“In truth, perfection only exists within us, in what we think is perfect. Each track leads us to a different place, but it is our choices that lead us to find moments of happiness on any particular track.” (Kilian Jornet)
This post may contain some jargon. Kindly rujuk the legend below yeah:
After 6 months long of training, I was more than ready to tackle the Penang Ultra 100km.
But what I didn’t anticipate was getting stomach flu 3 days before the run.
Heck yeah, I was frustrated. I have invested half a year into this race, this comes and blows it all up. I slowly come to my senses, realizing that this train of thought was not gonna help.
All I hoped for was my body was rested enough to tackle this ordeal.
Come race day, it was much better. Well, at least I didn’t had to rush to the toilet every 4 hours. I was calm. Whatever comes, whatever happens, all I hoped for was surviving the journey.
As I was calming my jitters, I saw a person clad in Team 2ndSkin walked past. Wait, wasn’t that Deo? A fellow ultra runner who had penned a fantastic write up on last year’s race.
I got up and introduced myself. Although he has completed numerous ultras, he was downright humble. He even shared some last minute tips on tackling the course. We exchanged a few pleasantries and wished each other the best in the race.
It was now 8:40pm. Time to get ready. There it was, the starting line. The celebration of all my training runs. Beyond this, there was no turning back. The only wish was to cross that line again in less than 18 hours. On my own two feet, and not in a van.
At 8:58pm, the countdown began, and we were off.
Welcome to Penang Ultra 100.
The initial route was pretty scenic. We first had to battle through traffic. Coupled with the adrenaline burst, I was running way above my comfort zone. I know that I would paying for that soon, but the thought of running on the left side of the road, especially when you can’t see the motorists coming from the back, was too much to bear.
We cruised along the waterfront, where crowds were aplenty and we were greeted by both Penang bridges. This part of the route was somewhat familiar to the 2014 2XU Singapore Marathon. We were going underneath tiny bridges and hidden bicycle lanes which were thoroughly beautiful.
Despite the beauty, I couldn’t shake off the less than ideal conditions. First, there was the humidity. It was like being in an oven. Second,I was up at 9am since this morning and couldn’t nap throughout the day. This meant I was already awake for 12 hours.
And third, the severe stomach cramps had begun. It seemed like the stomach flu has woken up from its slumber.
It felt as if my stomach was slowly being ripped apart. The lining seems to be littered with dozens of ulcers, and gastric acid was spewling all over the guts.
This was too soon, I thought. The distance had barely hit a quarter!
I am not going to lie, I was contemplating to throw in the towel then and call it a day. Crap, was this how DNF felt like?
I started to question,
What does “Did Not Finish” really means? Was it a sign of weakness? Why do people DNF? Why people do not DNF? Can I choose to DNF? Can I afford to? How will it affect my future ultras?
Amidst it all, it was evidently this question which mattered:
Can I go on?
My stomach felt like a punching bag for an amateur MMA gym.
Can I go on?
My body was burning up. The back of the neck felt as if it was licked by fire. Thighs were steaming like warm cha sio paus.
I am not answering the question. Can I go on?
I guess I could try.
Cut all the bullshit, Jon. Can I go on?
Yes, I can.
I tucked these annoyances into the corner of my mind and checked in at CP2. It was now 12am. Cut off was at 1:20am.
Not bad, at least the buffer has been built.
CP2 was an old-school roadside kopitiam. I headed straight to the kitchen sink, opened the tap and ran my head under the flowing water.
It was so rejuvenating. It felt like there was steam fizzling out from the back of my neck.
But alas, there wasn’t anyone to witness it. The only company was a bunch of middle aged men playing mahjong. Too oblivious to notice a crazy looking 29 year old guy singing praises to the tap.
sipping dunking up some coke and 100 plus, I headed out with a lighter spring in my steps. The next stretch of the leg was a first encounter of Balik Pulau town, and onwards some small climbs on this magnificent highway that snakes across one of the hills in Penang.
