19th Asian Masters Track championships (2016)

Now that the dust has settled and time freed up, I’m writing an account of my experiences in the 19th Asian Masters Athletic championships held earlier this year, and the events leading up to it. Masters Athletics is the opposite of Olympics excitement– no glory and lots of old bodies, but still lots of guts!

Preamble: It began, as all good stories do, with a hot sweaty midnight encounter with an anonymous stranger whose face I didn’t even see; Things escalated and then got quite serious. There were late nights away from the family, friends began to ask questions, doubting my judgement and life choices. There was also self-doubt as I wondered if I was making the right choice, and whether the end goal was worth the pursuit. But in the end, faith and persistence worked out, helped by a strong dose of teamwork and friendship.

I’m talking of course about Masters athletics, also known as a mid-life crisis escape for old men and women =0 It is like a secret club. The members are easy to spot if you know what to look for. They are the ones out running, jumping, hurdling, throwing with their racing spikes on. They have a stop-watch in hand, and an intense look on their face. With a quiet nod of acknowledgement, or quiet conversations, we would encourage each other. Especially the ones who trained at the track near my house, I would subsequently find out their names – Belinda, Angsar, Thomas, Foong Wee, as well as meet up with old friends, such as Jason, and make new ones, such as Steven, Eddie, coach, KT, and many others.

Chapter 1 (Training): It was sometime in early August 2015, not long after I had just returned to Singapore. One night after work around 1am, I headed over to the track near my house to do my usual work-out. Surprisingly, on the completely dark track, I met someone else who was also doing intervals. This wasn’t an amateur plodding along slowly, but someone quite serious – 10 x 400m intervals, so I followed him. After we were done, he asked me what I was training for – I told him I was just keeping fit. As for him, he was preparing for the Singapore Masters track championship – a track race for those over 35, and suggested I try it out. I didn’t even know what he looked like, given how dark the track was, but his words nagged at me over the next few days, and like an insidious cancer, I finally gave in and went to Queensway to buy a new pair of spikes. Talk about mid-life crisis, reliving past glories. The last time I did this was more than 20 years ago.

With a goal in place, there followed days of waking up at 6am to run before sun-rise or pounding the pitch-black track at midnight, with a headlamp, the finish line lit by the lonely light of my phone. There were sessions of interval trainings with a face-mask on during the haze in the punishing noon-day heat, lungs heaving. There were sessions of painful intervals in the pouring rain. After the workouts, completely exhausted and then pushing the body back to work.

The objective was to run the 800m for the Singapore Masters in Oct 2015 – but I pushed too hard one day and pulled my hamstring and had to scrap my participation in the Singapore Masters. It was a frustrating time. As with all injuries, a lot of it was about confidence, and my physio gave me the confidence that things would be OK.

Chapter 2 (Racing): After 4 weeks of not running, it was Foong Wee, the same trouble-maker, who told me about this inter-club race. I had just started slowly running again after a 4 week lay-off and this was just 7 days out from my first run back. It was a Sunday, but I had an event to attend so I turned up at the race-site, stripped off my coat and tie and reported to the marshalling station. What with pinning on the race-numbers and other admin, I only had time to change and stride for a minute before it was time to report to the start-line. There was significant worry about whether my hamstring would hold up. This was CLEARLY a bad idea. It was a crowded field, full of young faces. If I were 18, I would relish the challenge. Here, I just felt like an old imposter. I turned to the kid to my left – he was 18, the one to my right – he was 19. Their combined age was still less than mine! They were polite, addressing me as “Sir”. If this were in the context of the Army, I wouldn’t mind, but there was the same sense of politeness one would have helping an old grandmother across the road.

It had been so long since I last ran, that I had to ask instructions when I could cut in, and was scolded by the inimitable umpire, Miss Jaya – “If you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t be here” Talk about humbling. The last time I was subject to such a withering put-down was in basic military training (BMT). Meanwhile, I was telling myself – the first priority is to come back with body intact, then come back with dignity intact!

As I stood there, eyeing the 15 other runners, the pre-race excitement began took hold. The point of all the training and pain was to buy one the right to stand at the start-line, with something at stake, to test the body and mind against itself. That sense of feeling incredibly alive – priceless!

With a bang, the race took off. I didn’t have a clear strategy in mind, with no idea how my body would respond. I just tried to stay with the front pack. At the 200m mark, then the 400m mark, I wasn’t too far off the pace. However, at the 600m mark, my woeful lack of training made itself felt. I felt my breathing go ragged, and was just pumping the arms to stay moving. The final 200m were agonizing, and felt like everything was seizing up and out of sync. Eventually I finished in a time of 2:11 (a Masters season best) and beat more than half the field, dignity and body intact.

As a coda to that – the next day, my whole body seized up, starting from the back. This was clearly a case of executive over-ride, as the mind had told the body to ignore the pain and the circuit breakers. They weren’t injuries per se, but just a case of over-exertion. It took three weeks before I could hit the track again.

