“Why the unusual distance, 42 km?” asked my wife, as I mentally prepared myself to run my third Kuching Marathon.
“Actually it’s 42.195 km, or 26 miles, 385 yards,” I replied. “That was the distance between Marathon and Athens that the legendary messenger Pheidippides ran after the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in the year 490BC.”
Pheidippides, after delivering his message, promptly died of a heart attack. So here we are 2,500 years later still celebrating his feat with our own feet.
Back then, Pheidippides didn’t have the comfortable running shoes nor was the terrain all that smooth let alone paved, nor were there water stations with isotonic drinks conveniently located along the way. So what he did back then was truly remarkable and truly appreciated by those of us who try to emulate him by running our own marathon.
Then again, Pheidippides didn’t start his marathon at 2 a.m. unlike here in Borneo.
Up at 12:45 on less than three hours of sleep, I showered, dressed, stretched, and applied muscular ointments and some Vaseline to prevent chafing. I then took a pre-race selfie before I continued to cross off items from my to-do list, including slipping on my headband and running hat. I was nearly out the hotel door, when my wife surprised me with a kiss and wished me good luck.
Smiling, I felt ready to do Pheidippides proud by participating in the 2016 Kuching Marathon, an event I ran last year and also in their inaugural event (and my first marathon) in 2014.
In the elevator, I greeted another runner, a young woman, who told me, “Everyone thinks I’m crazy.”
“I know, including my wife.”
We wished each other good luck. Staying at The Waterfront Hotel, we reached the starting line in about a minute and I never saw her again, which was not unusual when you have about 2000 runners and their non-running friends, milling around, stretching, chatting, while mentally preparing themselves to run an insane distance and endure some minor and major aching along the way.
“No pain, no gain,” they say, which prompted me to ask one of the volunteers as he rode alongside us on his bike, “Aren’t you cheating?”
He didn’t seem to appreciate my humor. Moments later, trying to free himself from the crowd, he veered toward me, so I stopped to let him pass (as opposed to letting him ride over me), but then he swerved at the last second, and we nearly collided. Luckily, neither of us fell.
Not a good way to start a marathon. I got stopped again at the hour mark by a red light and the traffic police. Being forced to stop when you’re running at a good pace is not good. Fatigue sets in as you cool your heels. My plan was to run the first two hours without stopping for anything, even water, since I carried my own bottle. Twice in the past two weeks, I had run to my wife’s village in Sarawak, taking a longer route than usual, and made it there and back in 1 hour, 50 minutes, so I knew it was manageable.
When I did those runs, I did keep a close eye out for that king cobra that my wife had encountered earlier on that same road.
“What is that?” she asked herself, seeing what looked like a rope in the middle of road that seemed to be moving. Suddenly it turned and reared up and fanned out its hood as king cobras tend to do. Eighteen feet in length, king cobras can rise five to six feet and look you in the eye. Luckily for her she was safely inside her car. Realizing it was no match for her Toyota Vios, the king cobra maneuvered out of the way, as did my wife, swerving around it. This meant that the king cobra was still alive, out there somewhere in my path, waiting…
I made contingency plans of what I would do if I happened to encounter that king cobra. Since I always run with a long white plastic pole to fend off dogs – I get chased at least once on every run, and sometimes I’d have as many as four or five dogs surrounding me, going for it. I’d swing my stick and carefully back away from them. Other than scaring me half to death, so far not bites.
A bite from a king cobra would be lethal, so I planned in my head what I would do if I was forced to fight it off wielding my stick. In my mind, I always win; in reality, that may not be the case. So I kept running, hoping if I did see that king cobra or any other snake, I could at least outrun it. A woman running a marathon in New Mexico was attacked by a bear. Yes, other than cars, there are risks.
As I continued my own marathon, though without my pole, I did smell death on several occasions – no doubt some roadkill just out of my line of vision. Out of sight, out of mind, so I kept on running.
The first two Kuching Marathons ran without a hitch, but this year there were some problems. The 14-km water station ran out of cups, which made it difficult for people to drink and slow for the rest of us waiting for a bottle. When my turn came, I refilled my own one-liter bottle. Then at the 17-km water station (they were spaced three kilometers apart) they had neither cups nor water nor isotonic drinks. I still I had plenty in my bottle, but others grumbled. I heard a few caustic remarks tossed at the hapless volunteers, who informed us that they had informed the organizers, not that it would do us any good.
At the next station, near the half way point, they had cups and drinks, but the following 23-km station, they were out again and that made quite a few people upset, if not angry at the organizers. Running a marathon is hard enough on your own without having to worry about not having any water at the water stations. In the past, I often wondered if the extra weight and hassle of holding my own bottle for 42 km was worth it. Now I had my answer. I felt bad for all those waterless runners, knowing how thirsty they must be.
Around the half way mark, my knees began to ache as did my lower legs. I had to walk out of sheer fatigue, but my knees seemed to ache even more, so I compelled myself to run, albeit slowly, but I was too tired to run and needed to walk, but my knees were too achy to walk….This was not a good sign.
Then everybody seemed to be passing me, male and female, young and old, tall and short, chubby and skinny, even two guys with one arm. One man’s arm was lifeless, dangling from his left side, the other surgically removed below the elbow. I immediately thought of the victims from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and how courageous so many of them were, after losing a limb, including a leg, to return the following year and run again.
Although inspired, I still continued to fade. Then this man in his fifties, wearing a tutu, passed me.
“Stop it,” I said. “Enough is enough.”
I turned to a tall Indian a few steps behind me, pointed out the other man and said in disbelief, “He’s wearing a tutu!”
The man nodded. It’s hard to ignore a grown man in a tutu.
“What’s really embarrassing,” I added, “is that he’s beating both of us.”
Later, feeling even more demoralized as people who didn’t really look like runners – including old ladies, chubby guys and school girls – kept passing me, I began to lose hope. How embarrassing, I thought. Is this the best I can do? I started to have serious doubts. Can I even finish this race? Then a busload of pooped-out marathoners slowed down as it passed by. I admit the temptation was there, but I waved them on. One way or another I was determined to finish this race under my own volition, and also within the cut off time of 6 hr 30 min to qualify for a medal.
I know I needed a miracle.
A long-haired angel appeared beside me and asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” I replied. She was the first person to speak to me the entire race, not that I was in a-speaking-to mood, being in constant pain.
“You came all this way, or do you work here?”
I admitted that I live here and that I write novels, though not everyone would call that work unless you sell them and they get turned into movies and you become rich and famous. One of my Malaysian short stories did get filmed by Ohio University, does that count?
Suddenly this angel, who hails from West Malaysia, broke into a song playing on her MP3, “Stand By Me.”
I was hoping she would stand by me a little longer, at least until the song finished – she had such an angelic voice. But, alas, she said, “See you at the finish line,” and just like that she vanished.
I missed her. I missed everyone who passed me, but this angel gave me what I needed – hope. Hope that if I persisted, if I didn’t give up as others had done, that I could be just like her and finish the race and even receive a medal for my efforts.
With that in mind, pain or no pain, I stepped up my pace.
I knew I was cutting it close to the cut off time, so I kept doing whatever I could do to compel my body to move forward. It wasn’t always pretty, but the end of marathons for most runners (unlike the first six Kenyan winners and those who train properly) rarely is.
Then I saw another sign. Not from heaven, but in front of me. It stated five kilometers to go. The next sign stated four kilometers to go. Then three kilometers. Then two. Finally, just ahead of me was the one kilometer to go sign.
Another runner said to me, “I never realized how far one kilometer could be.”
I nodded in agreement. “Even the sign,” which we had yet to reach, “seems awfully far away.”
Then we heard shouts from the volunteers that were promptly relayed by the other runners walking home, “Five minutes to go before the cutoff!”
“I can do this,” I kept telling myself.
Soon it became, “Two minutes before the cutoff!”
Not about to run all this way and not get that medal, I pushed past the pain and even thought of my wife waiting for me at the finish line with another kiss.
“One minute to go,” I heard, so I really poured it on. I sprinted in slow motion. Or tried, too. I even pretended that this was the Rio Olympics where all the best marathoners in the world were preparing for their big race. I ran for the finish line and graciously accepted a medal and triumphantly flung it around my neck. It wasn’t gold, but nevertheless, I got it! With some divine help....Lucky for me, and those behind me, since I missed the actual cut off time by a mere forty-five seconds, they gave us a little grace time.
Now and then, all of us deserve a little grace time, and I do appreciate the organizers for that!
When asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest, which no man had even done back then, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.”
The same could be asked of all of us who run marathons. Two years ago, when I took up the challenge to run my first marathon, I would have replied, “Because I want to be fit.”
For my second marathon, I would have replied, “Because I want to prove that I can still do it and beat my previous time!"
But now, although I failed to beat my personal best time, I would reply, “Because I can.”
Although this year, I admit, I had some doubts...
A question for those of you who have never completed a marathon, “Are you up to the challenge?”
I can assure you that Pheidippides would be honored that you have chosen to celebrate his amazing feat. That’s exactly what I did – for the third time.
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