How running has set aflame to my faith

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The seventh post, dedicated to the most important person in my life – Jesus Christ.

*Found this article which I have wrote for Camp Empowered 2012*

We all have our own fire. When we found a new hobby, fall in love, or setting foot on new soil. Personally, my fire is running. I would be burning streets, cleaving my pleats on the asphalts, and taking pride in every mile which I clocked.

However, that kind of fire does diminish at times. Particularly when I’m tired, hungry, or not being able to hit a personal record. 

I can still remember one incident when I ran on a Sunday morning. My target for that session was doing a sub 30 minutes from Friendship Park to the Kuching Airport.

The first few kms were fine, until I reach the new airport road. Dubbed “The Alley of Agony”, this highway was built on top of a marsh land. It is straight, to a point, which then it decides to take a few curves before it reaches the junction leading to the airport.

For some runners, straight roads are one of the hardest to run on. There aren’t any landmarks which you can say to yourself, “Okay, I will sprint to that signboard and just do a slow run till that building, and start sprinting again.” Apart from a pesky little bridge, there aren’t any prominent signs which I can motivate myself. 

Or so I thought. Lo, behold the air control tower of the airport which can be seen from Agony Alley. That beacon of light. The fortress in which I will fix my eyes upon. And so I ran.

As the highway takes a dip, the tower disappears behind some nasty looking bushes along the road. Ah, it’s ok. It’s just bushes. As long as I move a few steps forward, I can see the tower again and thus my motivation still stands strong. 

However, as Agony Alley takes a curve to the right, the air control tower starts to dissipate. I can’t get off the tracks and run through the marsh field. All I could do was to keep following the road. The more I ran, the further it seems as the road does not have any indication of reverting back.

At that point of time, I was at a loss. Firstly, I am not sure if I am heading the correct direction. My beacon of hope had completely disappeared. Unlike earlier, it is not being shadowed by some bushes. Moving a step forward, or backward, won’t make any difference. The tower is completely obstructed from view.  

What was I to do? I know that if I head back, I will see the tower again, but then that would symbolise retreat. The only plausible thing to do was to take that leap of faith and just run ahead.  After what seems like an eternity, the tower starts to come to view. When it did, it was nearer than I thought it was.

Have I ran that far? Fueled by the sight, I start sprinting as it looks I can finally reached the airport in 25 minutes, shaving off 5 minutes from my original plan.

However, that pesky road took another detour as it diverts to the right again. It was so close. If I had just crossed the marsh, I will have easily reached the airport in like 5 minutes. But no, I had to sprint like tomorrow before I finally reach my destination. 

I checked my running app. 29:35. I did it. Sub 30 mins. And the taste of success is so sweet. Agony Alley has gave me an emotional wrenching experience. It really threw me off, but yet I know if it was not as agonizing as it is, I will not appreciate victory as much as I did at that moment.  

Friends, a journey with Christ is like running along that highway: 

#1 Seeing the Air Control Tower 
It’s like discovering the air control tower when you least expect to find any landmarks along Agony Alley. When we experienced Jesus for the first time, we were so full on fire.

Constantly going to Youth Gatherings, volunteering in events, enthusiastically joining different ministries all at once. That’s good. We are so ablazed with that passion to serve God. We wanna talk about how AWESOME Jesus is and we even managed to convince our friends to join us.

We feel we have finally found a purpose to live for, and that is for God alone. 

#2 Encountering Those Bushes 
Like those annoying little bushes, at times we will encounter little trials and issues that shadow God. Maybe it is times when our clients got angry at us, our friends turn against us, or when our partner has gotten bouts of severe PMS.

Just like those bushes, all we need to do is to take a few steps forward to see the light again.

When we encounter these little trials, we only have to move forward in seeing God’s amazing love again. Make an effort in praying more or just run a few more steps in faith, and we will be able to witness his everlasting glory again.

After all, one angry client does not mean you are a bad employee, or you won’t make new friends, and I’m sure your partner can’t have PMS forever. 

#3 Running the Curved Road 
Ah, this is gonna be a true test of faith. When the path you take does not seem to have an end in sight, and it appears to be that God has abandoned you, and you are all alone.

What would you do? This often happens after you reach a certain stage in your spiritual life. When that fire which had set you ablaze back then now resembles the flickering wick of a candle.

Questions like “What am I doing this for?”, “Does God even care?” or even, “I’m just wasting my time. Doing the works of God only ends up in more pain and sadness. No point lah.” 

Similar to when I start running that morning, I never thought I would end up in Agony Alley, nor will I face that very demoralizing situation. Do I give up and run back to the place, or do I take that leap of faith knowing that the air control tower is nearer than I think it is.

