Monday, April 23, 2012

Power & Peril Of Mental Strength

"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired." 

—George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

I had an interesting chat via Whatsapp with a friend today about a mutual friend of ours who ran the full marathon (42.2km) in Bali yesterday morning. She registered for that race a couple of months ago and was supposed to have trained according to a schedule comprising weekday runs, as well as long runs on the weekends. But as usually is the case with most people, she was unable to actually do very many of the long runs. Then a week before the race, she made the effort to run a 21km long run, perhaps in the hope that that could help her a bit in Bali.

Incidentally, we had something in the order of a debate in facebook recently when someone posted a quote:

"There's no magic to running far or climbing Everest. Endurance is mental strength. It's all about heart."

—Bear Grylls, Adventurer & Host of Man vs Wild

We tend to see quotes such as the above all the time in sports magazines, propounding the famous notion that endurance is all about mental strength. And of course many people are greatly affected and fully convinced that that is the whole truth about endurance sports. I consider myself a little of a nutcase in the way how I tend to push my body to the very extreme when it comes to endurance sports. I have done a number of marathons and more recently ultra trail marathons of 100km; and although I'm not disputing the power of the mental strength to conquer all these races, I'm not very happy with most of these quotes. In particular, I don't like the over emphasis of the mental strength, especially with that word "all", because quite frankly, endurance sports is not all about mental strength and the heart. A lot of the achievements come from hard training too. In fact, a lot of hard training!

However, it has been noted by a friend that "it goes without saying" (that training is required). I'm not very sure about that "it goes without saying", really. There are many people out there who are so lack of training and ill-prepared for their endurance races, but have total faith in their mental strength.

Such was the case of my friend in Bali—apparently, she ran for 23km when her legs failed her. She ended up in an ambulance and was advised to withdraw from the race. But she fought on; after spending about half an hour, she started walking again and finally finished her race in almost 7 hours. So it was an extremely tough race for her; and the mental strength saw her through. It will be an achievement that she will undoubtedly remember for a long time. When her body was unwilling, her mental strength helped her to fight on till the end—even without proper training, because after all, it's all about mental strength.

I'm a fighter too; and I very rarely surrender when I start a race. But the only difference is that I make sure that I prepare myself. Otherwise, I'd rather not show up for the race all together. There is really no shame to withdraw from the race, because, to me, that is a smarter thing to do.

Some people, apparently with very strong mental strength, have been able to push their bodies extremely far, in fact beyond the breaking point, at the expense of losing their lives in the end. Most of us are not competitive to that extent, of course, but sometimes we are unable to tell how much more stress our bodies can endure.

My view is that don't take mental strength for granted—endurance sports is not all about mental strength. In spite of the quote above, learn to listen to your body too. If you fail this once to conquer a marathon or an ultra marathon, there is always next time to redeem yourself. But if you die this time, it will only happen this once.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Side Effects

The expression "side effects" has a curious effect on many people. It's quite frequently used in the medical field, especially when talking about drugs and food supplements. Only trouble is that that expression "side effects" is almost always associated with negative side effects; it is strange that many people are almost unaware of the positive side effects. For example, when talking about drugs in general, people always emphasize on how the drugs can cause severe long-term effects such as liver or kidney damage, but they always forget that those drugs can also cure illnesses.

Strictly speaking, even drowsiness and sleepiness are possible side effects of some drugs, but those are not necessarily life-threatening, unless of course when one decides to drive after taking them. The way I see it, sometimes it boils down to the weighing of pros and cons between the positive and negative effects of the drugs.

But people like my mother-in-law is extremely sensitive to the expression "side effects". To her, all side effects are negative ones—there is just no such thing as positive side effects! And this reminds me of how she tried to play doctor many years ago, shortly after I married Mia. We were then still pursuing our studies and were not ready to have kids. So we sought the advice of a doctor on possible family planning methods. He spent a good half an hour or so explaining to us on the pros and cons of the contraceptive pills, and then in the end recommended one to Mia.

But then mommy heard about the forsaken pills. And she wasted no time to offer her take on the subject of contraceptive pills. I can't quite remember all the side effects according to her (there were many), but I distinctly remember one which was that contraceptive pills can cause permanent infertility! So the pill was a no-no. Instead, she recommended the "withdrawal method" of family planning. 

I was, like, "Withdrawal what?...You're kidding me, right?"

I thought the next thing she'd do was to demonstrate the method to us, but by the grace of God, she did not.

Years later—in fact just a couple of weeks ago—her problem with her right leg had gotten so bad that she was unable to walk. She's in her seventies, and arthritis has been giving her recurring problems, but she bravely endured the pain until now. Anyway, she was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Damai. There, her leg was put in cast. She spent her days mainly confined to her bed. The doctors seemed unsure whether a surgery would help, but in the end, they decided the best thing to do was to get an MRI scan before deciding the best course of action. And that MRI scan was somehow scheduled not the day after; not even the week after, but about a month later—in fact, on 17 May. So in the mean time, we thought we should invite her to stay in our home.

So about a week ago, having been discharged from the hospital while awaiting her MRI scan in May, Mia and her sister arrived home with mommy; and both of them struggled to get her out of the car and into the house (Yes, she's not a thin woman). As they just were at the bottom of the staircase, I arrived home from dinner. Mommy was in excruciating pain. The doctors had prescribed her the painkiller, Celebrex, but she refused to take them, I suppose because of the dreadful side effects.

But she made it to the upper floor in the end, where we spent some minutes to convince her to take the painkiller. It was getting a little late, so the sisters helped her to the toilet where she could brush her teeth before bedtime—not that she had any more teeth left, you know.

Well, she's been taking the painkiller, which is apparently helping to relieve her pain substantially. I suppose she's now spending her days in bed, thinking of all the horrifying side effects of Celebrex on her body, but totally forgetting all the good the drug is doing for her leg.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Specialist

About 30 years ago, I was having a debate in the room I shared with my younger brother, Dennis. He was basically a lazy bum and couldn't wait to quit school. He used to score good grades in school, but by form 5, he was among the poorest students in class. I think the SPM was then about half a year away, and he was still not studying. He justified it by saying that too many accountancy and engineering graduates had no job.

It was one of those economic downturns that Malaysia was suffering from; and many people were jobless, including the university graduates. That excuse was perfect for Dennis.

My argument was that—and it still is—during the economic crisis, perhaps university degrees and diplomas mean very little. But when the economy improves, and jobs become available again, who d'you think will be hired first—those with the degrees or those without?

Well, 30 years have since elapsed, and we now have many, many thousands of university graduates in the job market. Degrees and diplomas are no longer as valuable as before. Too many people out there have the so-called university degrees. But all too often they arrive at the job market without any clue of what the job is all about!

A valuation graduate attended her professional interview, and she was asked how to value a satellite. She claimed that the interviewers were deliberately trying to fail her by asking such a "silly" question. All too often, people would like to think that they are the so-called "specialists", but actually they know very little of their stuff to deserve that title.

A priest gave a ride to a beautiful young nun to a nearby town in his car. When they stopped at a traffic light, his hand wandered from the steering wheel to the nun's thigh. The nun showed no emotion; she merely looked at the priest and said, "Father, remember Matthew 7:7?"

The priest felt a little embarrassed; he withdrew his hand, saying, "I'm sorry, I sometimes lose control of myself; the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak!"

They duly arrived at their destination and the priest saw the nun off. But later that night it suddenly occurred to him to look up in the Bible what "Matthew 7:7" was all about.

Matthew 7:7—Ask and it will be given to you...

Sometimes, not knowing one's stuff may lead to loss of opportunities. And sometimes even the loss of a hand.

We have many, many university graduates around, but actually only some of them are Specialists.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Standard Chartered Brunei Half Marathon 2012

The Standard Chartered Brunei Half Marathon, which was held on 08 April 2012, was a very strange event—in spite of its name, there were only 180 participants in the half marathon (21km) race from all the categories combined. And I'm sure some of those who signed up for this race did not show up on the race day. The rest of the almost 5000 participants were those from the other categories, i.e. 10km, 5km and 2.5km (fun run).

I did not originally plan to join this race, but I somehow found myself at the starting line of the half marathon race last Sunday. It was kinda weird to see such a small crowd, and there were some familiar faces from the KK City Run the week before. Anslem and Amelia were there; and Judy, Hana, John Chin, Fabian, Audrey, Lynda, KD, Jai, Victoria, and some other Sabahan friends. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Ahmadul at the starting line.

The last time I ran a half marathon was almost a year ago in the Standard Chartered KL Marathon, in which I set a personal best (PB) of 1:58. It seemed quite a long time ago, and I have since gone on to longer races, including ultra trail marathons up to 100km long. After I arrived home from the Hong Kong Vibram 100km in February, I had a bit of problem with my right knee; and it took some weeks for recovery. I reduced my long runs substantially, but I worked on my speed during my midweek runs to compensate. However, I approached the Brunei half marathon without much hope of achieving a PB.

