Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Penang Bridge International Marathon 2010

The Penang Bridge International Marathon, which was held on 21 November 2010, is the toughest marathon I've ever joined so far. But I suspect there must be many other tougher marathons in the region. After all, this was only my fourth marathon.

In my excitement, I wore non-matching shoes for the trip, and I only realised it when I was already in the cab on my way to the airport. It became something quite fashionable, and I provided a bit of entertainment for the rest of the runners in my group from KK.

Most of us got to know each other through the adiNation runs on many Sunday mornings, and therefore were more accustomed to seeing each other in running outfits. So it was not surprising that when we met the other runners at the airport, Mia's first sentence was "Hmmm... somehow they look different when not in running outfits." And soon that particular line became the most popular sentence for the day. Almost everyone who turned up at the airport said it almost in verbatim. We had a pleasant fellowship at the departure hall.

It was well past 8pm by the time we checked in to our rooms at Eastin Hotel, which was just about 5-minutes walk to the start line of the race. Mia and I decided to go and collect our race packs before going for a late dinner. After dinner, we went back to the hotel, unpacked, had a shower, and then went to bed at around 11pm. But soon after that, it rained heavily, which was a bad sign for us marathoners.

The next day we spent most of our time hanging around Queens Bay Mall. I wasn't into the window shopping thing—never have—so apart from filling up my stomach, I spent most of that Saturday in the hotel room. Since the race would start at 2am the next morning, we went to bed at 6pm (yes, paranoia is a terrible thing), but were not destined to get any sleep at all that night. After tossing around in bed for several hours, we were finally up at around 11pm. We dressed up and then waited till about 1:30am before meeting the rest in our group at the lobby on the ground floor.

Dr Peter, the "Tormentor" arrived with his family the night before when we were already in bed. Although he, too, did not get much sleep, he was all smiles and ready for the race.

We walked to the start line and waited for a while before the arrival of the Chief Minister. Soon after his arrival, we were flagged off. I saw some familiar faces in the crowd. I tried to stay close to Dr Peter, who was in turn running with the 4-hour pacers. I must say it was quite a comfortable pace at first. But by the 9.5km point, just as we were approaching the mighty bridge, I was already feeling a bit of tiredness creeping in. It was quite obvious that there was no way I could have maintain that pace throughout the 42km. As we climbed the initial slope of the bridge, I decided to reduce my pace for fear of overusing my energy too quickly.

The climb to the middle of the bridge was quite pleasant, but by then I have already lost sight of Dr Peter. Immediately after that it was a gradual down-going stretch, and I was able to increase my pace. It was still some kilometres to the end of the bridge, but when we reached it, the turn was a series of going downhill, making a big underpass loop before climbing up again for the return leg. And then just a few minutes after that was a signboard showing 23.7km, which was obviously wrong. From a past experience I had in this event, I knew that a lot of things could go wrong. I ignored that sign and continued running

And then the thing I dreaded most happened. I felt cramps developing in both thighs, and I began to wonder what more could go wrong for this race. Not long after that, we reached the turning point for the half marathoners, and then suddenly I had people all over the place. I felt like there was a big conspiracy to prevent me from running my pace. Everybody seemed so determined to block my path.

As I was grumbling to myself, I was suddenly distracted by the drops of water from the sky. It began to drizzle, which was fine with me. But then the drizzle quickly developed into a full fledged rain; and then became a torrential rain with winds blowing from the front. Needless to say, I ended up dragging what seemed like buckets of water on my feet, but actually it's just my size-10 shoes fully filled up with rain water.

My cramps developed further as I approached the middle of the bridge, and it soon became clear to me that I would not finish the race. I tried compensating my thighs by giving more work to my calves, those too developed cramps very quickly. At the middle of the bridge I finally slowed down to a walk and entertained the idea of throwing in the towel, thus making this the first ever marathon that I would not complete. Ambulances were passing by with sirens on, and it made me wonder if some other people have fainted.

Arriving at a drink station, amongst the water in plastic bottles and cups—this must be the one race in the whole of Malaysia which only provides 95% water, and perhaps 5% isotonic drinks—I saw some curious round items which appeared a little like buns which hardly anyone would dare to touch.

I fought my cramps and decided to continue for another 1km. And then another, and another. By the time I reached the end of the bridge in Penang, blisters were already developing in both feet. But strangely, apart from a bit of biting pain, my mind was still mainly occupied by the cramps in my legs.

Proceeding a little further, I came to the turning point of the half marathoners, where I think some volunteers from the St John's Ambulance were stationed for window dressing purposes. These were stations meant for self-service only.

