Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflections of the year

Besides Christmas, New Year is my favourite occassion of the year. It'd better be.

Although I do have some mixed feelings about the coming year, the prospect of starting over brings hope that things will get better. As usual, no resolutions from me but a chance to pursue dreams, begin new journeys and bid goodbye to the negative things of the previous year. It is also a time to count my blessings and be thankful for every little thing that I'm are blessed with.

Life is one big adventure and the choices we have are abundant but not without endless forks on the roads too. When I made the decision to take a break from work this year, I thought my world will come to a standstill for me but oh no, I was wrong. I have learnt some of life's important lessons that I never imagine I would've experienced at work.

Caught in the rut of everyday life, I was so consumed with worry and anxiety, that I have forgotten about my true nature. In April, I left earthly comforts aside and together with some friends, we joined The Pilgrimage Walk from Batu Caves to Maran covering 204km for 3 days. The journey was an eye-opener.
The Lesson : I should try to shift my values more towards people and relationship and less towards accumulating things. There are many things in life I don't really need. I've become more aware of what I take with me and what I don't.

Then I had another mind blowing experience at the Silent Retreat at Lucky Valley with breathworks and this time, witnessed a past life regression from Kim who travelled with me there.
The Lesson I learnt did not come from Breathworks or a past life regression. It came from the phrase 'LISTEN TO YOUR HEART'. But at times, I asked myself again and again "how do I know if the 'leading' is right?" Many times, I've got to learn it the hard way.

And there at the Hospis Daycare where I served as a volunteer, I met a group of new friends. I learned from patients and fellow volunteers the new meaning of life. Cancer patients who continue to battle so tirelessly in order to light up the lives of others and serving as an inspiration to always celebrate life - no matter how tough the going gets, humbled me.

I attended my first workshop with Hospis Malaysia on Palliative Care in August where love and compassion was once again emphasized to me. I learned the signifance of talking less and listening more, as Epictetus so aptly puts it, " Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak".

As for running, this year I ran two full marathons in KL and Pattaya. A few more half marathons but the ones I enjoyed most must be The Ocean to Ocean Relay Run in Thailand, JW Cameron Run, Penang Bridge Run and Powerman at Lumut (where I went just to support John and my other friends). And closing the year with a little boost for me was the recent Putrajaya 12hr Walk.

There we we enter into a brand new decade, may we continue to count our blessings, big or small.

"It is good to have money and things that money can buy, but it's good too, to check up once in a while and make sure you haven't lost the things money can't buy." - George Lorimer

Friday, December 25, 2009

Of December, Birthdays, Christmas and the politics of presents...

I love December. It's my favourite month because of my relationship with Christmas. You see, I was born in the month of December and I thought sharing the same birthday month with Jesus and Ms. Cooke (my former Headmistress whom I adore and respect) is great!
My parents hardly celebrate birthdays. My pa never had his birthday celebrated, not even until the day he died. My sisters and I did a birthday bash for mom on her 60th. birthday and that was it. So, when we were young, we witnessed other kids celebrating their birthdays in grandeur while ours remained just another ordinary day. Yet we made no fuss about it. And personally, December remains as my favourite month because it's also school holidays. Less traffic jam!

I love Christmas - I love the colorful, blinking lights, the pretty ornaments that decorate a X'mas tree, Santa and his reindeer poised for flight from some rooftop.

I enjoy singing Christmas carols and listening repeatedly to the nativity of Christ, for it has a place in history.

I revel in the spirit of gift giving - a symbol of joyful celebration of birth and hope.

I am warmed by the traditions that surround the season - giving and receiving presents at the same time.

BUT the things that give me pleasure cause me great tension too. For whom will I get presents? What gifts should I buy? If I give someone a present and they don't have one for me, what does that mean? What if someone has a present for me and I don't have one for her? How does that feel?

Oh, the politics of presents!

I loathe how commercialized Christmas has become as I fall prey to some fashionable items too. As the years drift by, Christmas has lost its religion appeal (not that I am so religious). Still experiencing the economic gloom, I feel there's fear among those who struggle to find the extra cash to shop for gifts.

I am sad to find the meaning of Christmas now buried in the barrels of bath accessories, bottles of perfumes and the spread of food at the buffet table. As the year is coming to an end, perhaps it's time to reflect and contemplate. To spare some thoughts to those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Some children who may be still looking for a pair of shoes to wear. Some poor souls who had gone without food for days. Or someone who is mourning for the loss of a dear one.