At the sound of the start horn, the front runners, led by the elite Kenyans, rushed out and within few seconds there were out of sight at the corner. Based on my training over the last few weeks, I reckoned that I could average about 5mins/km, but when I ran the KK City Run, which was a 10km race, the week before, I finished in 52:40. According to my plan, I wanted to do the first 10km in the Brunei race within 55 minutes. And then hope to finish the remaining 11km within an hour or so.

I took my time to build up my pace. After a few seconds, I caught up with Anslem and Amelia. They were running a steady pace, and it's obvious that they've learnt quite a lot about pacing from the 4 half marathons they've run within the last few months. I overtook them all the same, but kept a steady pace down the long road down to the town centre. However, as I came up to the km4 route marker, I was fairly surprised that I took just 19 minutes to cover that distance—obviously too fast for my plan. So I forced myself to slow down, because knowing that there will be some hills within the second half of the race, I knew that I would get into trouble if I failed to save some energy to deal with that part.

By Km6, I had slowed down to 31 mins. In anticipation of the climb beginning from Km9, I consumed a power gel at the water station at Km6. I carefully reduced my pace a little further, and by the time I arrived at Km9, I saw a 49 mins on my stopwatch. It was quite a punishing climb, but I took it one step at a time. In the end, I achieved my target 10km in exactly 55mins. So the first part of my plan perfectly executed.

Immediately after Km10, which was at the top of the hill, was a long downgoing stretch for about 1km, and I took full advantage by extending my strides, thus building up my pace to perhaps 4.5mins/km. It didn't last very long though; when I reached the flat road again, I resumed my steady pace, but this time I upped it a bit to about 5.5min/km.

It was then about 7am, and the morning sun had begun heating up the asphalt roads. Shortly after I turned the corner, I was somewhat surprised to see John Chin on the other side of the road, as I had expected him to be at least 2km or 3km ahead of me by then. And a little further down that road, I reached the turning point. We merged with the 10km runners, but it wasn't a problem because the entire road had been closed; so we had plenty of room to accommodate all the runners.

More slopes ahead, and as I was approaching the Km14 water station, I noticed John Chin struggling up the slope. It was obvious that he was in trouble, but he braved the hills anyway. I came up behind him and maintained a steady pace for about 50m or so before finally overtaking him.

There were many more slopes ahead, but according to my plan, I consumed my second pack of energy gel at the water station. I struggled up the slopes, but when it was downgoing, I took full advantage by increasing my pace. Finally, we got back to the main road. I could already feel the exhaustion in my quads. At that point, I had about 3km to go. I could feel the sun scorching my back. I turned back for a bit but couldn't see John in the crowd. A little while later, I reached the roundabout, and making a left turn, I knew that we had about 1.5km to go to the finish line.

But suddenly I felt exhausted. I slowed down substantially. Looking at my watch, I was happy to note a 1:50, and I knew that I would be achieving a new PB there and then. But there's no time to daydream. There's still work to do! I ran a bit further before turning back, and to my horror, I saw Anslem and Amelia from afar, running with a steady pace! I was thinking to myself that if it came down to a final sprint, I could be in trouble. I had visualized this moment weeks ago during my preparation for the race. Anslem and Amelia had both achieved a 1:58 for their half marathon in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago. That was my PB which I set in KL at year ago. So I knew that they will be close on my heels in Brunei. I slowed down to a briskwalk for a short "rest". My idea was to prepare my legs for the final homestretch sprint, just in case it became necessary.

As the power couple approached a little closer to me, I started running again. And shortly after that I reached the corner leading to the final homestretch. I wasted no time—stretching my legs into a Kenyan-like fashion gallop, I ran that final 100 metres or so as if I had just started my race! I finally crossed the finish line in 1:55:04.

Anslem and Amelia arrived about a minute later, followed by John shortly after. When it was over, I was ecstatic! Judy was there at the finish line; she had finished in 1:49:21 and got 4th in the Women's Open category. Amelia finished in 1:56:09 in 6th position.

And what of my 1:5504? Well, unfortunately, there were no age categories—everyone had to run in the "Open Category", and I only managed a 48th position in the Men's Open. I'm still very happy with my new PB though. And after some minutes lingering around, it suddenly occurred to me that it will be extremely difficult to improve on that new PB!

One by one the rest of my friends arrived at the finish line. Hana finished in 2:10—also a new PB, having improved from a previous 2:32 in 2010. Needless to say, she was happy with her achievement, and her smile said the rest. She obliged to take a photo with the other ladies in this daring back-breaking pose (she's the one on the left) that would cause Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer to lose their sleep!

