Why I choose to keep running

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

In a world of instant gratification, a run demands effort, but is well worth the pain

Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets today, pounding the pavements in the heart of the city at the crack of dawn.

They will bring parts of Orchard Road, Shenton Way, Sentosa, the Marina Bay and the Ayer Rajah Expressway to a virtual standstill, washed over by a sea of blue and green.

Yes, it is time once again for that annual festival of perspiration and perseverance, otherwise known as the Standard Chartered Marathon (SCM), typically held on the first Sunday of December.

Somewhere in the crowd, I will be attempting to keep up. It will take me a good few hours to - hopefully - complete my run, being neither the fastest nor the fittest. Indeed, in the time it will take me to complete my 21km run, some would have finished the full 42km marathon!

Yet, that is beside the point.

But what exactly, you might ask, is the point of it all?

Why are so many game for all this pre-dawn panting and pounding when they might otherwise enjoy a lazy Sunday?

Indeed, why are so many Singaporeans rushing to take part in the more than 60 competitive runs held here each year, including one organised by this newspaper in September, which drew over 20,000 participants?

Not content to just run recreationally, we in hyper-competitive Singapore seem to have to make a race of it, chasing medals and accolades in leisure as seriously as we do in the office rat race.

Some runners would no doubt cite the health benefits of getting fit, shedding kilos, lowering body fat or cholesterol levels.

Many choose to run in support of worthy causes. This year, for example, a group of polytechnic lecturers have signed up to raise funds for the local charity Mainly I Love Kids (Milk), while the eight-year- old actor best known as Dr Jiajia is taking part with his siblings in the 750m kids dash to benefit dyslexic children.

"Jiajia will be running to support needy dyslexic kids who are unable to pay for the therapy fees. Please support Jiajia! Kee Chiew!", his post on the SCM website read, referring to the dialect phrase for "raise your hands".

Run for a Reason, goes the SCM tagline, and who could argue with that?

Yet, while this is all well and good, the ultimate reason to run, it seems to me, is simply the joy of the run itself.

Don't just take it from me. Hear how Katherine Dreyer, who keeps a popular blog on running, puts it:"Running can be one of the great joys of life. When you are out running, it is just you and the road and your body moving through space - it does not matter the speed. It is incredibly invigorating to be outside, to breathe in the air and see the beautiful sights.

"Running is one of the best ways to take positive time for yourself, enjoy the company of a friend, or relish the time alone. There really is nothing like the feeling after a run. Your body is alive and cleaned out and refreshed. Your mind is quiet and focused. If you run first thing in the morning, you have that wonderful feeling of having accomplished something important at the start of your day."

Like her, I enjoy early morning runs, long before the crowds stir. I run alone, in silence; no phone, no music blasting in my ears, except for the sounds of the world around. The scenic Punggol Park Connector is my route of choice, being less than a kilometre from where I live. It snakes along a river of sorts through Sengkang, then by the coast leading to Punggol Point, before turning towards Tampines. If I set off early enough, I get to savour the sunrise.

The sun on your face, sweat dripping down your brow, fresh air in your lungs and endorphins coursing through your veins, plus a cold can of 100Plus at the end - it's enough to make the pain and strain along the way well worth the effort.

Cut off from worldly cares for awhile, the run also provides mental relief. Many a time I have set off with some lingering thought or worry at the back of my mind, only to discover a solution, an idea or inspiration, or just much greater clarity about what it might all signify, by the time I was done.

Of course, running is not the proverbial walk in the park. It makes demands of you, in time, effort, discipline and perseverance. To prepare well for a race calls for weeks of early rising, enduring soreness and pain, and the sheer will not to give in, but to keep striving forward towards the goals you have set for yourself. The challenge is yours; you are the challenge. In an ironic sort of way, I rather enjoy the process of preparing for a race as much as the event itself.

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who is an avid runner, put it well in his 2008 book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.

"At least that's why I've put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I'm no great runner, by any means. I'm at an ordinary - or perhaps more like mediocre - level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be."

Perhaps that is why so many Singaporeans seem so keen on running - we love a challenge.

As my colleague Rohit Brijnath summed up in an essay in the recently published book, 50 Things To Love About Singapore: "It is too convenient to sweepingly claim that a sport fits a city, yet running has elements that suit so many of this city's inhabitants. Running's journeys, for instance, are internal, its quests are quiet yet profound and no rival need be humiliated, for the only opponent is the self."

In a world focused on instant gratification, at a time of ever- shortening attention spans, when sitting down to read a good book or listen to a symphony, or just taking time for conversation, might strike some as a perverse waste of time, it seems to me that the sustained focus and effort required in an activity like a long run is well worth encouraging.

But, in running, as in so much else in life, the hardest part is the beginning.

There are always good reasons not to do so. Is it going to rain or will the haze be back? Will I get injured or pull a muscle? Should I not get some much-needed rest and lie in for just a little longer? How can I fit in a run when there is so much else to do?

When those dastardly voices sound, I reach for the wise words of American author and runner John Bingham, who wrote No Need For Speed: A Beginner's Guide To The Joy Of Running: "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."

warren@sph.com.sg

Follow Warren Fernandez on Twitter @theSTeditor