Though not visible, I know that if I start running despite the circumstance, I will eventually reach my goal. 

That is what we should do when we are faced with major problems. A crisis in life, loss of a loved one, or tragedies which will set your life in a whole new trajectory.

In that circumstance, we have to be reminded that we have experienced God’s love before. We were set ablaze. And that is reason enough for us to keep trusting Him. I do not know why God put us in trials.

Maybe He is testing us like how He tested Job in the Old Testaments, maybe by pulling back his graces would we seek new ways to discover more about Him, or maybe the trials are actually mercies in disguise.

But what I do know is that God does not leave us all alone despite of this.

Like the air control tower, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there when you cannot see it. And after each trial, we come out stronger. And we begin to see life in ways we have never seen before. 

The choice is ours. Do we continue to stay at where we are, blaming God for our circumstances? Do we go back and return to our old habits? Or do we continue running, moving forward and clinging to that faith that He is there with us. 

#4 Going through the Detour 
When our goal is within our grasp, God at times put us in situations that may require us to wait a while before we reach our goal. And though annoying at times, we need to remember that everything happens under Gods timing.

Even the minute you are using to read this article, it is under God’s time. He allows things to happen naturally, and if we try to rush God to do things at our pace, that feeling of reaching the goal will not be as great as you wait on Him.

I could easily rush through the marsh and reach the airport sooner than my intended goal. But I could have stepped on a piece of shrapnel, bitten by a snake or sprained my ankle on the uneven terrain.  

However, I persevered and went on the designated path and I still managed to reach my goal at my intended time. I didn’t have to sustain any mishaps along the way. In fact, that detour forced me to push past my comfort zone, and forced me to run faster and harder, and I didnt know that I could sprint like that till I encountered the detour.  

When we allow God to complete things in His time, we are bound to get something out of it. A gift or a lesson that we will never come across till we reach that juncture. 

It is good that we are ablaze with the Spirit of God, but what is more important is that flame must keep burning within us.

Instead of letting it die down like a campfire, that kind of flame must be doused with fuel of faith and fanned by our worship to Him. From the size of an inferno to the size of The Big Bang.

That is the crucial part of being set ablaze.

To not let that fire diminish, but to continue be set on fire and eventually becoming a torch for others to follow.

How Hobart, Eldon, Justin and I met and ran our first 21km in 2012?

A half marathon. 21km of madness bliss. Who knew that this distance would be a start of something so amazing?

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The year was 2012 – oh, the sweet age of mid twenties. Quarter life crisis was in full force. Justin and I were just a hi-bye church acquaintance. Hobart was in the same youth ministry as I was. I was putting on weight after Chinese New Year (damn those pineapple tarts!) and something need to be done.

Spring Mall announced that they will be doing a run, and re-introduced the half marathon in Kuching. This must be the solution, I thought.

I was contemplating whether to sign up for a 10km or the half marathon. I run 10km back in uni as circuit training. But uni was 3 years ago then.

It wasn’t until I ran into Justin at a church camp. We were talking about running and turned out, he was also quite excited about this race as well.

“Eh, we signed up 21km then we train together lah.”

I can still remember standing by the information counter at Spring Mall. My hand was quivering, not knowing which category to mark. I even called Justin up, “Oi you sure ah? 21 ah?”

I figured, f this shit, let’s just sign this thing up and see how it goes. So I did it. And went into full blown panic. 21km!! That is running around Kuching! Who does that?!

Justin and I agreed that we should do our own individual runs in the weekday, then meet up on Sunday to attempt a 10km run. Come Sunday, Justin told me “Eh my best friend is joining us. He just came back from KL, and he will be running from his house. He very fit one.”

I was thinking, wah this guy damn terror! We both started from Spring around 630am. And it was only a brief moment before this thin and good looking guy came up behind us.

“Hi, I’m Eldon.” *extend hand*
“Hey, Jonathan here. *extend hand too* Heard you just came back from KL?”
“Yeah, I left my job as an air steward, so planning to back for good.”
“That’s nice”
“You leh”
“Oh, I want to resign from my job also”

And that was how I met Eldon. Such a polite and proper beginning.

Justin and I barely managed to cover 10km on that day, but Eldon did it like a breeze. All three of us were so happy. It was as if both Justin and I tasted bak kua for the first time. We took artistic pics of our shoes, posted our time (it was probably around 1hr30mins) on Facebook and it felt like the biggest achievement to date.

Later in the week, Hobart asked if the 3 of us were running again, and he wants to join us, if it was alright with us.

The next Sunday, Hobart appeared in a green cotton tanktop, knee length pants and a pair of black wushu shoes (I think la). He told us that it was his first 10km, and both Justin and I looked at each other nervously. We knew how 10km felt like and it wasnt an easy feat.

Who knew,  Hobart was much better than the both of us. He was the 2nd to finish after Eldon, and we were like whoa, where did this kid came from?

Each Sunday, we would repeat the same thing. It wasn’t until a month later when Eldon introduced us to Ah Wong, Yong Suk, Philip Chua and the rest. I remembered feeling so intimidated when we first met.

These are the real runners. Them rubbing vaseline on their soles, with their singlet and short pants. Full marathon finishers. And man, were they fast.

We didn’t have a proper training regime. We didn’t even know what are the do’s and don’ts. One Sunday, we ran from Giant to Unimas and I had the smart idea of running around the new campus. Hobart was away then, and there were only the 3 of us.

By the time we were done, the sun was up, and we didn’t bring any money with us (so smart of us eh). We scoured the whole uni for water cooler in a state of mild panic. It was to no avail.

By some stroke of miracle, Justin met his friend in the carpark. She was coming into to do some research and basically the conversation went like this,

“Eh hey! Long time no see!”
“Yeah, eh what u guys doing here?”
“Oh we were running from Giant, and we are running back now. U leh?”
“I’m here to meet my supervisor. Wah, steady man u guys.”
“Haha nolah. Eh, can we borrow 5 bucks to buy drinks? ”
“Ha?! here is 10.”

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

However, no matter how much we tried to hydrate with 10 bucks, it wasn’t enough. It was close to 10am! Eldon managed to make it back to Giant first, and when I arrived, he was pushing a trolley around.

“Eh, later we use this to go and fetch Justin yeah. Hahahaha”

5 minutes later, Justin called and say he couldn’t take it anymore. Shit just got real.

When we picked Justin up, he was on his knees. Lips were pale, and his fingers were cramped into pincher-like grip. We didn’t realize the severity of the situation, we even made a joke out of it then,

“Eh Justin! U OK or not?!”
*mumbles mumbles mumbles*
“Look at his hands. Like ketam like that! Hahahaha”
“Oi Mr Crab! U OK or not? Hahahah”
*mumbles mumbles mumbles*

We sped towards the nearest coffeeshop, and I was directed to get some drinks. I was not sure whether it was the sun, or the fatigue, but I just got some drinks, sat at the table and waited for them. Eldon finally came out 5 minutes later and grabbed the drinks and go.

I could not imagine what must have went through his mind when he saw me waiting there. Must be a combination of vulgarity.

Justin appeared about 10 minutes later, and he appeared alright. He probably had a mini sun stroke. It seemed funny then, but if the same thing would happen now, it will be a different reaction altogether.

And one would thought we have learnt to not attempt crazy shit.

A big fat nawp.

Come Gawai 2012, the four of us decided to run up from Choice Daily at Semariang up to Damai. The distance was about 24km. Waay above the half marathon distance.

But we figured we should do it anyway. At least, we know that we can finish 21km, and we can get over the mental hump.

Or so we thought.

So it was 3am, June 1st. We even had a system. Fetch Hobart from Damai where he will put his car so that we can have a way down, drop our water bottles at different spots along the route.

Sounds like a reasonable plan. Until we put so many water stations that I got confused.

I ended up running 18km without any water, and we are talking about the rolling hills of Damai. There were no stalls opened then. Justin, Eldon and Hobart were way ahead.

I had to resort to drink from a dripping pipe outside one of the houses. It wasn’t until at 19km where I saw an uncle who just opened his stall. Angels were singing when I finally grabbed that 500ml of clean drinking water.

I thought my troubles were over, until the storm hits. Literally. It was at the 20km mark and rain was pouring in sheets. Cars were zooming past and it was a miracle that I survived the ordeal.

I did try to take shelter at sheds, but I was afraid I would get hypothermia if I had just stayed there. I ran for another 3km before I saw the sign which indicated that it was 1km more to Damai.

I also saw Hobart, Eldon and Justin heading towards me in a car.

They asked me to get in, but I hesitated. Only 1km more! It wasn’t until I got screwed by 3 of them simultaneously before I resigned to the fate of getting into the vehicle.

Talking about having your priorities checked.

2 weeks later, it was the long awaited half marathon. We were ready to take on this!

And they did. Hobart, Eldon and Justin broke their half marathon cherries well.

I, on the other hand, had a sharp pain on my right kneecap at the 10km mark. I had a few options then.

