Racing the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2019

Lester Tan’s SCSM 2019 Experience

LESTER TAN BY | UPDATED 4 MONTHS AGO

Words Lester Tan
Photos SCSM 2019

The first person who ran a marathon died, and now hundreds and thousands of people run it every year. I’m unashamedly proud to say that I am one of them.

“So how has your training been?” asked KC as we wandered about the Race Expo a day before the marathon. “Not good; I barely trained since I started working.” I sheepishly replied.

I ran approximately 50km a week since August - a weekly mileage significantly below that of what a ‘serious’ marathoner ought to do, which was typically 80km or more. While others built up to 38km long runs, the furthest I ever ran since August was a mere 21km.

On days when I felt lethargic, I swam during lunch break and dropped my evening run, further reducing the week’s mileage. In my mind, swimming supplemented my training by giving my legs a break while still providing a decent cardio workout.

Truthfully, however, I knew that I was heading towards a world of pain given that my legs weren’t sufficiently prepared to handle the distance.

Despite it all, KC remained unconvinced: “Can one la, you ran ultramarathons before so what’s a marathon?”

Yes, I completed ultramarathons before but so what? The stresses imposed on the body and mind during a marathon differs significantly from that of an ultramarathon. A decent ultramarathon runner does not equate a fast marathoner.

My personal experience at Sundown Marathon 2019 bore testament to that fact. Nevertheless, I knew my body was physically capable of handling 42.195km of pavement pounding on 30 November. So long as you’re able to walk, you’re able to complete a marathon. It’s only a matter of how long it’ll take.

The body is capable of incredible feats of physical endurance … if and only if the mind is willing. Unlike its previous iterations, SCSM2019 was held in the evening, giving it similar vibes to the Sundown Marathon. Hosting the event in the evening also meant that runners could catch a train home after their race instead of having to rely on taxis and private hires.

I personally prefer evening races as I can have a full night’s rest and a proper meal before the race. At the F1 Pit Building, security personnel and marshals efficiently ushered runners through security screenings and bag deposits. At no point was I lost or unsure of where to go.

At the front, emcees introduced professional runners and drummed up the excitement of participants. As the flag-off drew closer, the atmosphere grew noticeably tense. A group of runners on my right who were cracking jokes a minute ago now gazed ahead with steely determination.

A loud airhorn sounded moments later, signalling the start of our 42.195km journey through Singapore. The first 5km took runners though South Beach Road, passing by iconic landmarks such as the St. Andrew’s cathedral, the National Gallery, and Merlion Park. The organisers closed entire roads, giving runners ample room to spread themselves out across the street.

Faster runners who shuffled through the crowd initially found space for themselves 2km into the marathon. Along Nicoll Highway, runners and spectators cheered on a fellow participant who dragged a tire tied to a rope. No small feat considering the uphill task (literally and figuratively) that loomed ahead. I heard of runners who routinely performed such gestures at local races for charity - each doing so in support of a cause greater than themselves.

From 8km to 18km, runners proceeded along West Coast Highway, overlooking familiar sights such as Vivo City and Keppel Bay. The sky dimmed gradually as the sun set, creating a reddish hue overhead. The beautiful skyline made it almost easy to forget that one was in the midst of running a marathon. I quickly snapped myself back to focus on the moment.

As I knew that the marathon has a way of biting back around 30km, I kept close to a relatively comfortable pace of 4:50mins/km. Along the highway, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson cosplayers high-fived and cheered for runners as they passed. Unlike runners, the cosplayers’ infectious energy never seemed to falter.

I couldn’t help but smile as I ran by, soaking in the joyous atmosphere. With approximately 24km to go, any form of encouragement was greatly appreciated. Still, moral support could only get one so far.

In a marathon, pacing and nutrition were critical factors that could make or break the race. Seasoned runners are all too familiar with ‘the wall’; the point when one’s glycogen stores are fully depleted. You know you have ‘hit the wall’ when powerful feelings of fatigue wash over your body, bringing your entire being to a grinding halt.

Most marathoners would experience hitting the wall from 30km onwards - roughly two to three hours into the race. Hitting the wall is almost an inevitable event experienced by both amateurs and professional runners alike.

