Delving into the pleasure and pain of the Penang Bridge International Marathon

  • People
  • Friday, 12 Dec 2014

Race for life: Participants running on the Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah bridge during the Penang Bridge International Marathon 2014. — ZHAFARAN NASIB/The Star

A runner’s account of his maiden run on the Second Penang Bridge, minus the bragging.

IN 2013, I signed up for what was supposed to be the first run on the then spanking new Second Penang Bridge. But, as it turned out, that was the last run on the First Penang Bridge.

Then, just last month, I signed up for what would certainly be the first run on the Second Penang Bridge.

I’ve always been irked by the unearthly hours for the Penang Bridge runs, taking place at the best times for sleep.

This run was no exception, but I guess that’s the price you have to pay for bragging rights.

I drove up the day before the run, and basked in the warmth of friends in Penang, complaining of knee and other assorted pains.

Then, I smugly informed them I was running the next day and enjoyed the look of incredulity on their faces.

The advantage of smugness over bragging rights is that you don’t actually need to have done anything; just announcing your intention is enough to elicit a response.

Alex Melly (left) and Frida Jepkite Lodepa posing with their trophies after winning the Men’s Open and Women’s Open Full Marathon titles respectively.

It’s shallow and all that, but we live short lives filled with moments of cheap gratification.

The organisers had advised participants not to drive, and to use the shuttle buses instead. Dutifully, I obeyed, and boarded the shuttle bus outside Queens Bay Mall at a time when the only other beings awake were other runners and cats hunting for mice.

The roads around the starting venue at Batu Maung were choked with parked cars.

Some people put in more mileage than they had trained for because they had to walk or run so far from their parked vehicles to the starting line.

The new bridge is gorgeous, a 20km-plus span with a sensuous curve and a short kink to allow waterborne traffic to pass beneath.

Starting times for different events were staggered but there was still a huge mass of people milling about behind the starting line for my event.

There was the usual small talk by the commentator to whip up some excitement, but there was plenty of adrenaline even without any of that.

The bridge was packed with runners.

The gun fired and the crowd surged forward like a single herd of uniformly coloured animals in heat, the drumming of feet on the pavement sounding like a low roll of drawn-out thunder.

There was an almost instant bottleneck at the entrance to the bridge.

The event was very crowded and by all accounts, later popular events such as the 10km run were like mob affairs.

The crowd began to disperse as runners started to run at different paces.

There’s always an astonishing variety of people running and half the fun is watching other people.

There were the usual few barefoot runners, able to withstand a tremendous amount of pounding with no artificial padding.

There was a runner in a sarong whom I overheard saying that he always ran in that gear.

There were the fanciful runners, who wore funny hats or costumes.

The run takes place at unearthly hours.

And then there were the facial expressions which evolved throughout the run: the bright-eyed becoming glaze-eyed in the later parts of the run, the determined jaw becoming slack-jawed, the perpetually pained look, the head shaking from side-to-side posture (like a runner high on drugs), the stern runners, the smiling runners.

There were also many in it for the sheer camaraderie – stopping by to chat or take selfies.

The road was smooth and predictable, with only a gentle slope at the high point where boats passed beneath.

There was a cool breeze and it was bright enough from the overhead lighting to see clearly.

One of the attractions of an organised run – for which you pay good money to punish yourself when you could have done it for free at home – is the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, a small part of the thousands of people out there, with their aspirations and weeks of training, and all that dripping human sweat.

There were well-spaced water stations with isotonic drinks, and volunteers and workers out in full force to attend to distressed runners, or to start the major cleanup of thousands of discarded paper cups, sponges, bottles and wrappers of energy bars and gels.

There were waiting lines outside the inadequate number of toilets. My line was seven people long, while a couple of gentlemen arriving later cleverly jumped over the inner barrier behind the toilets and emerged moments later, looking much happier with themselves.

There were no distance markers, so I didn’t know my pace, until the turn-around mark which should have been approximately halfway.

Mindful of the time lost at the toilet stop, I took the advice of the few girls along the route who served as cheerleaders exhorting us to “Add fuel!” in Chinese, and I upped the pace. I ran past a few water stations which were being mobbed by runners, past the oat bread and bananas at the food stops and “added fuel” to keep on running.

I rather missed the fun events that I’ve come across in other runs – bands playing music, dancing cheerleaders in costumes, even people holding up irreverant posters.

(Editor’s note: actually, there were fashion shows and band performances before the event, but most runners would have been more preoccupied with their upcoming ordeal.)

I grinned at the memory of a woman at the earlier 2014 KL Marathon who held up a placard near the finishing line. It declared, “In my mind, you are all Kenyans!” Yeah, right.

Early in the run, the front runner of the full marathon event ran past in the opposite direction on the other side of the bridge.

He was preceded by a police outrider and he ran with the beauty of a gazelle, an ebony-coloured moving sculpture, running alone, for he was so far ahead of the second runner. Now, he was a Kenyan!

As the race wore on, the distance and the pace exerted their toll.

There were lots of tired runners walking now, certainly less exuberant selfies, a few people stopped by the side to rest ... or to recover from cramps.

All that pent-up energy at the starting line was beginning to run down. Where’s the Energizer battery when you really need it?

With only a few kilometres to go, there was a 3km distance marker, and suddenly, everyone was running again.

The pain in my legs had come and gone, and I was pounding the road mechanically.

The pace picked up as I swept back onto Penang Island, and the last few hundred metres.

There were bright lights, cheering people lining the road, background music and a last turn before the finishing marker.

A runner friend had advised me to throw out my hands on either side – to block others beside me from finishing before me – but I thought that was pretty low-class and besides, he was a front-runner while I was in the middle of the pack.

The finishing area was an untarred, muddy open area with pools of water and barely enough lighting to avoid splashing into them.

I collected my finisher’s medal and the really big prize: A free, ice-cold, just-right, can’t-be-duplicated-at-home Milo drink.

In the milling crowds and the light of the dawning day, I met friends and acquaintan-ces, veterans and first-timers, bound in a common festival of being vibrantly alive and the shared pain of trying to outdo yourself.

A participant dressed up as Goku from Dragon Ball.

Later in the morning was the true reward: A bowl of noodles in a Penang coffeeshop.

In spite of numerous attempts elsewhere advertising Penang food, there’s nothing quite like the real thing, which was a large part of the motivation to drive up all the way and wake up at that unearthly hour to go running.

Bumps and all, I had a great time being part of the first run on the Second Penang Bridge. I had such a great time that I didn’t even feel like bragging about it.

There are any number of websites with training programmes for various running events with targeted finishing times. Given schedule constraints, I settled on two runs a week, one short but quick run during the week, and a long-distance slow run on the weekend, with a gradual buildup of distance.

Participating in the 2014 KL Marathon earlier in the year kept the momentum going.

Many people train with running buddies, which is great for motivation and pacing, but it was more convenient for me to run on my own according to my own schedule. A hilly training route and interval training also helped.

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