Of course I, too, took some photos, and unfortunately I made the mistake of standing beside my friend, Ahmadul Tahir (he finished in 1:35), whose huge muscles made me look like a pathetically small chap! I think I will take a very long time to forgive Hana for forgetting to remind me to stand between her and Amelia. I'm sure I would've appeared much bigger and tougher had I stood between them.

Well, although I did not expect it, the Standard Chartered Brunei Half Marathon turned out to be quite an enjoyable race after all. I won't mind joining again next year!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hot Chicks

A little over a week ago, on a Sunday, I received a text message from my brother, Harry. He went running at Tun Fuad Park in Bukit Padang that morning as part of his training programme to prepare for the half marathon he has signed up for in the Borneo International Marathon in May. But after that long run, he noticed that he had blood in his urine. Worried, he sought my opinion.

I'm not a doctor, but things such as these interest me, and I read quite a lot about them. I don't know very much, but of course there are many causes for blood in the urine. I told him some of the possible causes; but in the end I advised him the best thing to do was to quickly see a doctor.

A few hours later, I received a report from him. He had by then seen a GP who tested his urine. Although not visibly seen by the naked eye, traces of blood was still present in his urine. The doctor prescribed some antibiotics and told Harry to refrain from running for at least 3 days. He was allowed to eat beef, lamb and even pork; but not chicken! I can appreciate that, apparently, the doctor deduced that exercised-induced hematuria was the cause of the problem, but the advice seemed like godsend—don't do exercise, don't eat lean mean (chicken), but can eat beef and pork.

What's the story with the chicken?

I couldn't resist asking Harry if he had heard the instruction wrongly. I wondered if the doctor said "Don't eat chicken", or "Don't play [with] chicken". If it were the latter, maybe I can think of a link to the problem. In the end, according to Harry, the doctor suggested that "chicken is heaty" and may worsen the problem. So that's something new I've learnt. I wonder, however, if there is any scientific evidence that would support such a claim.

But on the other hand, the Chinese athletes are rearing their own chickens in the hope of preventing banned substance from entering their systems, which might in turn lead to their disqualification in the coming Olympic Games.

I'm going to Brunei this weekend for a half marathon race; so I will try to refrain from eating chicken over the next few days, just in case my body gets too over-heated somehow. After all, the race starts at 6am and I'm expecting to take two hours to finish. It will be quite hot by 8am. Let's see if I can perform any better without chicken meat. I will report again after the race. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

KK City Run 2012

The Dewan Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu (DBKK) has been organising the so-called KK City Run over the years, but they were merely for a distance of 4km; they were meant as "fun runs" only, as opposed to races for speed. I joined one of them a couple of years ago, and that was the first and last time I joined the City Run. That's the tragedy of training and running marathons—you'd sooner or later reach a stage where you'd want to run at least 15km to 20km on a Sunday to make the early morning wake up worth the trouble! 4km seems just too short to justify waking up at 5:30am on a Sunday.

Then about 2 months ago, a friend told me that the DBKK would be organising a 10km race together with the KK City Run this year. So for the first time, ever, they had 2 categories: Run For Fun, and Run To Win. The former remained the same as in the previous years, i.e. 4km run which involved a portion of the city main road, but also Jalan Istana. The latter was an actual race comprising numerous categories according to the gender and age of the participant. These were divided into either 5km or 10km races.

I thought 10km was still too short a workout for a Sunday morning. So I have ignored this race until very recently when I signed up for the Standard Chartered Half Marathon on 08 April. I suddenly realised that the KK City Run is a week before the Brunei race, and according to my plan, I would be running about 10km on that day anyway because of tapering for Brunei. So I thought I might as well join the Run To Win, though of course I was well aware that there was no chance of winning!

It was a strange race, really. I arrived at the padang in good time for the race. The rest of my friends were also there. I found it amusing that Teo, Paul and Amelia were in their triathlon outfits. By the way, they had recently completed the Kenyir Triathlon. Just before the flag off, it was announced that the cut off time for this 10km race was 70 minutes, and I began to worry if I could finish in time. There will be an alarm which would go off after that 70 minutes is up. So everyone had to finish the race before the sound of that alarm.

At the start of the race, I felt good. But I noticed that Teo, Paul and Amelia had very quickly surged ahead. In no time at all, I lost them while climbing up the winding Signal Hill road. By the time I reached to top of the hill, I realised that I've taken almost 15 minutes. Then the downhill portion which was quite pleasant. When I reached the bottom of the hill in Likas, I've spent almost half an hour! I tried to run faster, but my legs felt like jelly. I kept moving anyway, and soon found myself at SM All Saints. Turning the corner, I made my way out to the coastal highway towards Tg Lipat. But I was fast running out of time.

