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21K at the Penang Bridge International Marathon 2014 – 6 ‘Likes’ and 6 ‘Yikes!’

I started writing this blogpost quite some time ago, after I returned from Penang (it was hard to find time to write between all those carbo-loading and carbo-reloading meals while on the island.. it was Penang after all!). Two weeks after the event, this page was still in draft form, but it seemed to me that everything that people wanted to had already been relentlessly aired on the comment sections of almost every photo posted on the PBIM Facebook page.

So I decided to doodle it instead! The piece below is based partly on reactions observed on social media, and some personal experiences. (And partly, also, an ode to the selfie-taking running public.)  

For more of the personal experiences – the ‘likes’ and ‘yikes’ on the run – please do read on – my full blogpost on the PBIM2014 Half Marathon is set out after the drawing below.

Let's hope we can all learn something from the chaos!

Let’s hope we can all learn something from the chaos! (Click for full-sized image)

And now for the full story behind the doodle!

First, a bit about the much-touted new bridge.

So, in November 2014, the annual Penang Bridge International Marathon took place on the new Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah (SAHMS) Bridge, better known as the ‘Second Penang Bridge’, which opened in March 2014. (Trivia: PBIM 2013 would have taken place on the Second Bridge, but for a delay in the completion of the bridge.)

The journey in. We managed to across the Second Bridge before the 3pm road closure on Saturday.

Great weather during the journey to Penang. We managed to across the Second Bridge before the 3pm road closure on Saturday.

The Second Bridge is situated further south of the island from the main Penang Bridge that started operations in 1985. At a length of 24km, the Second Bridge is longer than the first bridge (which is 13.5km). It is also currently the longest bridge in Malaysia and in Southeast Asia.

The 2014 edition of the Penang Bridge International Marathon started from the Batu Maung side of the bridge on the island, and it was to be a (seemingly) straightforward straight route to a certain point on the bridge before runners made a U-turn to finish back on the Batu Maung side.

6 ‘Likes’ about the PBIM2014 (Half Marathon):

Other than the novelty of running on a bridge (or the country/region’s longest bridge), here are 6 reasons I’d go back (for a Half Marathon anyway):

1. NO SUN! – This was the first ever race of any distance that I started and ended in the dark – not because I was fast, but because the 21K started nice and early – at 3.30am. And what a difference that made to hydration needs and general well-being during the run! I would normally carry my 700ml Nathan bottle as a backup, slowly refilling it as I went along at water stations that had the capacity to. For a 21K, I would have drunk an equivalent of 4 water-bottles of water in total. At Penang, I felt comfortable enough just sipping from my bottle to pass the first two water stations entirely, and I only started stopping at the isotonic stations after the 11K half-way mark. I actually still had some drops of water left by the end of the race route.

Note: “No sun” wouldn’t apply if you were running the 10K. See “Yikes moments” below.

2. Running a race in Malaysia without the heat? No way! – Related to ‘No Sun’ above. Having been used to being plagued by stinging eyes, soaking wet hair and everything else that comes with excessive sweating, an early-morning run on the bridge is *the* main attraction of the PBIM for me!

Yeah, the sunnies were probably redundant!

Yeah, the sunnies were probably redundant!

3. Plenty of breeze – There is no better finish than running on a gradual downhill, at the final 2km or so, towards the lights of a city waking to life on a Sunday morning, and having sea breeze in your hair. You’re on the brink of achieving that elusive runner’s high, the struggles of the recent past are all forgotten, and the finish will be sweet… until you reach the finish line, that is. See “Yikes moments” below.

4. Great running surface – Nice, new, tar. 🙂 No rough patches to contend with (until you reach the post-race event site after the finish line, that is — read on under “Yikes moments” below).

This is as steep as it gets!

5. Flat! – The route was fairly flat. The only inclines are (i) when you get onto the bridge ramp right after the start line, and (ii) when you get onto the main span of the bridge. The gradual ‘downhills’ (leaving the main span and on the ramp heading to the finish) are also great for people with wobblier knees. All in all, if you wanted to aim for a personal best, this would probably be a good race to try for one.

6. It’s in Penang! – ‘Nuff said. The land of good food, sprawling green parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and good food. Have I mentioned good food? Endless possibilities for breakfast (or lunch) after your run – what more could one ask for in a race venue?

And 6 ‘Yikes!’ moments:

Anyone who was there in November would have had plenty to say. Here’s what the ‘Yikes’ moments were for me, at the Half Marathon and while waiting for the hubby to arrive for his 10K after.

1. (A lot) more distance markers would have been helpful. Not everyone has a GPS watch, and not everyone wants to dig out their smartphone to check their app from time to time. I saw signages at 11K (where the 21K turnaround was), and then around 5km, 2km (I may have missed one at 1km) and at 500m. I did wonder for a while if we were expected to use the bridge’s highway location markers that appear every 100m or so. In the first half of the 21K, mainland-bound, I tracked a few.. they went from 12.7 to 12.6 to 12.5.. the distances were being calculated from the mainland, not the island – oh well, not much help there!

