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