It was a long weekend that every Malaysian was looking forward to; a 4-day weekend (Labour Day + Wesak) that was the envy of our neighbours. It was also on the Sunday of this weekend that I finally earned the right to call myself a Marathoner (ah yes, to anyone out there using the word synonymously with any road race, a ‘marathon’ isn’t a marathon until it’s 42.195km (26 miles and 385 yards 😉 And here’s why).
Set in the city I first visited 4 years ago to climb Mt Kinabalu, and where I eyed a Borneo International Marathon (BIM) banner in the streets, the route BIM2015 certainly had its makan*-thon involved. (I won’t digress too much to talk about the delights of Tuaran mee and the pre-race bakuteh, but do refer to my BIM2014 post for the food tips if you’re interested! 🙂 )
(*Makan: Malay for “eat”. Possibly the official Malaysian pastime.)
One of the reasons I chose BIM for my first marathon was its attractive route. Having run the Half Marathon at BIM 2014, I had been more-than-slightly awestruck by running on the coastal road and even the steep gradients of the endless hills of the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus. For the 42K this year, the route certainly did not disappoint – I even managed to get a spectacular view of Mt Kinabalu at sunrise.
Runners would no doubt have read and been told countless times that finishing a marathon takes not only training and conditioning, but a good dose of mental preparation; those bits of advice are absolutely spot on. Looking back, one piece of psychological preparation that I feel was crucial to not being overwhelmed by the distance for the route is the mental positioning of various chunks of the route.
For the 2015 42K route, I found it useful to break it down this way:
- The first 10K is a loop around the city, starting from the Likas Stadium, that would lead you back to the stadium. Think of this as the ‘warm up’. That’s 10 kilometres of 42 done! 😀 Ok, moving on…
- The distance between the stadium and the halfway point of 21K at the university grounds is 11K. The atmosphere on the initial stretch is a relaxing one, with reflection of lights from the street on the water in the bay, coupled by an early-morning sea breeze if you’re lucky. There will be some pretty crazy hills at UMS, but it helps to know what to expect, so do recce the UMS campus beforehand to prevent any shocks!
- Upon exiting UMS, you have 9K to reach the 30K U-turn point somewhere after the 1Borneo mall complex. 9K doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
- After that, it’s a glorious 12K back to the stadium. Not too bad, right?
And, voila, we have 42. To me, it sounded more feasible than “running eight 5Ks and then a bit” (what, eight??), and offered more variety than a plain “four 10Ks” (and a bit) or 6 X 7K’s.
The 10K loop around KK
While the rest of KK (including my husband and kid in the cosy holiday apartment) were soundly asleep and businesses closed for the day, I found myself taking in the atmosphere at the Full Marathon start line at 2.30am on Sunday. This was a small crowd unlike the large races in KL. I bumped into Mohan ‘Marathon’, a familiar face in local races. This was my first 42K, I laughed. He immediately introduced me to Robert, also from Kuala Lumpur, who happened to be on his first Marathon outing too.
The gun went off. I managed to keep a comfortable pace around Mohan and Robert for the first 10K. It was a little less than my usual race pace, but I was fine with that; and in fact felt better than usual as I felt more in control. I didn’t really have a target time in mind other than a vague hope to at least come in before the cutoff; my main target was to finish.
We pounded the asphalt on the wider roads taking us through the city – from the Likas Stadium onto the coastal road and then along the KK Bypass Road, out to Jalan Nenas, then Jalan Tuaran, and a left turn off Jalan Tuaran that would bring us past the Likas Stadium once again, culminating in the first 10K. I popped a Saltstick hydration tablet before the 10K ended.
Outside the stadium, FM (‘full marathon’ – well, yeah, ‘full’ is rather redundant here :-D) runners were cheered up by a growing throng clapping for us as we ran past the congregation of runners waiting for the Half Marathon start. I found Cris, who had very kindly accompanied me to the stadium despite her start time being much later, and waved madly. This would be the last I would see of crowds for a while. The next few hours would be pretty much me and the crazy people in front and behind me, and the road ahead.
We soon left the sights and sounds of the stadium behind, and the road was once again dark, quiet, and …. lonely. That was when the madness of it all hit me. It was 4.30am and I was in the streets running, not from anything, and not for anything other than the sheer purpose of running and finishing a landmark distance. I was insane.
On a brighter note, the atmosphere on the coastal road was everything I hoped it would be – a light sea breeze was blowing, and reflections were shimmering in the Likas Bay. The full moon, sitting just over the horizon, was unusually bright and its reflection in the water was a sight to behold. Insanity has its fringe benefits 🙂
At UMS, I slowed down at the downhills, not wishing to wreck my knees too soon. In fact, I slowed down enough to take some photos and send them to my friends waiting for their 21K start. I popped another hydration tablet.
As we ran near the back perimeter of the university grounds, a stunning sight awaited – the jagged summit plateau of Mt Kinabalu was in full view, and the sun was rising behind it, illuminating the dull blue sky with blasts of colour. The volunteers manning the route (this was near the 21K half-way point) were clearly entralled. I am not certain if the runners noticed the mountain (perhaps it was I who was too distracted?). I stopped to snap a photograph.
My calves started to tighten during the final (evil, evil) downhill at UMS towards the aid station near the roundabout. No, no.. no cramps, please… I approached the volunteers with analgesic sprays and was given a generous dose of Deep Heating on the back of my legs. The relief wasn’t immediate, but at least there would be no more steep gradients, thank goodness.
Now for the 9K to the 30K turnaround point. During my marathon training, I was thrown into (well, threw myself into) the deep end of the pool by foolishly signing up for a hilly 30K as my first run of that distance, and leaping into it, too, from 21K. That was torture, but this road to 30K wasn’t half as hilly. I would survive, I told myself.
