“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”
― Sigmund Freud
One does not race an ultra. Not unless you’re an elite or someone who enjoys the pain and suffering. To the majority of runners out there, an ultra is to be experienced once just because. Some do it because their friends are doing it. Fewer do it as a penance and to seek something more spiritual out of the experience. Even fewer actually thrive on them. I fall somewhere between “for the experience” and “spiritual”.
To seek anything more than that on top of finishing the run injury-free is simply foolhardy. A week off GCAM14, a week down with flu and cough and 2 weeks left to Aug 23 really are not circumstances to be preparing for one. If you’ve been following developments, Starlight was rescheduled from May. Be it May or August, it sat in between marathons. Simply put, be careful in scheduling your ultras alongside your marathons. More so if you’ve gunning for a PR in your marathon. Ultras can be disruptive not only to a rocky marriage but also marathon training! Here, I’ll need to clarify that my personal (and I emphasize “personal”) qualification of an ultra is a 50-miler, 84K and above. 50Ks aren’t ultras in my books unless they’re of the bat-crazy Skyrunning variety where even a 10K distance is enough to crush the legs and soul.
That said, I’m glad that the whole ordeal is over last weekend. Unlike fellow runners’ (you know who you are) preparations of weekly diet of Genting Sempah, mine as explained earlier had been non-existent. Too late to chicken out, I found myself at the start with a small group of 150-200 runners, some of whom were in the relay or shorter categories, on a wet yet humid Penang night. My approach to this was really on a KISS approach – don’t overdress, don’t over-gear and just run/walk very easily right from the start.
I went with the Inov-8 Race Ultra 1 rather than the UDSJ pack because I didn’t want to over-strain the shoulders over the longest distance I’ve ever attempted. A single 500ml bottle on one side and the other water bottle pouch was freed up to carry other knick-knacks like food and miscellaneous stuff. Met many friends from Singapore, Penang and KL prior to the flag off from Straits Quay.
Things were uneventful from the beginning with the highlight being walking the entire length of the crowded Gurney Drive. Aromas of Penang famed street and hawker food wafted through the night air, teased me to no end. The hawkers were literally just inches from me over the Weld Quay stretch. Oh to be in Penang, yet with no chance of savoring the delicacies! To rub salt to the wounds, I was subjecting myself to extreme discomfort!
I reached CP1 in around 1.5 hours, sweaty but comfortable. Nick called out that he’ll be slowing down due to a buggy knee. From there on, I was pretty much running alone, at least as far as my friends are concerned. A handful of runners were around me but it was the start of a long journey battling my demons. The Jelutong stretch were familiar to me and those who had run the past editions of Bridge Marathon. A new experience would be the detour to a concrete pathway off the highway along the waterfront. Youths on motorcycles loitered the dark area, boys smoking, girls played coy with the boys – you get the idea. I was just glad to exit this dingy section.
Next up after CP2 located before Queensbay Mall, was the Bayan Lepas industrial area. Runners weaved through the factory complexes gradually moving away from the hustle and bustle of the city towards the outskirts of Georgetown. I wasn’t having such a ball even if my body conditions were good. The motivation was just not there. I was really on a “let’s just try to wing-it” mode. Ran past the junction leading to the haunted WWII War Museum and pitch dark stretch of road in Batu Maung. Dimly lit CP3 was at a petrol station and I spent a bit more time there. 4.5 hours had passed and the going wasn’t smooth. The mind just didn’t click with the body. The nice thing at CP3 was cold Coke. There wasn’t any bananas so I relied on my bar. Also mixed in the first sachet of the Hi5 4:1 carb-protein drink. Leong was already there. No signs of Piew, Yan Leng and MC who had stormed off much earlier. I called Nick on the phone thinking I’d wait up for him and he said he was about 2Ks away. I downed more Coke but after 10 minutes, I decided to get going.
The next section after Teluk Kumbar would be a tough climb but I found it very enjoyable. Perhaps the muscles were just too tired of the flats already and the glutes and quads were just raring to fire up. I passed a number of runners who left CP3 ahead of me and thoroughly enjoyed the climb. Air was very fresh after the rain and the sound of crickets and bull frogs’ mating calls reminded me of childhood days. An affable runner from Singapore savored the moment too and said he missed those days when Singapore wasn’t overdeveloped. I overtook more runners on the descent, running all the way down. I was mindful of not pounding my quads coming down and cleared the section quite easily.