So this season - instead of worrying about what gifts to give, where to have Christmas lunch or dinner or what to wear, may we just give thanks for the simple things in life that we are blessed with...good health, family, friends and holidays!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spirit Of Christmas

As Christmas approaches, and without taking any stance for or against the occasion, those who celebrate may experience Christmas and the days leading up to it as stressful. What was originally meant to be a time of stillness and peace has been made into its opposite by the human mind. The occasion we are celebrating at Christmas is, of course, the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago. In a deeper sense, however, Christmas represents the birth of Christ within the human soul, the arising of who you are in your essence – stillness, the unconditioned, timeless dimension of consciousness.

Just as Christmas is the celebration of light arising when the darkness is greatest and the nights are longest, the spiritual birth in the human soul often happens at a time of great despair and suffering. This is the dark night of the soul that often comes before the spiritual awakening. Once the awakening has happened, most people undergo a process during which the darkness within them, the unconsciousness of the ego, is seen more clearly and dispelled by the light of consciousness, the light of Presence. In other words: living in the Now dispels the darkness!

Collectively, Christmas comes to symbolize the spiritual birth on earth, the arising of a new consciousness in humanity. This is what lies at the core of all religions: the realization of enlightenment, the Christ within, or your Buddha nature.

Excerpt taken from Eckhart Tolle's newsletter.

May the spirit of Christmas deepen the stillness, love, peace and joy that we are.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Almost there!

This is my 3rd 12-hour walk competition but my first experience walking in Putrajaya. The previous two races were held in Penang where I completed 76km in 2002 and 80km in 2007. This time, my goal was to better those records. Therefore I decided to go for an ultra-marathon distance which is 84km.

A 12-hour walk works exactly just like the tortoise-and-hare race. It rewards the patient and penalizes the overeager. It takes a lot of perseverance and patience and certainly not a sport for sprinters. Each race (be it a 12-hour or a 24-hour walk) has taught me some valuable lessons over the years. I’ve learned discipline, modesty and self-control amongst other things through such an endurance game.
Putrajaya : December 13th. 2009
On arrival at Putrajaya, I could feel much excitement in the air when I saw the many tents being set up. Some non-competitors were there simply to have fun and decided to camp at the site while giving moral support to their families or friends. I was greeted with so many familiar faces including my friendly competitors from Hong Kong and France. It was also like a mini reunion when I met old friends like Shew Keng, Nan Yang and I was surprised to see Wai Keen (one of Julie’s student from the Supported Living Programme) present there. When I asked if he remembers me, he was quick to respond, “Yes. Yap Wai Mun!” He was there to support Julie and to prove that people with learning disability do have the abilities beyond their reckonings, given the chance. He succeeded by completing 28km which is indeed quite a feat.
Like Wai Keen, I believe there were many who came with their own personal objectives. Some were determined to better their previous record – some were just curious to find how walking for 12 hours feel like, and where it would take them – some came to walk with their family or spouse, merely to bond. Of course, some were there to win the prize money! Whatever it is, the fact that they have the courage to take on this challenge made them all winners with their own rights.

At about 7.45pm, more than 700 walkers gathered at the starting line. After a short briefing which no one paid much attention to, the race began….everyone was rushing and moving very fast especially the Kenyans. This is nothing unusual particularly in the early hours when everyone is still fresh and lively. I reminded myself to control my pace, preventing myself from walking too quickly or ‘over-performing’.
4th hour: 8pm – 12am
Although I found the right rhythm and started walking at a decent pace, I felt uncomfortable. I was battling with my inner self as I wasn’t sure if I had it right. But then, why should I feel this way? After all, this game is a personal one, ultimately there’s only one walker who really counts – ME. Then, I remembered I had John. My heart was filled with deep gratitude for John who sacrificed sleep to be there for me, as my manager and supporter. Well, let’s face it: how many husbands would do that for their wives? I look around and count myself so blessed and fortunate. While many spouses consider their ‘other half’ extremely insane to indulge themselves into such a crazy activity, John was at the race course throughout, monitoring my progress, checking results, attending to my every need and was never short of words of encouragement to cheer me up. The results revealed at 12am showed that I was ranked 6th position and had covered 27km after walking for 4 hours.
8th hour: 12am – 4am
After twelve, the atmosphere became somewhat quiet; the number of walkers was reduced as some had decided to retire or catch their 40 winks at their respective tents. Some walkers went to reunite with friends and refresh themselves while others were just resting their poor tired feet. With a goal in mind, I was relunctant to take any breaks. I was still concentrating to be as consistent as possible and entertained myself with a little old chorus in my heart: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Keep me burning till the break of day!” But it was still too far away from day break…
Due to an early dinner, the pangs of hunger hit me at around 1am and I made a request to John for some light snacks. I am normally not fussy with food but this time, I’ve got to admit that the food was lousy. However, I managed to grab half a hard-boiled egg and half a banana to last me until the end of the race. I was disappointed there wasn't any coffee when it was just about the only thing we needed most to help us stay awake! I took a sip of barley drink which tasted nothing but sugar water - yuks! Kilometers after kilometers I walked, almost imperceptibly at first and then finally passing Kenyan IrineJeptoo and my Malaysian compatriot Norazilah, both of whom I guessed were beginning to concede to the indiscretion of their earlier pace. I was thankful to friends eg. Adnan, Pheik Hoon, Teresa, Terence, Alex and Christina who kept my spirit alive by cheering and encouraging me each time I passed them. Later, Billie Kwok from Hong Kong (last year’s women champion) walked pass me and told me that she’ll be stopping at 50km and not continue anymore as she was tired. She was already at 2nd placing then. However, she encouraged me to keep moving. This is truly the spirit of sportsmanship and I embraced it!
By then, I was aware that the shock of each step radiating from my knees up to my hips and the strain slowing creeping from my spine, penetrating into my every nerve and sinew. Every kilometer took a little away not only from my legs and muscles but everywhere else. In spite of that, I was glad to be able to maintain an air of sangfroid. I motivated myself by drawing inspiration from whatever positive quotes that I could recall. “Every step you walk will get you closer to the finishing line.” “If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. Do what you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, never give up.” – Dean Karnazes.

