 20,000 other meant that it was always crowded, for better or worse. Sometimes I appreciated being blocked in and forced to slow down. I was going too fast and burning up too much energy, so I took advantage of those times to cool down and conserve. Other times, I had no choice but to mutter apologies to soften the blow of my elbows as I busted through a wall of slow joggers.

I could see the halfway point, and I felt good. I knew that I had prepared enough to get me though that much. And I had a good time, to boot! I crossed at about 2hrs, the same time as my half in Cleveland. As soon as I crossed 21k, though, it was like running into a brick wall. They say running is 90% mental, and I believe it. My brain knew I wasn't set up for a full, so it kept reminding me of that fact about every kilometer. "You tricked were supposed to stop back there. Well, we'll just see about that." Wham. Every inch of my body started to hurt. On top of it all, the sun came up.

I switched from race mode to survival mode. This meant I did more walking than running. I tried at first to distract myself from my screaming legs and lower back by applying the Asian version of IcyHot - Tiger Balm. I thought my skin was literally boiling off my bones. It turns out that I had broken skin on my lower back from where my shorts rubbed against the skin. Direct contact with Tiger Balm almost brought me to my knees.Oh yeah, and my foot started hurting. Great.

Just after the half mark, I passed the 5:30 pace group (those wanting to cross the finish line at 5 hours and 30 minutes). My new goal became to just hold my position in front of that group. This worked well for me. I would jog along until I had a safe distance between me and the bouncing purple balloons of the pace group. Then, I would walk for a bit until they got uncomfortably close. I still thank God for those purple balloons. My pride wouldn't let me finish later than 5:30, so they kept me going.

With a combination of jogging, walking, and limping I finally made it across the line in 5 hours and 4 minutes, earning myself a shiny medal and a 'finishers' t-shirt. I had chaffing in places I didn't know could exist, three toe-nails not long for life, and shooting pains from my left foot clear up to my hip. But, I think I would do it all over again. I may not have gone about it in the desired way or gotten the most desired results, but I can think of few other ways I would have liked to spend 5 hours.