CP4 – halfway mark where many would be making their go/no-go decisions. For the life of me, I can’t remember for sure what my timing was now. I reckon it was between 6:10 to 6:15 because I was averaging between 1:20 to 1:30 for each 10K (didn’t turn my GPS on). I ate half a cup of corn in butter (took it easy with the corn because I didn’t want to take on too much fiber), half a cup of noodles and half a Clif bar. I didn’t see any fruits or bananas. Drank 3 cups of Coke and refilled my bottle and got back on the road. I didn’t want to linger too long for fear of unwanted negative thoughts creeping in. After all, if things go south for whatever reason, there’s always CP5 to make the call. So far the RELA marshals were doing excellent jobs. Intersections were manned and they patrolled the roads too. After passing the narrow streets of the town, we gradually found ourselves on along village roads. Other than an occasional dog, boredom and fighting the mental demons, the journey was uneventful. I wasn’t focused on anything specific in particular. Thoughts flowed in and out and there wasn’t anything that I could grasp or focus on. The roads were in equal parts well lit and dark, nothing a good headlamp can’t remedy.
Things started to get difficult after CP5. The soles were aching and lower back began tightening up. Sat down twice for a few minutes at bus stops along the way and was passed by 4 runners. Nice of them to ask if I was OK. A few minutes later, I was back on the road, trudging along and running short stretches. The early morning sky was breathtaking as the haze-free air revealed so many stars in the skies that you couldn’t count! It was such a treat, truly a moving and inspiring experience. We get so much light pollution from cities and metropolises these days, that to witness such sights were truly rare. At least not in KL. The lesson here was surely to keep one’s head up even when the going gets tough.
I struggled for a few more hours before arriving at the foot of the long and arduous but should I add, enjoyable climb up the highest point on the race course? It was already 5:30am and some senior folks were on their way down from the morning walk. The endless tight twists and turns were welcome respite from the long and boring straights. Again, it was over the climbs that I overtook those who have passed me. All the lunges that I’ve put in seemed to have paid dividends! Along the way, I ran past a few small and medium-sized waterfalls that dot the section including the famous Titi Kerawang Falls. Would’ve been nice to soak in the icy cold water!
When I arrived at CP6, the volunteers said that there were only around 30 runners behind me. I wasn’t sure how accurate that information was but that got me moving quickly enough once I got my water refilled. It was downhill all the way to the Teluk Bahang Dam but unfortunately I didn’t have the strength nor endurance to capitalize on that unlike earlier. Neither did I have any time to enjoy the stunning sights of the dam. The sun was up and the morning was getting hotter by the minute as more and more cyclists (Penang have a large cycling community and Penangites are canvassing for a bike lane) rode past me.
CP7 located right next to the Teluk Bahang was such a welcome sight. The RELA members warned that we should get going as the traffic was building up. I wasn’t going to waste anymore time anyway as I just wanted to get the whole thing done! If only I could move quicker than a sloth! 14 Km of the most hair-raising stretch of road I’ve ever ran laid between CP7 and the finish. It really was like this classic scene from Bowfinger, right down to the script. Yup, I was doubting myself. I was in boat loads of pain. My tank was empty. Hard wasn’t even an accurate word to describe it as the sun baked me good. Like Eddie Murphy’s character, I even thought of the remaining 14K as an errand. I just wanted coffee but I only stopped at a convenience store for a RM1 ice lolly. I had to fantasize that the bus drivers as professional stunt drivers too and just trust that I’d get through unscathed .
14K was actually 13K over-distanced for me at that point. I was busy exchanging texts with my wife – not that she was busy encouraging me to keep going but she was updating me on the critical condition of a family member in hospital. I kept that thought in mind whenever the pain came up and just jobbled (jogged+hobbled) towards the finish. When I crossed the line, I’d “only” taken 14 hours 15 minutes to cover the 84K, 45 minutes more than I’d projected when I hit CP6. If anyone asks me now the first feeling that struck me when the clock stopped for me, I’d say 1 word – RELIEF. For sure, completing this distance was pretty amazing. And I’m glad that I kept going and saw it through even when the urge to quit was so strong but I’m quite sure these traits are common amongst ultra runners. I had doubts that I could see it through with not a single mile of specific training put in. And that’s not because I don’t give it any respect. Race scheduling, marathon training and life just got in the way. It’s because I’ve too much respect for an ultra that Starlight will be the first and last time I’m committing to such things with no preparations. Now that I’ve done it, I can attest that with adequate preparation, 84K is not an impossible adventure to be undertaking. Physical conditioning over the months and years will certainly get you there. On the mental aspect, it depends on how you’re wired.
Other than extreme sleepiness and tight legs a day after the longest distance I’ve ever covered on foot, I’ve thankfully emerged unscathed. By rebuilding back the lost nutrients, I hope to resume marathon training between 7 to 10 days’ time. Huge props to Yan Leng (3rd placing in women vet category), Piew and Gan who totally ate up the roads of Penang. That’s what weeks of training at Genting Sempah will get you. Big congrats too to Nick who really stuck it out despite losing his way – he had all of us biting our nails waiting for him. And finally, Leong who recognized his limits will only get way better from his experience.
- Volunteers were great along the course and back at the finish. I wasn’t in a rush for time, so I was served well and avoided the congestion of the fast group of runners at all the aid stations.
- Plenty of chilled drinks at all aid stations.
- Slow runners get their deserved welcome back at the finish.
- RELA members did a good job manning the junctions and traffic. I always felt safe with their patrols. They were friendly and supportive too.
- Supportive Penang folks along the way, even though they probably thought we were crazy.
- Southern and Western portions of the island provided the best experience in terms of scenery and environment.
Could be better:
- Though I see no solution except to exclude this stretch, the Teluk Bahang to Tanjung Bungah road was dangerous. No other way to describe it.
- No portable toilets. Many bushes benefited from my contribution. I did my share giving back to nature.
- No 5K distance markers.
- Don’t recall seeing fruits at the CPs. Some bananas would be nice.
- Many roads in Penang are being upgraded. Runners and organizers should be wary of safety issues. To everyone’s credit, no untoward incidents happened during the event.
- Received the finisher tee for the 84K relay but it’s no big deal . I didn’t run this for the t-shirt .
Taking on 2 marathons on zero ultra-specific training should not be attempted simply based on what I managed. I was physically hammered and the soles of my feet hurt so badly that I wanted to (but thankfully didn’t) lie down. Mentally I experienced the expected lows of wanting to quit but I recognized those symptoms (through plenty of reading, learning and listening from seasoned runners) and just cast those thoughts out. I ran and walked mostly in a blank state of mind and didn’t even listen to my specially compiled playlist on my iPod. The motivation to look beyond the pain only came after CP7 when my wife updated me on the condition of the family member (who had very sadly passed away).
What got me through uninjured? A few factors probably mattered. I’m listing them here to remind myself that I could’ve done better had I actually trained and optimally motivated. It’s also to caution anyone out there who thinks completing one without training is something that can be done. As everyone is wired differently, you could in fact do it better. Or much worse. So do make your own evaluation.
- I’m not a weight-challenged person. A heavier person would’ve pounded the pavement with much more impact than I did, more so in the later miles when the running form has deteriorated. More damage, more pain, higher chances of quitting.
- I didn’t carry any injuries going into Starlight.
- I adopted the run-walk routine right from the start, not when I was exhausted. I recognized my shortcomings and was on a conservative and self-preservation mode.
- When I ran, my pace was so slow that I think it hurt me more to have run that slow!
- The slow pace allowed me to burn fat instead of carbs. As a result, I truly bonked only around the 60K mark.
- I’ve had consistent monthly mileage since middle of last year. I was always in an “in-training” mode and have done a number of 50s since then.
- I’ve had strength training built into my program.
- While I was a newbie to ultra distance, I wasn’t a newbie in terms of “book knowledge”. Of course theory and practical execution should not be mixed, but I didn’t enter the event totally blind.