Things seemed to have started off pretty all right early in the morning, really. This was a view of the Second Bridge right after the Men's 21K flagged off.

Things seemed to have started off pretty all right early in the morning, really. This was a view of the Second Bridge shortly before the 21K Women’s Open flag-off.

2. Middle-of-the-road walkers and photo ops – Of course, nothing says one can’t walk in a race, but it’s best that that’s done at the side so that other runners don’t have to slow down or zig-zag to avoid walkers that are occupying the middle of the road. I have no issues with persons taking selfies / wefies on the bridge either, but IMHO if you need to come to a complete stop to get a clear shot, wouldn’t that be best done at the side, too? It’s one thing to say the organisers should post something in the guide book about runners’ etiquette; but hey, I’m sure we all know how to practice a little common courtesy, right?

3. Bottles of water of about 500ml capacity were given out at certain water stations. I don’t really know what to make of this, but I noticed that many people who took the bottles left the bottles behind after one gulp or a few sips. Many bottles were more than two-thirds full, and there seemed to be wastage aplenty. Sure, others may pick up the bottles left behind to finish off the water that was left behind by others, one questions the potential health risks of doing that.

My first thoughts were – why take a full bottle when you know you’re only going to take a few sips and leave it behind? However, it could well be the case that the water stations were too packed and some couldn’t reach in to get cups. Oh well. Maybe have longer water stations and forget the bottles? Plastic bottles aren’t the greenest option of distributing water anyway.

3. Toilet queues perpendicular to the running route – At certain toilet stops, the available space to run was reduced to barely one lane. It’s probably an inexplicable behavioural phenomenon amongst crowds that people sometimes will form queue patterns that defy logic; but surely some marshals could have been stationed to guide the queues into less inconvenient formations.

4. Slightly awkward U-turn arrangements – Lots of people complained about this. My take is that the bridge probably has limited sections at which the barriers in the median are able to be opened up or removed for u-turns to be made, but, with the way the run routes were planned out, these removable sections did not correspond with the turnaround distance points for the various run distances.

Shortly after the 21K u-turn. when we merged with the 42K runners.

Shortly after the 21K u-turn, when we merged with the 42K runners.

That’s my guess as to why, in the case of the 21K anyway, the two-lane road suddenly switched from being one-way to two-way ‘traffic’ for some hundreds of metres before the 11K turnaround point. After the turnaround, we continued to run side-by-side with runners coming from the opposite direction, on the same side of the bridge, until a certain spot where the median was opened up and we could enter the other lane of the bridge, merging with the Full Marathon runners.

Although this narrowing of lanes did not cause any major congestions at the time I reached the 21K half-way point, it apparently created massive near-standstills during the later 10K groups, based on comments and photos posted on the PBIM Facebook page. Unfortunately, the 10K folks were also running in the heat of the morning sun, with no shade at all on the exposed bridge – I do hope those poor runners were adequately hydrated!

THE HORDES! – Screenshot of a photo shared on Runwitme’s Facebook page, on the day after the event. (Click to view larger image)

5. Finish line and post-race event area – After a glorious downhill, the finish line was, unfortunately, an anti-climactic bottleneck. The crowd had to stop and inch along even before the timing mats. The two photographers stationed there wouldn’t have had many great shots to take. Some runners who were sprinting to the finish struggled to weave past the waiting crowd to cross the timing mats. Altogether it was a rather chaotic scene.

The situation after the finish line was worse – the event site was on ground that was part gravel, part sand, and there were puddles everywhere (possibly from earlier rain). It was still dark when I finished around 6:15am, and I spent a lot of time avoiding puddles by the light of my smartphone – other than the medal and drinks tents, the large post-event area where hundreds of runners were milling around wasn’t lit at all!

While the medal tents were clearly located, it was difficult finding a safe route towards the tents in the dark while avoiding puddles to eventually arrive at the correct queue at the tents. After the medal tents, it was an event bigger chore locating the lines for the various drinks. I was happy to have managed to get a cup of Milo and a cup of Sunkist, but decided against navigating more puddles for the Nestle Fitnesse cereal. I started to make my way back towards the start area to look for the hubby, who would be arriving soon for the Men’s 10K 7.30am start.

There weren’t any signages that I could see, and I had to rely on photographic memory of the map of the event site which I fortunately had a quick look at before raceday. I was happy to find a set of portaloos under the bridge ramp that had no queues.

I found the area where the sponsors’ tents were. There were more puddles and patches of soggy grass, and generally a lot of people everywhere. There were long toilet queues at the portaloos next to the sponsors’ tents and even longer ones on the grassy bank next to the road where the start line was located – the situation looked pretty ridiculous, and I wished I had a loudhailer to yell “People! There are portaloos under the bridge just a couple of hundred metres away and nobody’s using those!” Aiya, nobody saw those underused portaloos under the bridge, lah.