I knew the road well up to about 27KM near 1 Borneo (having run to UMS at the 21K last year and also having driven on that road several times on the way to the Kinabalu National Park), but I had somewhat underestimated the 9K between 1Borneo and the 30K turnaround point ‘somewhere down the road’.
After a seemingly endless stretch of dusty road, I caught up with Robert (I realised had fallen back a fair bit after the UMS downhills) and we exchanged ‘where the hell is the turnaround point?’ expressions. Oh well, time for another hydration tablet.
It was also getting quite warm, the Bornean sun being already fairly high in the sky despite the relatively early hour. A water and banana station marked the turnaround point.
The asphalt was heating up fast and the road back had very little shade. The aid station offered little plastic bags of ice, neatly tied up with string. I grabbed one and placed it on the back of my neck. I took another and placed it on top of my head, allowing the cold condensation to drip onto my scalp through the ventilation panels of my cap. Bliss.
After the turnaround point, it was the unknown – I had not gone past 30K during training – but the route would only lead one way – back to the stadium; yep, the glorious 12K back to the stadium, I told myself.
At 30, I noticed that my split time was a whopping 30 minutes shaved off from my one and only previous 30K. This was not unexpected given that my first 30K was a killer hilly one that completely knocked me out, but nevertheless extremely encouraging, and provided some push for me to put the monotony of the dusty suburban trunk road behind me, metre by metre.
Any distance I was running now was, technically, a personal best. That seemed to sound encouraging too.. though it was not until I passed 1Borneo again that I caught my second wind and things started looking up. I was well on my way to KM35, and from then it would be just a short distance more before the ‘last 5K from hell’ that, despite horror stories, surely can’t be that bad, now that I have reached the 35K mark!
35 was an unimaginable distance just a year ago. 35 would have been the equivalent of the distance from Petaling Jaya to the start of the LEKAS Highway. At this point, 35 itself sounded crazy enough. What would 42 feel like?
The Last 5K from Hell
Ok, the heading was drafted merely for shock value 😀
Nothing too new here, really – the last 5K of any race is always ‘from hell’ because you’ve built up so much expectation to it and you never learn.. and especially if it’s a maiden attempt at the particular distance. This was no exception in the case of my first 42K. I expected to be delirious at the prospect of being about to finish a literal marathon effort, but all I was thinking of was to end it all (and then take my time being delirious later).
I seemed to be doing all right – I was adequately hydrated (being a relay runner in the 2pm sun at the Putrajaya IRONMAN 70.3 a few weeks before BIM taught me good lessons in hydration – but more about that another time!), and I hadn’t had any cramps. All the right soundtracks were playing on my iPod, I had enough water left in my bottle after the last refill to squirt a steady stream of water onto my head, neck and shoulders, and there were no unusual aches in my legs or core. My GPS watch had run out of battery around 38K (serves me right for forgetting to charge it the night before!) but the route was still being recorded on Strava on my phone. I certainly wasn’t quick, but I would finish strong.
The final aid station came up… and I realised that, at 39 kilometres, I needed the loo quite badly. <insert facepalm>
Oh well, I had already taken more than 6 hours, a loo stop wasn’t going to cost me any valuable time I hadn’t already spent. I stepped into a portaloo and nearly fell over from the sudden plunge into darkness and a small confined space. When I stepped back outside, I was momentarily disoriented by the blinding sunlight, but thankfully managed to regain my (snail’s) pace without mishap. I hoped I wouldn’t just black out when I finally stop running.
I flashed the happiest smile I could manage for the official photographers near the Likas stadium turnoff. The road towards the stadium was almost deserted, save for a sparse line of us crazy FM runners, almost near the end (almost literally, too).
For a few minutes it was an uneasy, lonely feeling, with no volunteers cheering us on. Instead, finishers of various categories were quietly walking in the opposite direction, deep in their own post-race reverie.
The last leg to the Finish was inside the stadium. Six and a half hours of pounding footsteps suddenly turned into anticipatory silence as I went from the asphalt to the plush surface of the track. Suddenly, things appeared to move in slow motion. I couldn’t believe it, I was nearly done. So much was going on in my head that I didn’t realise I had run for hours since 3am, and the fact that my body wasn’t breaking down was a very encouraging sign. I locked my gaze on the finish chutes.
Near the finish line, my long-suffering friends who very kindly waited for me after their 21Ks and 10Ks yelled my name, and I was momentarily distracted. I started looking to my left and right for familiar faces. I thought I glimpsed a colourful mash of Cris, Wendy, Edelweiss, Foong, Margie, Alina and Aiman somewhere in the bleachers.
“Go! Go! Go! Finish!” the voices reprimanded, and I remembered quick enough that I would want a nice photo-finish for my finish, to divert my gaze back to the finish line just in time to catch the lens of the official photographers. Yay! Done! Woot! Good heavens, I’d just finished a marathon!
Someone handed me a medal and I muttered a groggy thank-you (I think they could have stood a *little* further back from the finish as most people would probably have run past them) and next came the finisher’s bag o’stuff. Which had my first ever finisher’s tee! Sweet!
I found my friends. Hugs, photographs and ice-cold Milo followed. I proudly walked like a crab wearing the finisher tee for the rest of the day, and probably had too many meals that were necessary for refuelling. And, less than a month later, I signed up for the Standard Chartered KL Marathon that will happen in October. (Did I really think I would stop at my first 42? Hah!)
I know this will sound crazy – and I didn’t expect to say this either – but the experience of a 42.195km run is nothing short of terrific, if almost meditative. It’s worth every second of your training. I’d highly recommend it.