And then I surprised myself be deciding to continue with the race. As I was limping along that road, I saw Kevin running from the other direction on his return leg. A few minutes later, I saw Dr Joseph. And yet a few minutes later, I saw Dr Liaw.

Then came the first dreadful flyover. But actually, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. However, when one is suffering cramps and exhaustion, even a slight climb can be very punishing. As I was climbing the third flyover, I finally saw Dr Peter coming from the opposite direction. I called out to him; I said, "Hey, doc, just to check, did we bet on a baby lobster?" He responded with a broad smile but said nothing.

Soon after that third flyover, runners finally arrived at the turning point marked at 33km. There was a water station and some unripe bananas arranged nicely on a table.

Although I was still suffering pains in my legs, I was no longer limping at that point. I continued with a very slow pace, slowing down to a walk every now and then. On that return leg, I saw some of my friends from KK approaching the turning point. Andrew, Dr Helen and her brother. Then I saw Pamela in white outfit. And I saw Claire still going strong.

Approaching the 35km point, I knew that I would finish the race after all. And that was quite a relief. It would have been a shame if I couldn't finish this race, after all the trouble of getting here!

Maybe I was inspired by the pleasant thought of finishing the race; maybe it was the exhaustion; maybe it was because of the darkness; maybe it was the wanting so much to end the torture, but I was so glad to come to this signboard (although it was still dark when I saw it during the race):

It meant only another 2.2km to the finish line. With renewed determination, I increased my pace. I would at least run the last 2km like the Kenyans! I was determined to finish strong! I ran and ran and after 12 minutes, did not see the finish line. I was at the verge of fainting of exhaustion when I came to another signboard showing 39.4km! You should have seen me then—I honestly felt like wanting to cry! Only much later did I realise that the signboard I saw earlier was a speed limit sign, god dammit! That forsaken board almost cost me my life!

With the little energy left in me, I continued running. That last 3km was truly an amazing test of endurance and mental strength, especially after spending all my remaining energy in Kenyan fashion.

But that was still not the last. As I approached the last 2km towards the finish line, there was the entire herd of the 10km runners coming from the opposite direction. And these kids knew nothing about running ethics. They were all over the place. Some were talking on cellphones. The full marathoners were left with hardly any space to squeeze through. In the condition of enduring cramps and exhaustion in the legs, we had to make sudden stops and changes of direction to avoid the oncoming young runners who were mostly blind and couldn't see the runners from the opposite direction. It's either the organiser was stupid or the kids were stupid, but the net result was that the full marathoners had to pay the price.

You can imagine my elation when I approached the final roundabout leading to the Queens Bay Mall. And right at the turn, I ran into a jay walker who was happily crossing the road with his golf umbrella. No one seemed to know anything about crowd management, you see. That was the last straw that broke the camel's back. I shouted "Aiyah!" so loud that I must have attracted the attention of everyone within 1km radius! Then I ran the final 500m or so to the finish line, crossing it in 4:46.

As I crossed the finished line, I was greeted by Dr Peter with a broad smile. He had finished the race 8 mins ahead of me. A truly worthy opponent who trained so hard for this event, and who deserved every second of his victory. I shook his hand, and there and then, in front of thousands of people, bent my knees and bowed down to him, accepting my defeat! I would have gone all the way down on my knees, except that I wouldn't have been able to get up again in that condition!

I knew that Penang would be a tough route, but I didn't expect it to be this tough. Only Mia improved by about half an hour to 5:52; an admirable achievement. The rest in my group all failed to improve on our times.

Special congratulations to Claire Andrew for completing her first full marathon, having been through so much trouble to get herself to the starting line; and to Pamela Fletcher who also completed her first full marathon, except that she kinda overdid it by biting her medal for a photo pose, only to chip off a bit of the gold-coloured coating!

Without any doubt, a nightmare race for me. But I'm so glad to have participated in this race because of the friendship and fun I had with my Sabahan comrades. If I must, I would do it all over again!

Was I happy with the organiser? Not at all. I think they have a lot of room for improvement. Would I come again? I think I surely would. I would like to come again to conquer this race—not so much of winning it; rather to run an enjoyable race. That would be something to look forward to.


Unsettled Soul said...

Congratulations! Sounds like a tough one! I wonder if you started too fast?

kkchai said...

Well done ! You may have lost the bet but I still salute you for your determination to run yet another full marathon. I have only done 4 in my life so far and that's quite enough for me though I'm contemplating doing a final one (ecomarathon) in Japan come April 2011. And kudos to Mia completing her 2nd marathon. BTW, you look like spidey (the evil one) in your all black oufit. Nice.

blaze said...