There were some runners ahead who were running the uphills. I decided on the conservative method of power-hiking up the gains although it was a 139m climb of 2km. To make up for the loss of time, the downhills became a playground where I just let myself go.
The whole environment was so serene that I decided to run this stretch alone. There was the cool breeze gently blowing across my drenched head. The full moon barely lit up the road, which cast a sense of solace. One can hear waterfalls rushing on the left. Over the edge on my right, there was this vast pitch black darkness which was, I assumed, to be covered with forest.
I was loss in this imagery when CP3 came into sight. I stopped for a quick drench and toilet break before tackling the next part. The official route profile describe this 14.3km stretch as “a challenging mental flat straight route especially to break thru the sleep”.
Monotony was something that I have trained for. When the haze hits Kuching during training peak, I was slogging hours on the treadmill. Before that, there was the 25 loops/24km around MBKS. I reckon the culmination of the training, along with running alone at 3-4am on Sundays across the kampungs on Sunday morning should be sufficient.
As I was running along this stretch, I met Victor, this amazing dude who just starting running full marathons the year before, and have finished a few ultras this year. We chatted a bit before I slowed down to stuff myself with some food. Once the dates, bak kwas and some pretzel sticks worked their magic, I began to glide myself onwards to CP4 – the 48k mark! Woots!
I took a glance at my phone – 2:55am. The cut off point at this part was at 5:10am. From being ahead of 1hr20mins to 2hr10mins, I was pretty satisfied and sent a few quick texts to my peeps to tell them where I am.
Deo was just about to leave the CP when I got in. He flashed a huge smile, and told me I was doing an excellent job. Those genuine words made a whole lot difference and it did take some of the exhaustion away. I wished him the best and he went off.
My initial plan was to stop for only 20mins. However, my stomach was still in pretty bad shape and the purging sensation was not letting up. I suppressed the pain, gobbled up the delicious porridge, had a wardrobe overhaul consisting of another 2ndSkin shirt, brushed my teeth, changed out of my five fingers to the hitogami, and got out.
I took a quick look at the clock, 3:35am. Drats! I overstayed for double of my intended time, and this set me back to the buffer of 1hr30mins.
The next segment was a 13.3km hill with a gain of 371m. The backdrop was similar to the highway. It was simply captivating. Running across the asphalt surrounded by green giants. This was also the last stretch that consists of a double figure distance. I used the same strategy. Power-hike the ups. Go crazy on the downs.
It was a spell bounding moment and I couldn’t stop but thinking how wonderful God is. How He has worked wonders and just how amazing He is. I was silently singing and reflecting on the words of 10,000 reasons by Matt Redman, when I heard the pitter patter of steps.
A lady in an orange singlet sped past me, but not before she shouted, “Keep it up!!” I caught a glimpse of her bib. A tint of orange. Whoa!! She was doing the 50km and she was nailing the downhills like water droplets sliding off papaya leaves. I shouted in return and barely a wink later, she was gone.
CP5 came into sight. It was becoming a routine to drench my head first before I leave any CP. After grabbing a peanut butter sandwich for the road, it was onwards towards Batu Feringghi. I expected the rolling hills to be a pain, but surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
The first light of day was both a welcome sight and a shit moment. I am happy to finally see the lightening of the sky, but this was also an indication that the scorching will begin soon.
I can see the lights of Gurney Drive, twinkling against the velvety sky. The ocean waves roaring and crashing into the concrete. There I was, awake, fully conscious, when half of the population were still snug in their warm bed, their faces across the pillow. At that moment, I never felt more alive, and how thankful I was breathing, for the chance to witness the light of a new day.
CP6 couldn’t come fast enough. When one had been running for 72km, one starts to appreciate a lot of things. It was still at the break of dawn when I ran into that check point, and was greeted by a bunch of smiling ladies. One brought her 8 year old daughter along and she was earnestly helping out as well. I teared a bit, realizing the amount of effort which has been put on in organizing this ultra.
There was a middle aged runner who was doing the 84km. As he was nursing his leg, he started commenting how painful the ordeal is.
To which I replied,
“Come on, this is an ultramarathon. It should hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, it is not an ultra.”