As far as I was concerned, that was it – this was an enjoyable diversion and I had run a respectable time. However, on my way out I met Jason, my RSM in battalion who was the Masters Athletics captain. He threw out the idea that I consider running the Asian Masters Athletics Championships. It would be in 7 months’ time in Singapore held at the new national stadium. This was a bi-annual event, with the last edition in Japan in 2014.

I recalled the last time I was at the Kallang national stadium in 199X, it was the old open air stadium. We were competing in the final race of the Inter-school Athletic championships. On paper it would be a close fight – ACJC had 3 gold medalists on their team, while my team-mates were national athletes and future national record holders. I was clearly the weak link. Thinking back to those days brought back powerful memories, and a desire to close the circle.

Aah, the power of conversations – Foong Wee and Jason – these two guys were real trouble-makers!

It was one thing to run a week-end race, but to compete at the AMAC, the time to beat based on previous editions would be a low 2 minutes. So a plan took shape in my head – if I wanted to be really competitive, I would have to turn back the clock 20 years and be faster than I had ever been in my life. Do-able? Not sure, but I would give it a serious shot. It was time to get serious.

Chapter 3 (The grind): I began to get more systematic about the training and joined the fraternity. During a race, I had met another athlete, who looked very unapproachable, but became one of my closest friends – Eddie. Training with the others at Bishan made it much more pleasant and productive. There followed further days and nights of training in the sun, and rain, through fatigue and injury. I recall my New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec 31 was a long solo run in the pouring rain at MacRitchie at night. For each training session, squeezing out time to do the prescribed stretching and exercise was a real commitment and exercise in discipline. After that, trying to get back to work was agonizing and painful. I remember nights after training where I finished running at 11pm, ate dinner, and just lay there, unable to sleep, with a night’s work ahead but completely exhausted.

5 months goes by very quickly. I tried to be as scientific as possible, with vitamins, recovery supplements, but the challenge was always going to be stay injury free. I even bought a baby wading pool to dip ice in for recovery, as I did not have a bath tub. There were further subsequent prep races, where I at least learnt not to get scolded by Miss Jaya.

In series 1 (~Dec 2015), the only race that I turned up on time, I ran a disappointing 2:12. I felt great, but obviously hadn’t pushed myself as hard as I could have.

In series 2 (~Jan 2016), I was late again, coming from an important work meeting on a Sunday, clad in coat and tie, but with a new Masters Season best at 2:08. I was getting closer to the striking zone!

In series 3 (~Mar 2016), I did a 2:05.1, and an hour later, did a 54.0 for the 400m in the scorching noon-day heat. Given that hand-timing is usually ~0.5s faster, this meant that I was faster than when I was 18!

I then went to Taiwan for a Masters race (~Mar 2016). I knew that if it weren’t a close race, I might have to lead and pull all the way, which was different than the SAA series races, where I was competing against younger, faster runners. This was fantastic fun, and I came away with the 800m and 4×400 gold. In the cold wet environment, we managed to have a great event.

Meanwhile, work was continuing at its crushing pace. With many sleepless nights, my energy levels were low and balance wasn’t possible. Eventually I was clocking my 600m ~1:31, so was really looking forward to bringing PB even lower, and targeting 2:00 for the 800m.

Chapter 4 (The Race): A few days before the race, I finally had a chance to step inside the national stadium to look at the track. With the big dome overhead, and the empty seats, in a few days, this would be the venue where hopes and dreams would be realized (or not)!

As I entered the three days of taper before the race, I was in fine fettle, and my legs were felt strong. However, as I stood up from the chair to take a phone call, I suddenly felt a massive seizure of my lower back. I knew it was a recurrence of my slipped disc, and it was not a simple case. That day I was bed-ridden, and could only lie down with a hot-water bottle the whole day. The following two days, I couldn’t even walk properly, and could only frantically visit my physio (Mark and Jo), hoping for miracles from them! Jo was encouraging, but I knew that the odds were slim.

On race day morning (May 8), I woke up at 4am to take some pain-killers, worked for a bit (if you can’t run, you can still make slides) and then turned up at the race-site. I couldn’t even bend over to tie my shoe-laces. This was psychologically crushing, however, one can only keep on going. There was no need to quit prematurely – life is a series of “real options” (as the corporate finance types will tell you), there are more than enough people to tell you that you should quit without you telling yourself to quit.

That morning, standing in the call-room in the new National Stadium, it was an orgy of activity. I didn’t really try to warm-up, as I didn’t know if my body could take it (Thankfully, I had good experience racing with minimal warm-up). The race field was quite small, but was supposed to have some very fast runners, but you can only ignore these things. As I stepped out onto the track, in the vast edifice that was the new national stadium, the scene wasn’t how I had envisaged it. I had been dreaming about stepping into the new national stadium for months, but not with this cloud of uncertainty over my head, but quickly, the race mindset took over. Nobody cared, nor should they, about my injury. In life, everybody takes different paths to get to the start line, it was how you performed that day and finished that day that really mattered. My race strategy was to go hard in the first 50m to take the lead, and see how the body responded. If it hurt, I would simply scratch. No pride at stake.