That final stretch of a few kilometres was quite amazing; it felt like it'd never end. I ran and ran as fast as I could. By then Teo, Paul and Amelia were nowhere to be seen. I supposed they must have finished the race a while ago. Turning the last corner at Dewan Masyarakat, I had 67 minutes on my watch. That final push was very punishing, but I finished the race in the nick of time. I crossed the finish line cheered on by the rest of my friends. Among them were the triathletes in their colourful outfits, and Ah Diong, Claire, Felice and even Janna had finished ahead of me. It was quite embarrassing to finish last among my friends, but at least I made it within the time limit! A few seconds after I crossed the finish line, the time limit alarm went off. It went on and on for a while until it became quite annoying!

And then suddenly, I woke up from my sleep. It was the alarm clock by my bedside. It was 5:30am. I sat up in bed, trying to gather my thoughts. God dammit!... what rotten luck, I had to do the race all over again—only this time for real!

And again, I went through the race preparation ritual. Putting on my running outfit, I made a pleasant trip to KK, found a parking just in front of Tong Hing, and just as I was walking down that road, saw Felice getting out of her mighty Pajero.

The rest of the animals were already there at the padang. And I was glad to see the triathletes were not in their intimidating outfits. They had apparently done their warming up. Before the start, we took this photo.

There were familiar faces who we knew were very strong runners. They were all assembled in front of the pack. But we were several metres behind. At the sound of the horn, the elite runners shot out ahead, whereas my friends and I merely walked at a leisurely pace. About 20m-30m later, as we were turning into the feeder road leading to Signal Hill, we began to jog a little. But it was still difficult to run as it was quite a huge crowd.

Then at the foot of the Signal Hill, we started to jog a little faster. I was a bit conscious of the 3 Kenyir triathletes, so I was careful not to run ahead, because it would be very embarrassing when they overtake me again later. So I went slow at first, until I couldn't bear the snail pace! The journey up the hill to the top was perhaps a mere 5 to 6 minutes, but I'm sure we could've shaved off at least a minute or two; if only we did not waste so much time at the beginning. In the end, about halfway up the hill, I decided to increase my pace. It wasn't really fast; perhaps just a little under 6mins/km pace.

Soon, I was already at the top of Signal Hill. I took full advantage of the downgoing, perhaps reaching a pace of 5 mins/km or even 4.5mins/km, thus overtaking some familiar faces of the Kinabalu Running Club.

Upon reaching the foothill on the other side, I reduced my pace again, but kept it steady throughout. A long stretch all the way to SM All Saints, and having overtaken quite a number of people, I looked at my watch and it showed that almost half an hour had elapsed. I knew that that was about the midway point of the race, so it was time to up the pace a bit to ensure my target of finishing in under 60 mins.

All the while, I was looking for the water station. And I was expecting to find one after every corner. But it was wishful thinking; DBKK did not provide drinking water for the entire 10km race!

Deja vu—just as I had seen in my dream earlier, I was going through the same stretch yet again for the second time. The long stretch from the Likas mosque all the way to KK City can be quite punishing psychologically. For the mind tells the body that the road just never ends! But actually it's a test of mental strength.

Along the way, I saw a girl who had fainted; and seeing that my friend, John Chin and another guy were already attending to her, I continued running. All the while, I thought I was gonna miss my target of finishing the race in under 60 mins. But as I approached the Dewan Masyarakat, I had 50 mins on my watch. A short while later, I crossed the finish line in 52 mins 40 secs.

Still no drinks. I walked over to the padang and found people distributing free Red Bull energy drinks. I would have preferred just plain water then, but I downed the whole 100ml or so within a few seconds; still thirsty as hell!

One by one my friends crossed the finish line. I think Paul finished in 54 mins; Amelia in 55 mins; and the Kipas King, Teo, in 56 mins. The other ladies in our group finished several more minutes later, but because they were in different categories, they all finished within "medal" positions! (Well done, girls)

Yes, folks, you better believe it; life is quite unfair sometimes. We worked much harder than the girls; we finished earlier than them; yet they're the ones who got the medals! Now you tell me, where's justice?

Well, it was a great workout; it was fun. But I was fairly disappointed that it was poorly organised, even by a first-timer organiser. I think DBKK should provide at least one water station at the midway point, because although it did not really trouble me that much, I suspect many, many runners had to struggle with thirst. DBKK should also prepare ambulances with paramedics to account for possible emergencies.

I think this could be an attractive annual event by DBKK. But they must get their acts right. There will be supporters—I'm confident—from the members of Kinabalu Running Club.

Hell! I'm so glad that I don't have to run this race again for the third time within the same day!