1. Asked my friend James Lai who was biking alongside me to alert the marshalls, and I will be sent back in an ambulance.

2. Walked slowly and get roasted by the morning sun.

3. Toughen the shit up and finished the last 11km as soon as I could.

I opted for option 3, and it was a very painful 11km.

I finally completed my first hm in 2hrs44mins.

Only the next day when I met with Esther, my long time friend and physio, was when I realized my patella was inflamed and I could have incurred long term damage to my legs.

Not only I had to undergo 6 weeks of treatment, endure the constant pain when I go down the stairs, but I had to change my shoes (which brings to the discovery of vibrams) which took another 8 weeks of readjustment before I could run 10km without any pain.

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If you are still reading this, congratulations! You have managed to withstand my long winded post, and this proves you don’t have the attention span of a 4 year old child.

2 Sundays ago, the four of us did the Spring Half Marathon, for the fourth time. Each of us had gone down different paths ever since that fateful day.

Hobart no longer wears his green cotton tanktop to run. He is now a Brooks sponsored athlete. His fastest (and latest) marathon was completed in 3h5mins.

Eldon is also no longer the polite young man anymore. He recently became a father, completes full Marathons easily under 4 hours, and finished a 100km ultra-trail marathon last year in 17h46mins. He will be doing another 100km ultra-trail again, and this will be in the rainforest of Sabah come August.

Justin, unfortunately was diagnosed with some medical condition, and had to take a break for a while. He did, however, bounced back hard. He finally did 3 full marathons last year, and he will be attempting a 50km road ultra at the end of the year.

Myself? I have not learnt my lesson, and still as stubborn as before, though I prefer the word resilient now.

I ran my first full marathon in tonsillitis and fever in 2013. Recovered, and ran 3 full marathons in August, September and October with Eldon and Hobart in the same year.

I ran my Spring Half Marathon last year when I had diarrhoea. Completed it in 2hrs26mins despite a trip to the public toilet in the middle of the race. Went to the toilet for 16 times after the race on the same day.

And my greatest running achievement?  Finishing TNF100 2014 ultra-trail marathon in 16h5mins, with the cherry of being no.27 in the 100km category.

As for Spring this year, I finished it in 1h52mins and earning the long awaited finisher tee.

I guess, what I am trying to say, is that all 4 of us were the least people you would expect to see on the road. We were beginners once. We had our shares of mishaps, injuries, and we went through all the silliness.

The only thing that sets us apart is that, we stuck to what we did. We refused to give up when things got hard. Even heatstroke didn’t stand in the way.

And it all began with a half marathon. 21km of madness bliss.

Who knew that this distance would be a start of something so amazing?

Why activities should not define you?

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2nd week of training. The weariness is slowly seeping in.

I did some heat and humidity training yesterday in the late morning. Was looping at the park and clocking in about 14km. By the time I was done, it was already nearly noon.

I was like, wtf did I signed up for this ultra? Maybe it was the heat, or the 74% humidity (excluding the humidity of being encaved in a forest reserve), but damn, it was not easy.

This morning, I finally ran for 3 hours and managed to finished about 27km. Air was humid, and with only 4.5 hours of sleep the night before, I was only looking forward to the coconut water (which is not available in 7-E) and some good ole rest.

With the combination of training fatigue, I have realised that I would need to compartmentalise my life. It is very easy to get cranky when I am tired, and my already very low tolerance for bullshit will be none existent. It will become a 2nd nature for me to bite off the next person I meet if he/she seemed to be wasting my time.

It seemed pretty selfish, doesn’t it?

I also realised that I cannot focus well during training when something is troubling me. It could be conflicts in one of my relationships, or work becomes too much to handle. When that happens, I am not able to exert my best.

So what is the solution?

I need to remember, first and foremost, of my values, my principles, and my philosophy. These 3 items should define who I am as a person. Activities are just an extension of what I do. Running cannot be my sole identity. Nor does my work define me who I am.

It can be very difficult to navigate the different switches as I switched from one setting to the other. I can not expect my non running friends to understand what does it mean to train at 3am in the morning. Nor can my runner friends identify with the enormousity of my work scope.

I would need to try to not let these areas become too much of a venn diagram. The only intersection should only be my values, principles and philosophy. The highs and lows of each area, should stay out of each other.

At least, this is the only way to go at the moment.

What is the allure of an evening run?

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Today, I officially start training.

Perhaps it was the setting which triggered some memories. The sensation of running in the bright evening sun, and entering the period where dusk meets twilight.

The pinkish hues turning everything into a Katy Perry music video set. Cotton candy walkway, the magenta sky littered with streaks of blue and white.

