Running

WHY I STARTED ULTRA RUNNING… AND WHY I STOPPED

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Posted By Zyen Hoo

I don’t like running.

There, I’ve said it.

Of course, not everyone has to like running. But if you look at this blog and the archives full of running posts, you would probably be like, “What?? This chick doesn’t like running? Then what’s with all the marathons and ultramarathons?”

Why don’t I like running? I find it boring and repetitive. Many people find it peaceful, as they find the monotony a stress relief.

But it doesn’t work for me. I need something highly energetic to relieve my stress.

What do I experience when I run? Honestly speaking… nothing. My brain zones out and I focus on my breathing and my pace. Even if the run is 10 hours long, that’s all I’m focused on – the run. But I don’t feel relaxed or in that zen mode. I don’t even listen to music, because I find it a distraction.

And in fact, I have never experienced that elusive runner’s high.

What, she doesn’t like running? Then why is there a photo of her running with a big smile on her face???

WHY I STARTED RUNNING

So why did I start running?

I was never an athlete, and was never a runner in my younger years. I was clumsy as a child, who kept tripping over my own feet.

But I have always enjoyed trying new things, and I liked challenging myself. I found that I especially liked physical activities, and since running was a trend, I decided to jump in on it. And as a bonus, many run events offered finisher medals as a sense of achievement, to encourage participation. Of course I had my own other personal achievements, but it is always fun to achieve something in a new field.

I would only sign up for runs that offered finisher medals, and I went for short distance runs because that was the easiest.

It was fun at first. But chasing medals quickly lost its appeal. The cheap plastic medals hanging on my wall bore no meaning, because they had become too easy to attain. You can get a medal just for showing up and walking to the finish line. So together with my running buddies, I stopped running 5kms and started going for 10kms.

The medals are literally hanging on my wall. These are about 1/3 of my collection. I only hung the medals that were meaningful to me.

I tried to challenge myself by improving my time. But try as I could, I never seemed to be able to significantly improve my time. I was never going to get top 10 – not that I was aiming to – but somehow I couldn’t make my personal best time even better.

So instead of going for better time, I decided to go for longer distance.

10km led to 21km, 21km led to ultramarathons. I only completed my first full marathon after I ran an ultramarathon. I know that sounds weird, but it’s because I ran a looping ultramarathon, which was less challenging than running a full road marathon.

My first ultramarathon was the Bukit Cinta Ultra, which I completed 50km in about 11 hours, which taught me a lot about endurance and determination. My feet hurt and my clothes chafed, which was a hard lesson to learn. I attempted a full marathon thereafter, but failed to complete it within the cut-off time of 7 hours. However I tried again and completed my first full marathon at a really long time of 8 hours, due to lack of training.

When this photo was taken, I didn’t know the true meaning of suffering in an ultramarathon… yet.

I completely surprised myself by running 92km at the 24H loops. Later within the year, I began training with serious runners who gave me good tips and kept motivating me to do better.

My time begin to improve as I got stronger. I had significant improvement at the Bukit Cinta Ultra in my second year, doing 55km in less than 9 hours. I was able to complete a full marathon in less than 6 hours, and I then ran my longest distance ever of 119km at the following year’s 24H, ranking 5th among the ladies.

Starting to feel motivated, I decided to try road ultramarathons, which was a whole different ballgame. I just about manage to complete the 50km at the Titi Ultra within its cut-off time of 9 hours, at about 8h40m. I found out the hard way what it meant to be over-prepared (I carried too many things in a hydration bag that was too heavy), and with that experience, in spite of a complete lack of sleep the night before (seriously, I had NO sleep), I improved my 50km time at the following month’s Route 68 by a whole hour, completing it within 7h30m.

I was on a personal ultra high… I was doing an ultramarathon almost every other month. I was even improving my personal best times.

WHY I STOPPED

Then after a knee injury (not related to running), I had to stop training for a while. I had to DNS a few runs which I signed up for, and the few runs that I did go for, I DNF because I could not make the cut-off times.

I had ambitiously signed up for the The Most Beautiful Trail (TMBT) run in Sabah with a friend, and that was a disappointing experience for me. I did not have enough training, and trail running is not something that can be taken lightly, unlike road running. My calves kept cramping throughout the run, and at one point I even fell when they cramped as I was trying to descend a slope.

The real wake-up for me was when I cut my finger as I was trying to climb up a slope. My calves cramped up once again, and in that panic I reached out to grab a handhold to stop myself from sliding down. The plant I grabbed had sharp thorns, and one of it cut my finger deeply. Fortunately I hadn’t fallen off the steep slope on the side of the path; but no matter what I did, even with the bandages that the kind runners passing by gave me to compress my finger, the blood wouldn’t stop running.

So it was when I was sitting there alone in the middle of the forest nursing a finger that wouldn’t stop bleeding and resting on legs that wouldn’t stop cramping, that I questioned myself… was risking my life like this worth a medal?

I mean, yes, I was thankful that it was merely a cut finger and not a broken bone. But that was enough to make me rethink what I was doing.

To finish the story, I didn’t call for help even though the runners suggested I did. When you’re sitting in a trail, there is no ambulance that can come and pick you up, like on a road. And they’re not going to send a helicopter for you unless you are really incapacitated. I had to decide between backtracking to the previous checkpoint which was less than 2km, or moving forward to the next one which was about 5km away. Looking at the single path slope, I knew that going back would get in everyone’s way which would endanger everyone’s lives, so I picked up my trekking poles and trekked singlehandedly (one hand was still compressing the bleeding finger) all the way to the next water station, which was also no easy task as there were so many difficult slopes and it was pitch dark before I was even halfway there. I also had to keep stopping to adjust the tight bandage because I could feel my finger going numb –after all, we were not medical experts. The bandage was too tight, and it kept cutting off my blood circulation, yet the wound still not clot and it was still bleeding profusely. At long last, when I finally reached the medical station at the checkpoint, I was initially told I would need stitches, but after further examination by a more senior first aid personnel, they said it was not deep enough. They cleaned it and expertly put a proper compress which eventually stopped the bleeding by the next day.

In case you didn’t believe my story, here is a photo of my hand getting treatment by a St John’s volunteer at the water station. Yes, that is my hand. Yes, I took this photo even though I was in pain. No, I didn’t ask someone to take a photo of me getting treated.
I do have a photo with the hero of expertly bandaged my finger

That was not the last time I attempted an ultramarathon though. I gave it a go one more time, at my third 24H. I did not have the stamina to run, and after walking only little more than 20km for a mere 4 hours, the lactic acid buildup was so bad that it hurt just to keep walking. The physiotherapist on duty did her best to alleviate the pain, but to no avail. I asked her advice, and she said that if I really wanted to, I could continue, but recovery would take a much longer time.

I sat alone for a while that night awash in my own shame and disappointment. After thinking for a while and talking to a few of my closest friends (admittedly non-runners), I wondered what I was doing this for. Did I still want the medal and finisher goodies? If I continued, what would I obtain? I did not want a medal for the sake of getting a medal. But if I persevered, I know I would never be able to top my personal bests from the previous year. And the risk of aggravating the injury in my legs was not something I wanted. I still wanted to pursue my other active interests freely.

So I made the difficult choice to stop that night, much to everyone’s surprise. I know many expecting me to do much better than this, given my determination the previous year.

That smile… is so fake

MORAL OF THE STORY

Everyone has a different reason to run. Some may say that it doesn’t matter the reason, as long as you run. But I think that the reason does matter.

My reason was wrong. I admit it. I was busy chasing medals and personal bests that when I could not do better, I gave up.

So I have decided to stop ultrarunning. I have taken down my finisher medals from the wall, and I am no longer signing up for any more runs.

But I have not stopped running. I still run, but on my own terms, my own leisure, and my own time. It doesn’t matter if I cannot improve my time, or that I am not even doing double digit distances. Because I now run for myself.

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