And just like that, the gun rang out and the race started. The first 50m went well, and my body was holding up. I was alone in the lead, and as I expected, I would have to run alone for the rest of the race, with no looking back or behind me. With the adrenaline, I went out very fast in the first lap, ~58s, quite a bit faster than what I had planned. The second lap was smooth, but in the last 50m, I started to really feel the lactic acid, probably a result of not warming up thoroughly. In the end, it wasn’t a PB, but enough effort for a gold medal. Not bad, being the fastest old man in Asia over two laps. What made it extra heartening was to see my dad there at the track-side, taking photos and supporting me.

After the race, I had a conference call, took part in the Opening Ceremony officiated by Min Tan Chuan Jin, then rushed back to work, changed to my suit (without showering), attended a client proposal (where I was a token participant without speaking a word), ate half a salad and had another conference call en-route back to the office. After the proposal, I rushed back to run in the 400m heats. I qualified, but decided to give up the 400m and 1500m to save myself for the 4x400m, and spare my body further damage.

On Sunday, our fastest runner for the 400m (the silver medalist) pulled out at the last minute because of injury, so I had to run the anchor leg, which was really stressful, as we weren’t sure if we would make it to onto the podium. The Sri Lanka team had the 400m gold medalist and a strong team, so they would likely have a lock on first place. Stepping up to the start line, a team-mate mentioned that our sunglasses weren’t for show, but to hide the uncertainty in our eyes. Life is about expectations – If you had told me a week before the 800m that I would run a 2:06, I would be highly disappointed, but if you told me an hour before the race that I would run a 2:06, I would have been ecstatic. Similarly for the 4x400m – on Friday, our silver medalist was a surprise find, and we were excited that we could challenge for the gold. On Saturday when he pulled out, we were downcast over our medal chances. On Sunday, seeing how the race developed, we were ecstatic, as the silver medal was the best we could hope for, with an amazing crew of Eddie, Tino and Steven.

That night at the closing dinner, I walked around and thanked all the officials and volunteers that had made the race possible. The one I most wanted to thank was Miss Jaya, who had been the one scolding me, but had made the race series possible where we got to improve.

 

In retrospect

1) Someone asked me what the toughest event I’ve done is. Which is tougher?

I’ve been on expedition races covering 800km, and mountaineering trips that took two months up 8000m mountains, but the commitment required to navigate 800m in 2 minutes required greater effort. This was a measured course, there was no threat to life, unlike being on big mountains like Everest or K2. Yet, when it is man vs. man, or man vs. self, there is no such thing as “good enough”. And so the smell of competition is an incredible driver for training.

2) But given the challenge, why do we even bother?

Were we trying to recapture lost youth? Trying to feel alive? Turning back entropy (the laws of physics suggest it’s not possible, but we can try anyway)? My answer is simple – witnessing the 70 or 80 year old athletes competing, giving their all was truly inspirational. You want to know what it means to feel alive? When you’re standing there, when there is something at stake and you know that the outcome matters. The stakes are tiny, and personal, these aren’t the Olympics. But feeling the rush as you line up and wait for the starter’s pistol, that is worth the price of admission and training.

3) The power of inspiration and friends. This was a long journey, sparked by the power of two conversations. As we walk through life – hopefully we can find the time to inspire others along the way.

A month before the race, I received a short SMS “Did you hear – YLW passed away”. I was in shock. LW was my running mentor in secondary school. He was a rather strange sort, but I guess we were all misfits in our own way, which is why we got along so well. He ran the 400m and 800m, the same distances I would subsequently take up. I remember my first MacRitchie training session with him, which was long and slow and painful, yet he continued to follow my progress closely. That first year, when I ran with him, we came in 5th in the inter-school X-Country, the following year, we came in 2nd, narrowly missing out on the Inter–school title. He had an accident not long after, and injured his ankle and had to stop running.

I was looking to share the story with him – but I guess too late. He passed away from a very rare form of cancer. I spoke to his girlfriend and talked about the old days. Along the way, Coach also fell ill, but even with his treatment, he was always on hand to give us pointers, time us and provide feedback. And so I say, for the Masters athletes – the golden boys and girls, when you lace up the spikes, when you feel the burn, when there are pre-race palpitations, when you see your waist-line slim down, you know that you’re alive. There may be no medals, and our times may get slower, but while we are alive, we should never, ever stop running and pushing ourselves to the absolute limit.

The 4×400 silver medal and 800m gold medal at the 19th AMA, dedicated to YWL – for the speed you gave me. And to all the Singapore Master’s Athletes – Coach, Jason, Wee Wong, Eddie, Tino, Steven, KT, Angsar, Belinda and the rest of the team.

Keep running!

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