The thinning out of traffic as the city plunges into darkness. The dry leaves dancing around in the slight breeze across the pavement.

And there I was, still running.

There is something about being in a constant movement as the city transforms. A hush transcendence of sorts. To witness something so natural, yet there is a slight melancholic beauty to it.

This is probably why many are keen to run in the evening . It was as though we are invited to be a part of something that is larger than ourselves. To be let in on a secret which is hidden in plain sight.

Running allows us to escape from the clutches of technological distraction, however brief it may be, and encourages us to be an observer of the many splendid things that are actually unfolding.

Why it is a struggle to get up on the last day before training?

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As I gently refuse my body from getting up, I can’t help but to think this is probably the last Sunday I can afford to sleep in. For a very long time at least.

Tomorrow will begin my 16 weeks of ultra training, 32 weeks should I joined TNF100 Thailand. This means 8 months, 75% of a whole year to focus on 2 races.

It is like a mixture of excitement and nervousness. An inbalance concoction of dread and eagerness. I have always been a fan of pushing my own limits, to be the best version of an athlete I am capable of. At the same time, this would come at a high cost. Hard work is not pleasant. Fatigue is not pleasant. After all, our human body in this age, has been conditioned to choose the easy way out.

Running an ultra is 80% mental. Thus, the training has to support that. As a novice ultra runner, I am at the stage of self reliance. I know I need to work on this. I am almost likely to refuse help. It is not a matter of pride. It is more of not wanting to trouble someone else in your journey.

As I am gearing up to live up to my very best, I would want the people around me to live to their best as well. That could possibly posed a problem. Many are pretty comfortable in where they are, and would reject any notion to change. When things don’t swing in their favour, the blame game is what they major at. Instead of being introspective,  many would choose the easy way.

This could be a problem, you see, as in my moment of weakness, I may resort to that. And that is how ultra runners DNF.

I probably need to get up, and live my last day of inhabited freedom before I embark on a journey of monotony, drudgery, and discipline,  which will ultimately lead to true uninhabited freedom, hopefully.

Why i choose not to run?

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The night was young. I was well rested. Slightly hungry, but I was ready to embark on my 2nd run for the day.

My route was plotted. My friends were ready to assist me should I got into trouble.

However, at the last possible moment, I called it off.

There were very reasonable reasons why this run was actually a bad idea. Gawai festivities had started. Roads will be full of drivers who may have drank, or people who are rushing home to their kampungs.

I will be also going on a long hike tomorrow. A slip due to fatigue will not look good, especially if the way out involves a boat ride.

This will also be the 2nd last weekend I have before committing to my ultra plan. 16 weeks of training, and another 16 weeks after that when I signed up for TNF100 Thailand.

A call of good judgement, one might say.

But is it really?

Funny how so many reasons would appear when I decide to back out of a plan. Excuses would be a harsher, but honest, word. It was as if my mind was trying it’s best to convince that it is perfectly fine to skip a pre-determined plan. And that I should sit right with it.

But is that really so? Was I afraid that this one run would be an indication of complacency? Or that I may not have the full mental capacity of overcoming obstacles? Does it reflect that I am an individual who curates excuses and strongly defend them?

Perhaps.

There was one last excuse though. KFC was right next to the toilet when I was about to change into my running attire.

Yes, I think it was KFC which changed my mind.

Dammit KFC.

Why don’t you give up when it hurts?

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100km isn’t a short distance. And when you are running that distance,  you get to discover who you are and what you are truly made of.

One of the hardest (and scariest!) thing that you will come across is your own personal demons. Those insecurities that you brushed off on a normal day, hiding behind a fluctuant mask. The little goblins that whisper, you will never make it. The banshees that cries out from the pain of your calves, and howling that this is not worth it.

And when you are alone, plunged into darkness, that is where the true battle begins. All those past hurts and rejections will try to poison your mind to end this torture.

When you decide to embrace these hard facts and negativity,  you have a choice. To either lay in the ruins of your shattered self, or to realise that these are the things that make you who you are today, and you would not be on this journey if you have not gone through all of the trials.

And when you refuse to give up, something amazing happens. This is a choice, and the choice of turning them into fuel is the option I took to finish my first ultramarathon.

You do not reject the pain, you welcome it. You savour the sweet ache. Tasting the pain and turning them into the very energy you need. It is proof that you are alive, and as long as you have a single breath, that is a reason to put your foot in front of the other.

And when 2 steps turn into a stride, and a stride transform to a run, it will be only a matter of time before the finish line appears. That is when you know, that the choices you make have brought you to that point.