Knowing what is likely to come, seasoned marathoners would plan their pacing and nutritional strategy accordingly. Some runners may take in energy chews at specific time splits while others would rely on bananas and gels offered at aid stations.

I did neither, opting instead to take in a GU gel every 45 minutes as advised on the product’s packaging. For all my years of running, this was actually the first time I adhered closely to a race nutrition plan. Although the GU gels tasted … unappetising (frankly, it tasted disgusting. Imagine warm and sticky goo running down your throat), they got the job done; I never felt hungry and could maintain my pace comfortably.

Learning from my previous mistakes, I consumed GU gels with water and avoided cups of isotonic (100 Plus) as I knew it would lead to gastrointestinal disaster.

Everything went smoothly until I crossed the 30km marker at East Coast Park. On the bright side, I did not hit the wall. But I was badly hammered by intense cramping in my hamstrings. The cramps appeared seemingly all of a sudden. In a span of less than 10 seconds, I went from a 4:45mins/km pace to a complete halt. I gritted my teeth as my hamstrings seized up and spasmed painfully. I could barely bend my legs!

I knew that my aerobic capacity wasn’t under significant strain and cramping legs aside, I actually felt pretty comfortable. That basically implied that I could afford to run faster if my leg muscles weren’t attempting to tear themselves up. I cursed under my breath, knowing full well that this situation could have been avoided completely if I adequately prepared for the marathon.

Runners who I previously passed soon overtook me. A sense of disappointment grew inside me. Just when all hope seemed lost, an angel appeared with salvation in hand. To rephrase in a less dramatic manner: A lady stood by at the Elite’s aid station, smiling kindly as she offered me a cup of chilled Red Bull. She didn’t say a word but I could tell that she empathised with my painful situation. I almost cried in gratitude.

Mind you, the lady and her friends who offered iced water and Red Bull to runners were not officially part of the event. I found out afterwards that they were from local running groups and were doing what they could to make the race a more pleasant experience for everyone. On hindsight, I realised that offering Red Bulls around 30km into the marathon was a strategic decision.

Red Bull gave a caffeinated sugar boost that pulled marathoners from the depths of physical exhaustion (recall ‘the wall’). It figuratively gave runners ‘wings’ to fly ahead. Whoever you are, dear friends, you have my deepest gratitude and appreciation. The final leg of the marathon led runners through the scenic Gardens by the Bay.

Although I still suffered from cramping legs, my frustration gradually subsided as I ticked off distance markers along the route. Less than 5km to go! If there’s one thing that SCSM is famous for, it’s the final climb over Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

Spanning 1.8km in length, Benjamin Sheares Bridge featured a steady climb that forced runners to dig even deeper into whatever reserves they had left. I opted for a conservative strategy in light of my sore achy legs: jog a little, walk a little.

As I made my way through the final stretch towards the finish, I reflected upon my running journey in 2019. A year of ups and downs for sure! From 10km road races to trail half-marathons and timed ultramarathons, I have ticked off all my running goals of 2019. SCSM was my final race to wrap up the year - as I’m sure the same applied to many others. For us runners, running is more than mere physical activity.

Running makes up an integral aspect of our very being. Running allows us to connect with ourselves and the world on a deeper level. In doing so, we may attain a level of self-awareness that so easily escapes our everyday consciousness. Running, in short, allows us to truly be in the moment. And that feeling is felt most intensely the moment one crosses the finish line. At that exact instant, all else fades into nothingness - replaced by an all-encompassing sense of accomplishment. It is the silent roar of jubilance that surges from within: “I have done it.”

The first person who ran a marathon died, and now hundreds and thousands of people run it every year. I’m unashamedly proud to say that I am one of them. Congratulations to all finishers and a big “THANK YOU!” to all supporters and organisers.



LESTER TAN

Lester Tan’s interest in long-distance events primarily stem from a desire to test the limits of human endurance. While many may dread the longer distances for a variety of reasons, he views it as a cathartic experience. He says, “Endurance racing liberates my mind of the stresses of daily life and teaches me to appreciate the joys derived from the present moment.”

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