Cornelius, congratulations for finishing the tough PBIM 2010 FM race. It was a difficult condition for most runners. As I suspected, the race course will not be the major factor in the race. A lot of things could happen and it is how you deal with them that matter most. You stayed strong and finished the toughest race in your life. Doesn't matter the lost bet, by not quitting when the going gets tough, you are already a champ. I can sense a lot of positives in this post relating your most difficult run so far. That's the spirit! Very well done.

Khadeeja Shah said...

For the challenging race and great atmosphere, I'd say it was worth our flights wasn't it ?

Cornelius said...

Thanks, Sarah. Yes, it was a tough one for most of the runners. And yes, after the race, I discussed about the cramps with Dr Peter (who also suffered the same thing in spite of his gruesome training), and we both concurred that perhaps we went somewhat too fast in the beginning. However, with the kind of training we had, I doubt that it was a matter of "too fast" alone. I think it's a matter of combining "too fast" and the slopes that caused the cramps. Lesson learned.

It's quite an irony, really, because most of us trained hard for this event. At least I trained like never before. Dr Peter trained the most with countless 30km & 35km long runs, not to mention running the midweek runs religiously without fail.

I think we were lacking of the hill training, since the KK route is mainly flat throughout.

Well, we think we know where we went wrong. So obviously we're gonna try to remedy that. I'll be taking a very short break from running before embarking yet again for an even tougher race in Hong Kong!

Cornelius said...


Thanks, my friend, somehow it has become something of an obsession. But this one wasn't enjoyable for me. I had expected the exhaustion, of course, but to endure the cramps for 20km wasn't exactly my idea of an enjoyable race.

And even if I were indeed the evil spidey, that wouldn't have helped, as there weren't many tall structures where I can swing from... hehehe.

Cornelius said...

Thanks, CP (blaze). I have since developed a renewed phobia of the slopes, especially since everyone I talked to told me that Hong Kong is hillier than Penang.

I made a bit of rough calculation and arrived at an approximate 6 weeks training for Hong Kong after allowing for the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays. I can say that a major portion of those will be focused on the hills!

Cornelius said...

Yes, KD, it was challenging indeed! I can imagine how it would have been had I not trained the way I did. I think I would have probably failed to finish even!

But on the other hand, in terms of fellowship, travelling with friends, all the laughters and poking fun at each other, that was truly enjoyable. I dare say it's more enjoyable than any of the other marathons I've done before! So, yes, that was certainly well worth it!

Tekko said...

You did well. Cramps from 20km onward and you still finish 4:46 and in the rain and with slope and all the human jam? Imagine if there was no rain and a better organised race, what would the timing be like?
Maybe you should start running up Mt KK on a weekly basis - not right to the top but at least 100 metres. Do set of 10 - 20 repeats.

ladycooper said...

Salute to all that Marathon finisher. You guys are simply awesome.

Is time to enjoy now and take a look at some PBIM 2010 runners pictures


Cornelius said...

Thank you, Tekko, for your kind words. Quite honestly, had the event been in KK, I was confident that I'd achieve a PB. During the last few long runs of 30km and more, I felt quite comfortable. I thought I could still suffer the cramps, but not before reaching 35km. Little did I know that it came so soon when I was on my return leg on the bridge!

Compared to other marathons that I've joined, I think so far Penang stands out as the lousiest in terms of how it's organised. I think it is even lousier then our very small Borneo International Marathon. I'm beginning to wonder if they put someone with no marathon background and organisational skills to handle the job!

They should have at least 50-50 ratio of isotonic drinks and water, but in this race I'd estimate over 90% of only plain water offered.

The pacers should be screened properly for "qualification". I was obviously gonna miss my 4:30 target when I overtook a pacer with a "4:00" on his back at the 35km point. Elsewhere, I saw other pacers failing in their respective times. I know even pacers have their "down days", but in this case, too many of them failed! I bet many of the new marathoners were fooled by them! What a shame!

Regarding hill training, Tekko, I don't know about running up and down the mountain. But I plan to run more hills here in KK. Perhaps the Signal Hill is an inevitable choice.

The other thing I will want to do is to lose weight. I was down to 70km going into the PBIM, but I think if I could go down to, say, 67kg, that would be better.

Tekko said...

I think I told you b4 why I didn't want to do Penang anymore after the lousy experience I had in 2007. Guess nothing much had changed.

You doing HK. Maybe need to train in polluted air to get use to the pollution there:)

Cornelius said...

Yes, Tekko, I was also there in 2008. I still have not forgotten how they made me drink water from a pail. Runners simply grabbed the plastic cups and scooped water from the pail with their sweaty fingers.

I endured the run without water for many kilometres from the station where water was provided in huge plastic bottles and everyone drank from those same bottles.

But in the end, I just couldn't stand my thirst. I felt like dying of thirst. So in the end, I had no choice but to drink anyway! Yuck!

And yes, I've heard of the air pollution situation in Hong Kong. I think I'm gonna have a tough time there too!

Socrates29 said...

Excuse my ignorance as I am no runner nor marathoner but I have just one observation.

While you and your wife, Mia are all suited up in black and attired in something similar to the Olympic swimmers,I can't helped noticing that the others like Dr Peter,Dr Liaw,etc are in loose attire and looking more relaxed.

Although wearing the right running shoes matters,does it have any bearing on one's performance if one is wearing loose clothing to run or wearing something similar to what you are wearing?

I know for a fact that due to the design and material used, the Olympic swimmers achieved better times using such swimming costume as it enable them to achieve better times.

Just curious to now.

Cornelius said...


That is a very good question. Now, before I answer it, please be informed that this is strictly from my own experience and opinion. It may differ from the popular opinions on this subject.

If you searched for photos of my past marathons, you will find that I used to wear running shorts like the vast majority of runners. But recently, I decided to try the running tights. And not just any tights, it's the 2XU Compression tights.

Apparently, the tightness can help to hold the muscles together and reduce vibration, thus delaying the onset of cramps and fatigue. It is also said to help in blood circulation etc. As far as delaying or preventing cramps and fatigue, I don't believe that to be the case, based on my short experience running in my Compression tights.

However, in my case, I have found that wearing tights helps in preventing chafing between my inner thighs especially in the groin area. When I was running in shorts, I almost certainly would suffer blisters whenever I ran more than 21km even if I applied a generous amount of vaseline cream before the run.

There are of course pros and cons. For example, during this event, both Dr Peter and I suffered the cramps on the bridge. But when the cold rain came, it helped to cool down his legs and his cramps subsided; whereas because of the tights, the coldness of the rain did not quite get to my muscles, resulting in continuous torture due to the cramps.

You will also find that I've run in many different vests in the past. And again I suffered chafing under the armpits almost everytime I ran beyond 21km even with the protection of vaseline cream. By trial and error, I have found that body-tugging vests can minimise the chafing under my armpits.

I frequently run with Dr Peter, and I have noticed that the angle of his elbows is slight further away from his body, thus not much rubbing between his arms and body. So maybe that's why he has no problem wearing loose vests.

Actually, there is a Compression top too, but so far, I see no reason to buy that. I still focus mainly on my legs, not so much on my upper body.

Socrates29 said...

Thanks for enlightening me about use of the right attire for running

My next observation as a layman and someone completely new to marathon running,is the length of one's legs.This may sounds corny (sorry! not intentional) but does the length of one's leg (the stride) have any advantage when running?

From the group photo, I can't help noticing Dr Liaw has very short legs (my apologies,Dr Liaw,for the comparison) while you and the others have longer legs thus resulting in longer strides for you guys.

Literally what I mean here is that for every stride you take, Dr Liaw will or may have to do 2 strides just to keep up with the same pace.
He will therefore,due to his physique and build, have to put in double effort when running the same marathon distance as those in the same category.

Just continuing to be curious.

Cornelius said...


I don't deny that the legs are the most important ingredient in all running events. And in that sense, I suppose those with longer legs have an edge against those with shorter legs.

But in my opinion there are just too many other factors in the marathons; so much so that whatever slight advantage one has in the length of one's legs is too minimal.

Other factors, e.g. age, body weight, method and sufficiency of training, nutrition and proper carbo-loading, running efficiency, running gears (especially shoes), hydration/dehydration levels etc. It is the combination of all those factors that counts much more than just the length of the legs alone.

I spent a bit of time to study proper running techniques, e.g. watching elite runners on youtube, and a bit of reading etc. The length of the legs is not a major factor in determining the pace. Rather, the running technique is a more significant factor.

Generally speaking the most efficient running technique is to include leaps in the rythm. After the Singapore Marathon in Dec last year, I started to include leaps in my run. At first, it was quite tough on my calves, but the body has an amazing ability to adapt. I think by including leaps, your body can remain airborne a fraction of a second longer. Meaning by the time you land, you would have covered slightly longer distance. But to be honest, I don't like the kind of leaps in Paula Radcliffe's technique. I think in her case there's too much vertical movements. But of course she's a professional marathoner, so obviously she knows what she's doing!

On the other hand, I have seen some fast runners running with very small strides. I suppose they can be fast too. But the world elites, e.g. those competing in the Olympics, all of them run with long strides with plenty of leaps to maximise the distance in every swing of the legs!