It is certainly not easy, trying to overcome pain and exhaustion with clarity, alertness and stoicism when your brain kept telling you it’s time to sleep. Perhaps, this is what this game is all about. It aims to highlight to us the value of trying, enduring, persisting and fighting life’s hardship and that we can be victorious when physical and spiritual resources are mobilized. Sad but true that agony is part of this game. Yet it always humbled me to think that during a race like this, all of us are in this together regardless of age, gender, race, religion or nationality. We all struggled and suffered the same pain. But as an individual accustomed to pushing my physical limits, I had learnt not to be overwhelmed by pain, but to overcome it. Therefore I made up my mind to push myself to the edge of my pain threshold until I felt it no more.
12th hour: 4am – 8am
No results were being produced for the past 6 hours. I didn’t know why. There were some technical confusion or so it seemed. I had no idea where I stand and lost count the distance I had walked. Anyway, John advised me to just keep moving and I adhered to it.
By now, the pace I had been going at for the last couple of hours was entrenched in my legs until they now felt the need to maintain at that pace. After all, it still hurts just as bad no matter what speed I chose to go, so I might as well walk fast if I could.
Francis Hobert, Sports Physiotherapist for Kora Bouffilert from France instilled some confidence in me when he gave me a thumbs-up and a smile. I returned that smile to discover how powerful it has turned out to be. Suddenly all the tension seemed to ebb out of my aching body; every cell in my entire being were awaken!! Now with another 3 hours to go, I decided to increase my pace slightly.
When the results were finally released at 6am, John had already gone for his morning run around the vicinity of Putrajaya. I continued walking and was pleased that my legs were co-operative. When I saw some participants limping and afflicted with blisters, I thanked my own two feet for carrying me this far. Then Wendy Soo signaled to me with the latest results that I was at second placing. But it was Mohd Hanizam (the 4th 24-hour walk champion) who fed me with the details, he said, “At 10th hour, you are ranked 2nd having walked 70km with Isaac So from Hong Kong behind you covering 68km.” He advised me to maintain at that pace.
Final countdown : 7am – 8am
Finally, the daybreak and I felt lifted and was so good to be the first to watch the sunrise while the rest of the world slept. Having walked for 11 hours and realizing that I still have enough energy stored in my body to finish strong has to be one of the greatest feelings at that time. The ultra-marathon distance seemed achievable and I tried to do my own calculation to walk another 14km within the two hours that was left. Alas, I had forgotten what a failure I was when it comes to mathematics!! At 8am after walking diligently for 12 hours, I finally arrived at 83km; 1km short of my target of 84km. The ultra-marathon distance seemed so near yet so far.
Final results

I believe that in every race there is a defining moment for everyone. Some tend to think of that moment as being the first to cross the finishing line, for some it is to achieve a personal best, while many others find it absolutely satisfying just to complete the entire journey. My defining moment at the end of the 12 hours still remains a very personal experience for me. With age catching up, I found renewed strength both mentally and physically. And I also found comfort in knowing that I had fought well.

“The important thing in the race is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” – Pierre de Coubertin

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What price great run?

This is a delayed report on the Ocean to Ocean Relay Run which I participated on November 1st. 2009. This was the 5th Ocean to Ocean Run in Thailand, and my second year joining 3 other teams of 24 runners from Pacesetters Malaysia. Previously, we ran from Songkla to Satun but this year, the race course has changed from Lang Suan to Ra Nong. This relay run covered an approximate distance of 120km of which the 8 runners from each team took turn to run 3 times, each time about 5-6km.
This year - apart from Malaysia, the Run drew participation from other countries eg. UK, Singapore and Korea. Perhaps this is something the Thais should be proud of.

