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.