Marathon Mania: run for the joy of it
The thought of running a marathon three months ago seemed daunting and beyond my capability. Although I'm a seasoned long-distance trail runner happy to get lost in the wilderness, the idea of pounding along a road for 42 kilometres with nothing resembling nature was not appealing.
But then I got curious. If marathons really are as tough as I thought, why do millions of people run in them worldwide each year? Appropriately, the slogan for the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon is "Run for a reason", so for 12 weeks, I set out to discover the attraction and find my own reason to relish the road - and share it all weekly in this newspaper.
Following my carefully crafted training plan from coach Clinton Mackevicius, I quickly discovered the first pleasure in road running: speed. There's a childlike delight in moving quickly. Plus, Mackevicius' regimented approach brought several other victories in my running pursuits.
Even though I began to notice improvements, I was still not convinced. Tackling the longer, flatter and more monotonous training runs left me with the same gripe with which I began this venture: boredom. How was I going to survive the weary nature of repetition come race day?
Despite my fears, I arrived on Sunday at the start line on Nathan Road, feeling enthusiastic. I was doing something for the first time, after all. I finally had the chance to discover why 65,000 runners and I were running.
Although too many nervous pre-race toilet stops saw me begin towards the back of the 7.10am start, I managed to set off at a cracking pace (thanks to discovering my own "speed lane" on the edges of the course) and overtook several runners. I ran while listening to an awesome playlist, and as my feet began moving to their own rhythm, I surprised myself. I realised I was running for the joy of progress. As I passed each kilometre mark, still intact and with plenty of petrol in the tank, I felt a growing sense of accomplishment.
Leaning forward into the first ascent leading into Ting Kau Bridge and gazing up at the geometric shapes created by the suspension cables, I began appreciating the views. Although criticised as being a fairly unsightly marathon, there was something humbling about travelling through Hong Kong's heavy transport arteries with its impressive skyline slowly coming into view. I imagined that running an iconic marathon like New York, Paris or London would be the most effective and time-efficient way to see each city.
Next, I discovered I was running to marvel at other runners. Boring a marathon is not, particularly one in Hong Kong. People were competing in all sorts of gear, from hiking boots to bare feet, with some carrying nothing and others everything plus the kitchen sink. Race club T-shirts from Hong Kong and abroad illustrated the sense of community running brings; the vibrant unmatching numbers and the costumes (the sharks and the ninja were my favourite) showed the humour in this trivial pursuit.
Then there were the many amusing running styles: the over-exaggerated hip wiggle, the speedwalk, the seemingly inefficient shuffle. I took the time to laugh at myself, too. Despite our differences, we were unified by the look of determination on our faces.
As I edged past the halfway mark with fatigue setting in, I found myself running to beat the guy next to me. Then I ran so I could be faster than the old man, who seemed to have a hold over me during the last 20 kilometres. I ran because of all the blind runners happily running, despite their disability. I ran because I saw a friend and exchanged an ecstatic high five - our common struggle shared.
As the kilometres edged towards the 30s, I ran to let out my frustration at all the slow half-marathon runners taking up my already packed running track. (Don't get me started on race etiquette.) Then I ran as fast as possible to get out of the oxygen-depleted Western Tunnel.
Then I ran so I could stop. With only two kilometres to go, I knew I had to keep going. Two hundred metres from the finish, I spotted my running buddy in the crowd and broke into a sprint; finally, I ran so I could say I'd given it my all.
As I crossed the finish line, a smile covering my exhausted face, I realised, above all, I ran because I was a runner. Not a trail runner, a short-distance speedster or a jogger - simply someone who loves to run. I'd had the wrong approach all along: it's not about the labels we put on things, it's about the joy.
Running puts a smile on my face. It's hard work and leaves you exhausted, yes, but as a wise runner once told me, "You can't get that type of exhaustion: it's earned." Children know it: they play for hours and run themselves into a slumber.
What's more, as I stopped my watch and realised I'd run my debut marathon in 3 hours, 33 minutes, 50 seconds, I realised I also ran because of how liberated it makes me feel. If you put your heart into something and work hard, anything is possible.
Three months ago, a sub-four-hour marathon seemed unfathomable; my 3:45 target set by Mackevicius seemed laughable. But as I hauled my aching body over the finish line, the time wasn't what mattered. It wasn't worthy of a podium finish, but it was a good time. What's more, it was my time: a reflection of me, my hard work, my passion and, ultimately, my good luck on race day. I hope you found your time, too.