I walked on, looking for a suitable meeting place to intercept the hubby before his 10K start. I found a partly-shaded spot under an electronic signboard that had some breathing space from the crowd. Phew.

Little did I know, the *real* chaos was just beginning.

Near the finish line, about 9am. Things didn’t seem too bad at the tail end of the route. We only heard about the human traffic jams on the bridge under the full heat of the sun, later on!

6. The shuttle bus service was overwhelmed. Hubby texted saying that the queue for the shuttle bus at Komtar was very long, but buses were arriving regularly and the queue seemed to be moving, so the people in the queue didn’t think too much of it [at the time].

As I continued waiting, I saw the Women’s 10K being flagged off. 15 minutes after the women were flagged off, something didn’t seem right – there were ladies wearing 10K bibs who were just arriving from buses; they were starting more than 15 minutes late.

I was still waiting. The cellular lines were congested, but hubby finally managed to text me again to update his location, just as the Men’s 10K was about to be flagged off – he was still in the queue at Komtar, which had for some reason suddenly stopped moving!

There were other issues. From where I was waiting near the start line, I could see that the shuttle buses that were arriving were inching their way at snail’s pace through a sea of people who were occupying that side of the road. I didn’t see any marshals clearing the way for the buses. The Men’s 10K flagged off at 7.30am. Hubby messages “I’m still at Komtar.” The Fun Run eventually flagged off, too, balloons and all…. but hubby was still at Komtar. Eventually, half an hour after the flag-off (and after a total of one and a half hours in queue), hubby got onto a bus. The bus then ended up in standstill traffic outside the Plexus factory, about 1km away from the start. The driver suggested that the passengers got down to walk to the start line lest they ended up even later. They did. I intercepted hubs as he was jogging along, but it was clear he wasn’t in no mood to run no more. It was hot, the place was looking extremely disorganised, what was the point? A selfie on the bridge?

It was very tempting to call it off and head to breakfast, but since he had endured a one-and-a-half-hour wait for the bus and come all the way… he did proceed on his 10K. It was 45 minutes after flag-off.

The aftermath?

As expected, social media was abuzz with complaints on the event organisation. Based on photos that were posted of the congestion that happened right after the Men’s 10K flag off (and comments from runners saying that they pretty much walked all the way in the blazing sun due to the crowd, plus reports of a 15-20 minute standstill at the 10K turnaround), it may have been a blessing in disguise that hubby’s bus arrived much later and as a result he started way after the crowds dispersed.

Despite the event’s downsides and the chaos at the finish, I won’t yet join the chorus of “I’ll never register for this again!” and “Worst event ever!” commenters on social media – I did enjoy my 21K on the bridge, and I will return; and I did sign up for PBIM2014 knowing very well that this would be their first event on the new bridge (read: teething issues galore).

Here’s the caveat, though – I’d probably not recommend the 10K until one sees how things are sorted out in future editions of the run on the Second Penang Bridge. (And I’ll definitely arrange my own transport to the site.)

Hubby, however, wasn’t feeling so generous. No more PBIMs for him, thank you very much, he says. Ouch – and double ouch, since that’s coming from a Penangite!

As attractive as the Second Penang Bridge may be for running, it’s clear that there isn’t much space around the bridge for an adequate event area to house 60,000 people.

At the time of this post going live, we note that PBIM has announced the all-new Penang Bridge Half Marathon (21K distance only, in various categories), to take place, tentatively, on the Second Bridge on June 14, 2015. Registrations opened on January 1, 2015.

The Penang Bridge Half Marathon coming up in 2015 – Screenshot from PBIM’s Facebook page. (Click to view larger image)

P.S. A big salute to all the volunteers and also the event MC who must have been at the microphone since the wee hours of the morning, trying hard to get each category to do a Mexican wave before they were flagged off. She still managed to sound sprightly when flagging the Fun Runners off at 8am!

P.P.S. If you’d like to view some photos of the rest of our stay in Penang (interesting facades of old shophouses, random takes in the streets of Georgetown, and food) – do feel free to head over to my Instagram account (which is also linked to on the sidebar of this blogpage!) 

About speedshuffle (75 Articles)
Wen Li is a runner, blogger, mother, educator and artist. She is the Co-Founder and Cartoonist of Malaysia's first comic strip on running, Running Toons ( and is a Compressport Ambassador. Her running story was featured in Marie Claire Malaysia's April 2016 issue alongside several other notable women running bloggers. She runs wherever the road takes her, come scorching sunshine, stifling humidity or relentless rain (and preferably to a Nasi Lemak breakfast!). Apart from pounding the asphalt, she also enjoys hiking and pilates, and is now attempting CrossFit!

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