Higher purpose

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am


In 2006, still smarting from a bad break-up, I agreed on a whim to an invitation to do Ironman Korea - which consists of a 3.8 kilometre swim, 180.2 kilometre ride and 42.2 kilometre run. I had seven weeks to train for a triathlon that was double the distance of any I had done before. There's something about throwing oneself into a new challenge to overcome heartache. Some people lie in the fetal position on the floor for days, others get a beauty makeover. I'd rather convert my emotional energy into power for propulsion in the pool, on the bike or on the run. Maybe it's because for that few hours a day spent training, the body feels pain greater than that in the heart. Maybe it's because post-exercise fatigue clouds the mind, fogging up hurtful memories. Or perhaps because swimming, cycling and running, quite literally, mean moving forward. After a four-year relationship ended last October - I had moved to Hong Kong for him - I decided it was time again for what I've termed sweat therapy. This time, bitten by the trail bug caught when introduced to the wonders of off-road running in this city, I signed up for the Trail Verbier-St Bernard, held this month in the southwestern Swiss canton of Valais. After doing multiple Ironmans since that first in South Korea in 2006 and a few ultramarathons of up to 84 kilometres, I needed a race that would push me to a new limit. At 110 kilometres and with a 7,000-metre elevation gain, the Trail Verbier-St Bernard was perfect - just enough challenge to hurt but not kill me. I'd chanced upon the race while researching the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 166-kilometre race with 9,400-metre elevation gain that's one of the international trail-running marquee events. It's another world of pain for next year - but to qualify, runners need to chalk up seven points by participating in other races. Trail Verbier-St Bernard would give me four precious points. The YouTube videos of the Verbier race were the real clincher: runners carving their way up and down lush mountainsides and along ridges shadowed by snow-capped peaks that reach towards a clear blue sky. The sound of cowbells, waterfalls and crunching dirt with each stride. I could almost smell the crisp air and feel the warmth of the Swiss summer sun. Goosebumps. With my race registration confirmed, I threw myself into training. For hours week after week I'd lose myself in Hong Kong's amazing network of hundreds of kilometres of trails. I signed up for nearly every local trail race, competing almost every other weekend as practice for the big day. By February, my heart was almost as good as new. It was a surprise - I had taken a year to get over the 2006 break-up of an 18-month relationship. I thought I'd take forever to get over this recent split, especially because I thought we'd be forever. But the trails were the perfect antidote. It wasn't about running away from past demons but running towards happiness. In the peace and serenity of the trails, on the cusp of bustling Hong Kong yet seemingly miles away from the madness, my mind was free. It wasn't uncommon to see barely a handful of people on a three-hour run. Without distractions on the trails, I was able to think clearly and reflect. I was able to listen more sharply to the Big Man up in heaven. He said: 'It's all part of the plan. I'm lining up someone much better for you.' There's something about bounding over a natural obstacle course and getting mud-stained legs that make you feel like a child again. It's simple, primal, soulful. Standing on a mountain peak with the world at your feet, it's impossible not to feel humbled by God's amazing creations. Faced with such scenery, I know there is so much more to life than dwelling on the past. 'The life we receive is not short but we make it so,' writes Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher, in his essay On the Shortness of Life. 'We are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.' Six months flew by quickly; it was time to race the Trail Verbier-St Bernard on July 7. If the YouTube videos were awesome, the race itself was magnificent beyond description. It started and finished in the popular ski resort of Verbier at an altitude of 1,490 metres. The undulating course over dirt, rock and snow went by many peaks, including Pierre Avoi (2,473 metres), Col de Fenetre (2,698 metres), Col du Grand Saint Bernard (2,469 metres), Col des Chevaux (2,714 metres) and Col de Mille (2,480 metres). For a memorable finish, the race's hardest climb was right at the end, a steep and technical ascent through the Arbaray Forest up La Chaux (2,200 metres). In contrast, Tai Mo Shan, at 957 metres, is Hong Kong's highest peak. The race started at 5am on a Saturday with the faintest hint of a rising sun against the craggy silhouette of the Alps, and I finished under a magical starlit sky just past 3am the next day. My goal had only been completing within the race cut-off time of 32 hours, but at the finish line I was handed a bonus: I'd won the women's senior category (23-39 years) and finished fifth woman overall. I won a bunch of prizes, but it's the journey that I cherish the most. A smile never left my face throughout those enjoyable but painful 22 hours, for I knew that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint.