Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How I Started Running

I was admitted to the hospital at age 11 due to gastric pains. Since then, my mom always made sure I had more than enough to eat.

As a result, I was always on the plump side, was extremely conscious of the unflattering flab around my waist, and struggled with pathetically low self esteem.

Yet, as far as I can remember, I have always been athletic, from a tender age. I was naturally inclined towards sports, because I was so ultra hyper and bounding with endless energy.

I played netball for my school and the local district, was in track and field, ran medium distances (400m, 800m); threw shot put, javelin, and discus; but sucked greatly in long and high jump - I suspect my short stature had a lot to do with my inability to perform those jumps.

Despite my sporting activity spanning over 20 hours weekly in school, I struggled to shed off my baby fats, particularly those stubbornly and faithfully layering my thick waist.

My struggle with low self esteem went on right throughout my working career. I was eating loosely, feeling lousy and slipping into decadence. At my heaviest, I weighed 58 kg. For a 5.3 footer, I was overweight.

That was a wake up call - that I was overweight, and I needed to change. I tried to exercise, but found little motivation to keep me going. I struggled to run even 20 minutes before giving up.

Then I re-discovered a childhood passion for swimming (as a child, my father used to bring my siblings and I swimming in the open sea every Sunday when the tide was high).

Fast forward ten years later, there was a public swimming pool right next to where I lived, and everyday as I stepped out of the house, I would see the pool. Looking back, I think the pool was strategically placed right where I could see it daily so I would start swimming again.

So swim I did. For 4 years. Faithfully, I’d swim 20 laps, 3 times a week, for 4 years.

When I met my husband-to-be, I continued with my swimming routine, and was motivated to shed more pounds.

Yet despite the thrice weekly swim sessions I committed myself to, I was not seeing results.

The last straw came a month before my wedding day. I was in the bathroom, and staring back at me from the mirror was one who hadn’t transformed in size and weight, despite years of faithful swimming.

Discouraged and at my wits end, I dialled the number of a liposuction doctor, fixed an appointment and went to his clinic at downtown Orchard Road. Throughout the entire consultation session, I felt horribly guilty for keeping mum about my insecurity from my husband-to-be and secretly contemplating a liposuction. Good news was, I chickened out and never paid the thousands of dollars to get fats sucked out of my belly.

Well, for all its worth, that encounter turned things around - I had a moment of enlightenment when I decided enough is enough, and resolved to get real, active and focused on shedding off fats through sheer hard work, and not artificially, which I couldn’t afford to pay for anyway.

So I increased the frequency of my swims from thrice weekly to 7 times a week. From swimming 20 laps each session, I increased that to 40 laps, sometimes 50. And I was obdurate about it - I wouldn’t let a day go without swimming.

I swam every single weekday after work - I would knock off at 6pm, get home in an hour, grab my gear and hit the pool at 8pm and swim till 9pm, then head home for dinner - typically a bowl of plain porridge with a meat and vege. On weekends, I’d be the first to hit the pool at 9am, and swim an hour like my life depended on it.

I think my track and field coaches back in junior school saw it in me before I did - that I’m genetically stocked with aerobic endurance in my bones and muscles - when they made me run medium distances instead of sprint distances, which I protested, because sprinters were cool and got more attention than medium distance runners. Speed always does, doesn’t it?

From 40 laps I increased it with time, to 50, and at my peak, I was swimming 60 laps a day - for no rhyme, reason or race in mind - simply because it was a natural progression.

After a couple of months, it was impractical to swim in the evenings anymore - it was getting in the way of my social life - I couldn’t head out for dinner or coffee with my friends after work because I had the pool calling out my name every weekday evening. So I made a timing switch - to swimming first thing in the morning before work.

Because I leave the house for work at 7am, I resolute to wake up at 5am, swim an hour from 5.30-6.30am and make a mad dash to leave home by 7am.

Only one problem: public pools don’t open at 5.30am - most pools do at 9am. I consulted a friend, who offered me the use of his condo pool - although the official opening hours begin at 10am, it was after all, a private condo and residents should be allowed use of the condo facility, even at ungodly hours, so he convinced me.

So started my little adventure (or misadventure, as you’d soon discover). I’d sneak into the condo at 5.30am and swim for an hour. Believe me, it was no fun - I felt like a moron throwing my body into a volume of cold water in pitch black darkness - simply because I was driven by a persistent desire to work out an hour every day.

I successfully went unnoticed for 2 weeks, until one of the security guards patrolling the pool noticed a girl who clearly wasn’t a resident, swimming at 5.30am every weekday morning, unaccompanied, and driving off after the swim. You can imagine my horror when I was asked out of the water, shivering in the cold, and questioned as to why I was swimming at that hour, and given a stern warning not to repeat my act again.

Deprived of a pool to swim in, I lamented my predicament to my husband-to-be. Wise as he is, he suggested: why not run instead? I protested, remembering how running made my legs big and fat, and did nothing to make me lose any weight. I associated running to hard pounding, an ineffective weight loss activity. He persuaded me to give it a try, seeing I had no other alternatives. Try, he said, for a week, and see how it goes.

True to his word, the very next morning, he accompanied me on my first run. We ran 20 minutes, before he started slowing down and walking, and seeing I was still fresh, asked me to carry on running. I did, and outran him for another 20 minutes.

It wasn’t so bad after all.

The next day I nudged him for another run. He gave excuses and had me running on my own, that day, and every day after that.

That was 4 years ago, and I have been running on my own since.

I began running every single day from that fateful day onwards, 7 times a week, averaging 10 km each day. I started losing weight rapidly, shedding 10 kg in 6 months. I dropped to 48 kg, felt on top of the world, and never looked back on running.

4 years ago, I struggled to run 6 km on my first run; 4 years later, I’ve ran 2 full marathons, 2 half marathons, a couple of medium distance races, and in the last 2 years, completed an Olympic distance triathlon, 2 half Ironman triathlon distances and attempted a full Ironman triathlon race.

Running brings me tremendous pleasure because it entirely changed my life for the better - all that I am and exhibit today, is a result of a love affair with a sport that is the rawest form of human athleticism, and when we reach into the core of the human heart and soul to rekindle a connection with that which we are born to do, i.e. to use our bodies wisely, it changes us not just physically; but emotionally, mentally and spiritually. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The pain of training

As much as the indelible memories and pretty pictures of the scenes I witnessed and captured from my bike and run evoke envy, truth is, training is nothing short of hard work.

When I’m out training, I'm battling both myself and the elements.

The pain is real, the pain is now. The end (of each training session) is a distant image, because at the present moment, my lungs are short of air, my muscles are sore, my legs feel heavy like lead, my body is tense from the relentless lashing of the cold wind unleashing its might and fury here in the Bay area. When I’m swimming, the difficulty increases many notches, being the discipline I’m least proficient in - often, I feel like I’m fighting my biggest demons before entering the water and during the swim. It’s such a mental torture, yet I keep at it day after day.  

I may not confess this often enough, but I do now: I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, so I work doubly hard to be a better athlete than I think I’m capable of.  

Training is a tough task master that challenges me in every possible way - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually sometimes (when I let out a great big sigh and whisper under my breath: Lord, please help me through this - I can’t do this by myself).

Yet, through it all, I love training. I love the distance it pushes me to go, the limitations it makes me break and the walls it makes me climb.

For all that we’ve been through, training is like a close buddy I’ve developed a relationship and affection for, and can’t do without.