It was now less than 30km to go, but this was not the time to celebrate how far I have come. Nope, I buckled up and ran towards the next CP at Gurney drive. It was pretty uneventful, except for the cheers from the local Sunday runners. Those were a welcome sight. The thumbs up. The encouragement.
Just to gauge how fast was the overall 100km champion, Susan had already conquered Penang Hill and was returning to Gurney CP7 when I was about to leave that CP. Such an amazing achievement!
It was 7:45am and was ahead of the cut off time by 2hr15mins. I passed this good news to my friends before I face my greatest physical adversary of the ultra – Penang Hill.
I knew that it was gonna be tough. From the research which I had done, this was a make or break deal. Just before I made the ascent, a random aunty who was on her way down wished me luck when she saw my bib. She immediately ran down to her car, took a banana and ran all the way up again, and shoved it to me,
“Here, eat this. Give you energy.”
The amount of kindness and support which was shown had been so tremendous. I thanked her profusely and began my very very painful way up.
Although I have been simulating the climb at Mount Serapi, nothing could prepared me for how tough the actual thing was. It was not the 5.1km hill, nor was it the elevation of 744m. It was the 30-45 degree gradient that forced me to stop and take a breath after every 50m. There were vivid signs along, marking each 100m. It didn’t feel like it was only 100m!
My left ankle was starting to hurt. So I reached for 2 sticks and power-hike up the climb. I was generating pretty good momentum but I was also getting stares from the 100km runners who were coming down. Some even show contempt.
I could be wrong. I mean, it could be they were in pain. It did, however, created a sense of doubt. Was I allowed to use these sticks? Was it permitted, will I get a DNF for using them?
Will I be less of a 100km runner if I use them?
After wrestling with my conscious for a bit, I cast the sticks aside and went all gung ho on the hill. However, things took a turn for the worse when my left ankle began to hurt real bad. Every step which I took felt like the whole ligament was being torn off. I couldn’t care less about being disqualified then, so I picked up another stick from the road.
I wanted to curse out loud. But I also know, that it wouldn’t help. This wasn’t the time for a pity party. I began to imagine I was a wizard on this quest up the hill, in search of a precious ring. In this scenario however, the promised coconut on top was THAT precious ring.
Come on Jon. One step over the other.
Wah so cooling!
Maiku so hot!
Eh, cannot. I am Superman. I NEED THE SUN!
I was deeply immersed in my imaginary life when I caught a glimpse of a temple. Wait, wasn’t that a parked car? I started noticing more cars. This is it, I thought. I must be near the top.
When a marshall came into sight, hailing me to go right, there was a brief sense of elation. I conquered Penang Hill! I ran towards CP8 and finished
one two three coconuts. It had taken 1hr47mins just to get up Penang Hill. I removed my socks to start applying some cream on the busted ankle, and I regretted that move immediately.
Urgh! But no, this is also not the time for pity party! I applied a blister plaster on it, put back my injinji socks, took my
stick wizard staff and made my way downhill.
Coming down was a breeze, to my surprise. Quads were strong, my knees were feeling amazing, and I threw my staff away and allowed myself to go crazy. The only unfortunate incident was my blister couldn’t handle the pounding. I felt it burst and the searing pain came almost immediately.
On my descent, there were a lot of 100km runners who were still going up slowly. The vast majority were cheering me on, and vice versa, but I remembered thinking to myself,
“Here they are, slowly trotting up in pain, and yet they are able to encourage someone else. Man, these runners are so amazing. What sportsmanship.”
I had covered half of Penang Hill when I met this 100km middle aged lady. She seemed to be in low spirits, and in a tired voice, she asked how long was this gonna take. It took me awhile to answer though. If I told her the truth, it would dampen her spirit. At the same time, if I told her it was only a bit more, these were false hopes which would not help as well.
I chose my words carefully and told her it was a 5.1km climb, and that she was doing a mighty good job. The worst is already over as she had covered the badass gradient in the first 2km. This point on, there will be some flat and steep gradient, but there was nothing she couldn’t handle.
