Despite the haze, over 3,000 ‘sole sisters’ – some in tutus, others accompanied by male ‘pacers’ – turned up for the Malaysia Women Marathon earlier this month.
It's harrowing. As an organiser who has 4,400 people registered for your running event, how do you handle it when the haze hits? The event was the Malaysia Women Marathon (MWM). While there are a plethora of shorter women’s runs, MWM is only the fifth women’s full marathon (42km) in the world after three others in Japan and one in San Francisco, says Karen Loh, race director and founder.
Women’s running is picking up in Malaysia, and based on her analysis of some of the popular running events in the country, about 12% of serious local runners are female. From 1,900 participants at last year’s inaugural MWM (for 42km and also shorter runs), the number of participants who signed up this year more than doubled. And thus, the evolving taglines from “Because we can” in 2013 to this year’s more ambitious one of “Dream, Believe, Become”.
“For me, this is a labour of love,” says Loh. “I only took up running four years ago. Like many other women, I did it to lose weight. But I’ve grown to love it, and in the last 35 months I’ve run 35 marathons.” One of her aims is to instill a greater sense of sisterhood among women. She says, “It doesn’t matter if you are corporate figure or homemaker. When we hit the asphalt, we are all sisters.”
Perhaps since women are naturally more nurturing, one emphasis of MWM is the mentoring of newer runners. Running clinics began in November, five months before the event, to encourage people to do 'LSD' runs.
“When people hear LSD, they think it’s something psychedelic. Actually, in runner’s lingo for Long Slow Distance,” says Loh, launging. “I am very proud of this mentoring aspect of the event. When you help people to run long distance, they will pay it forward by encouraging the next group of new runners. It’s a positive domino effect.”
Her two sons, aged seven and 12, also helped by handing out drinks during the clinics’ trial runs. “My two boys have been trained to treat women well," says Loh. "I think it makes society healthier overall when that happens.”
MWM 2014 was actually a three-day event which included talks by Catherine Ndereba, the Kenyan marathon legend dubbed “Catherine the Great” who has twice won the event at the World Championships in 2003 and 2007, along with two Olympics silver medals. There was also an expo with booths to promote other regional marathons and assorted merchandise.
Given that Selangor has the most women Executive Councillors (Excos) among state governments in the country, it was heartening that two of them, Dr Daroyah Alwi and Elizabeth Wong, ran in the event, too. “There’s such an atmosphere of joy when women get together. It makes us feel special, that we deserve it,” says Loh.
Men weren't left out – about a third of the participants were accompanied and supported by male “pacers” who were either husbands, boyfriends, coaches, colleagues or just good friends.
The Haze Hits
Given the big build-up to the event, it was a real downer when the haze hit Shah Alam on the morning of March 16. “At 9pm the night before, the API reading in Shah Alam was 65 and it was all systems go,” Loh recalls. “By 2am, the smell of smoke had returned to the air.”
Despite that, about 80% of the 4,400 who had registered turned up, hoping that conditions would clear up by the flag off at 4:45am. But the haze continued to build up and the organisers decided to convert the longer runs into a a non-competitive half-marathon “fun run”. Loh says, “By 8am, the API was up to 106 and that’s when we called off the event.”
Wong Wai Leng, a banker in her 30s, recalls, “After running for a while, my throat started to itch. Later on it started to burn. The haze made the air very stuffy and still. My skin started to itch. I was sweating more than usual, so I was very thankful there were water stations every 2km. I stopped at every one of them and drank two cups before I continued running. The haze was quite a mood spoiler.”
Sharon Chow, 42, an account executive, says everyone was given the option of running or not. “I was disappointed that the haze had come back, but like many others, I went to the race site. As is normal for running events, everyone was chit chatting and taking photos before and after the race. The mood was good. To counter the haze, I drank lots of water with lemon added in to cleanse the body.”
Tan Chin Chin, 34, who runs a sports event management company, says, “It was a tough decision for Karen to convert the event into a fun run. Being a race director myself, I think she made the right decision.”
Despite the adverse circumstances, the participants were still in a pretty chirpy mood. There were runners who came in costume: Hawaiian grass skirts, cheongsams, school pinafores. Two Japanese guys even came as giant bananas.
Tan, who sells triathlon apparel, says women’s runs are special because organisers have women in mind when they create their race items. “For example, the colour of the running vest is fuschia. And they give you a finisher’s running skirt. Sometimes it’s frustrating for women when they sign up for runs and they are are given a singlet with a very masculine cut and colour. It doesn’t suit us and we end up not wearing it.”
Chow says, “The event was well organised with good traffic control and water stations. I salute the race marshals and volunteers who were willing to show up at the event.”
Cheah Lie Wei, an electronic design engineer in her 30s, likes the concept of an all-female run. “Unfortunately, because of the haze, I did not get the sisterhood feeling much. But runners are stubborn people, me included, and we still went out there and did it.”
Jerry Cornelius, one of the male pacers, explains why he joined in: “I can cycle long distance, but being big-sized, running has never been my cup of tea.” However, his mentor, triathlete Cheryl Mun, always encouraged him to push himself to the next level. “So I volunteered to be her pacer, but actually it was she who was pacing me! I was so happy that I managed to complete 21km.”
Tan adds that the idea of women’s runs is catching on. “I am from Penang and recently the state government also organised a 6km women’s run to raise awareness about violence against women. It was very well received.”
Cynthia Lam, a housing developer executive and runner in her 40s, recalls, “I didn’t run this time. I volunteered to help distribute the goodie bags. I was there since 2:45am so I could feel the haze getting from bad to worse. However, no runners at my counter complained as everyone knows the haze is beyond the organiser’s control. Everyone seemed to enjoy hanging out, chatting and taking photos even though the (competitive) run was cancelled."
“Many said they wanted to come back next year as MWM is a well-organised and meaningful run," Lam adds. "They also like the unique finishing touches to the goodies like the bracelets, the pendant – instead of a manly, chunky medal – and of course, the running skirt. To me, MWM is a run specially for ladies. And men who appreciate ladies.”
For more info, visit facebook.com/MalaysiaWomenMarathon