Prelude to the Ocean to Ocean Run
The bus journey from KL to Hatyai took about 8 hours with pit stop in Ipoh for supper. We had breakfast in Hatyai while waiting for the respective vans to come and pick us to Lang Suan. We boarded the vans based on the teams we belong and travelled together to the starting line at Lang Suan for registration. The journey from Hatyai to Lang Suan took us another 5 hours. It was indeed a long and tiring trip.
Upon arrival at Lang Suan, our team leaders : Gary, Peter Lim and Phua registered the teams namely : Impossible Team 1, 2 amd 3. We were warmly welcomed and treated with dinner. Organizer Dr. Ou Chai then briefed participants on the race's rules and regulations and what to expect. Although many of us are familiar to this event, I soon learned that it still pays to just listen.
Soon after dinner, we checked into PN Resort nearby and discovered that there was another party happening. Some of our team members joined in, helping themselves with a second round of dinner and beer by the beach while enjoying the breeze from the Pacific Ocean. We had some light-hearted moments together until about ten before calling it a day.

Let the relay began...
We checked out from PN Resort at 5am to the starting line for breakfast, provided by the Organizers. In Thailand, we were usually served with porridge, 'yau char kwai' or crispy bun, soya bean and coffee for breakfast. Each team was then given an ice box loaded with ice and water bottles.
The race started at 6am sharp with the first runner of each team dipping their baton into the Pacific Ocean. My team members were : Francis, Felix, Tai, Kim, Richard, Peter Teo, Gary and Nancy who came as a supporter.
As expected, the weather was as sunny as can be. Throughout the entire race, we shared jokes and had lots of fun teasing and supporting one another while competing friendly at the same time. We made friends with other teams from Thailand as well. Besides food and snacks, we were blessed with friendly faces, lots of smiles and laughter along the way which certainly made running under the hot sun bearable.

A scene which touched me was when we arrived at a little shop (hut) during one of our pit-stops and Kim decided to have her lunch there. Lunch was packed and provided by the Organizer. Since she was eating the packed lunch at this little shop, she was obliged to order a cup of coffee. To our surprise, the shop owner offered her coffee for free. He even offered chairs for all of us to rest there. And a huge bucket of ice water was placed in front of the shop for runners passing by to wash our faces or simply to cool down. I had been to Thailand many times yet never cease to be amazed by their hospitality especially where running is concern. While running along the way, runners can stop by at any of their shops or houses and we were welcomed to use their 'hong nam' (toilet). Some even treated us their homemade delicacies.

All of us ran through different routes, each one taking his own course covering about 5-6km each time. The running route could be rather challenging and more often than not, we need to tackle an uphill, sometimes more. As the fourth runner, I was fortunate to take one with the least hills and covered the shortest distance amongst my team mates.

Last 1km...
At sunset, we soon reached the last check point where the baton was being passed to Gary our last runner. The rest of us were to meet him at the last 1km and together, all of us ran towards the finishing line - the Indian Ocean where the baton was dipped into the ocean signifying the end of the relay. We were the 8th team to arrive at 12hr 44mins in the Mixed Team Category. Our other teams : Impossible Team 1 was placed 6th with the time of 11hr 54mins, while Impossible Team 3 came in at 13hr 28mins taking the 9th position.
I guess everyone enjoyed the race as much as I did. Like me, I'm sure running is another outlet for them to get through life's challenges and celebrate life's victories. In this particular Ocean to Ocean Relay Run, it is also a celebration of friendship.
There were no prize money. However, all runners were awarded with a beautiful medal, a nice jacket, running vest, dinner, interesting stories to share and lovely memories to take home .

I would like to thank Gary Goh for organizing and arranging everything from transport, accomodation, meals to race registration, van rental and massage. He did a superb job! We also enjoyed our stay in B.C.Badin Resort and the hot spring at Ranong. Many thanks!
My appreciation also goes to Krishnan for sponsoring a set of quality Adidas vest and shorts to each runner.
To my travel/team mates : I have no idea if we can still do this together again in another lifetime...THANK YOU ALL for the care, camaraderie, teamwork and another good memory for me to treasure in this lifetime.

What price great run?
A friend once asked me why do I have to pay to travel all the way to Thailand and to 'suffer' under the hot sun and then travel all the way back knowing there's no prize money? The same question was being posed to Dr Tan & Ngae who travelled all the way to run The Sahara Desert...they paid to suffer, didn't they? It's quite difficult to explain the 'feelings' to a non-runner. What price great run? Only an athlete will understand.