Fortunately, she smiled, and told me that I was making a good effort and we went our separate ways.
I heard a pitter patter of steps. I turned around and saw this lady running down! Turned out her name was Cherry and we chatted for abit. She just started running marathons and this was her first 100km! We encouraged each other, reminding ourselves that we are nearly there, and was greeted by a cheering troupe at the bottom of Penang Hill. A quick high five with them, I made my way towards CP7 under the scorching sun.
From the very start of this race, I was breaking the 100km into these chewable distances. The full realization that I have actually been on my feet since 9pm, and that I have actually ran (and walked) 94km, hit me when I send a voice note to my peeps.
I couldn’t hold back my tears. The 6 months that I have devoted to training. The 18-24km runs after crazy workdays. The insurmountable of bullshit that I have told myself to train despite how tired I was, or there was a raging storm outside. The discipline of going at it every single day. All the times I felt I was not good enough and doubted my ability to finish another 100km, the times I felt like throwing in the towel when I first started running in the midday.
The plummeting confidence when I contracted the stomach flu earlier this week. The fatigue of my legs which caused me to stumble a few steps before I regain my footing when I wake up each morning. The times when I had to actually don on a mask because the haze hit Kuching during peak week. The endless hours on the treadmill in one stretch because the haze was so bad.
The dark phase where motivation was not there, and I had to force myself out of a warm bed at 12am. The overnight runs where I was afraid that I would get robbed, or raped, or even lose my life. The times where I have to hide in the shadows when I hear approaching bikes at 1:30am. The fear of colliding with drunk drivers, drug addicts and Mat Rempits. The endless prayers to St Michael to keep me safe.
And though I have stuck with my plan like a piece of gum to the shoes, there will always be this lingering doubt that finishing another 100km was too amazing and too wonderful for me to have. Despite coach Willie, friends like Robin, Ming, Joos, Steph and my other 50km runners believing that I can nail this race, I was partly convinced that finishing TNF100 Singapore last year was pure luck.
And now, less than 5km to the finishing line, it was all becoming a possibility. Eldon texted and affirmed that I can finish this. I couldn’t let Anne or Chris down. They have been journeying with me even before the race itself.
My body was feeling the exhaustion. The sun gave way and it began pouring cats and dogs. At the very last km, I saw the same lady who sped past me before CP5. She was already wearing her finisher shirt! (It was only later I found out that her name was Hui Sung and she was the 1st runner up in the 50km category).
She cheered me on enthusiastically, convincing me that this was the last stretch home. The dams open again and I started sobbing. Unfazed, I leaned my body forward and tried to hobble as fast as I could.
The red arch at the finish line came into view. I heard someone calling my name. This was it! I devoted whatever energy I have left and went towards the finishing line.
Crossing that finish line took all my energy and breath I have left. I gave Shannon a big hug who was waiting at the finish line. Frances came over as well.
I looked back at the finish line and understood this was no longer a dream. It wasn’t just possibility.
There I was. Flesh and blood.
By the grace of God, I am an official finisher for Penang Ultra 100.
The clock showed 12:18pm.
I finished in 15hrs20mins. And found out later I was the 20th men (out of 106 dudes who finished) in my category. I was ranked 23/128 in the 100km ultra.
I admit I had bigger dreams for this race. That the training was more than enough. By the amount of training I have done, at least, I could snuck into the top ten position.
However, this journey has taught me that if my eyes were on those, it would only narrow my experience and my understanding of ultra running.
This is only my 2nd ultra. I am just a mere toddler in this scene. Victory may be about attaining a certain position, or breaking a personal best.
The greatest of it all though, is true victory. The kind of victory that Kilian Jornet talks about.
The ones that makes our hair stand on its edges, and that we can’t seem to control our emotions. The kind of victory which makes us realize that limitations exists only in the head, and we are capable of great things. That we are indeed stronger, smarter and tougher than we thought we could ever be.
Penang Ultra 100 2015 has taught me that ultra running is not about being the best.
It is being your best.