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Sporting Life

Time to take the open road in your stride

Dear Marathoner,

(And your kin, the half-marathoner and 10k runner)

I write to you as an admirer for whom 42.195km is an expedition roughly 37km too far. In fact my reverence of distance runners, a loping, ornery two-footed herd, is so great that I have downgraded myself from runner to jogger. My pathetic short runs never require a Portaloo, your distance running has led to entire academic surveys titled Gastrointestinal Disturbances In Marathon Runners.

But since we are distant cousins, relatives of the road, I write to you with hope for tomorrow. I hope for a breeze, clouds and no road hoggers. I hope you have the right sports bra and the right shoe with no one else's spit on it. I was going to mention a playlist, but if you're listening to music you are deaf to the commands of other runners. As in, "Slowpoke, out of the way".

Better perhaps to imitate Mok Ying Ren, the 2013 SEA Games marathon winner, who forsakes his training-run headphones on race days for as he says: "You have to watch your competition and not get distracted." Every footstep of focus matters. After all, in Dubai 2015, after 2hr 20min 2sec, Aselefech Mergia of Ethiopia beat Kenya's Gladys Cherono by a single second.

I hope you reflect for 20 grateful seconds on being in the same marathon as celebrated runners like Mok and Ashley Liew, the local winner of the Standard Chartered marathon in 2012: You can't quite race against them but you are ostensibly running with them. In a classist world, no other sport allows for this mixing of the elite and the inept in the same arena. There is nothing more democratic than the open road.

Kathrine Switzer (261) of Syracuse, New York, was spotted early in the 1967 Boston Marathon by race official Jock Semple (behind her in trousers), who tried to rip the number off her shirt and remove her from the race. The then 20-year-old's friends
Kathrine Switzer (261) of Syracuse, New York, was spotted early in the 1967 Boston Marathon by race official Jock Semple (behind her in trousers), who tried to rip the number off her shirt and remove her from the race. The then 20-year-old’s friends intervened, allowing her to make her getaway to be the first woman to "officially" run the Boston Marathon. PHOTO: BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Kathrine Switzer (261) of Syracuse, New York, was spotted early in the 1967 Boston Marathon by race official Jock Semple (behind her in trousers), who tried to rip the number off her shirt and remove her from the race. The then 20-year-old's friends
Kathrine Switzer.

If Greek runners sometimes carried news of battle, you're also in the business of messages for you're pleading with yourself, to push, to move, to not stop.

I hope you have accumulated your practice miles and I know it's been hard, the finding of time, the waking up, the getting through the door, the first kilometre, the complaining joints, but you're not alone. Everyone invents excuses. Even Mok when he has to run his 12km home. "Some days you just want to take the train," he says. But then he laces up his shoes.

I hope you don't cheat, don't borrow a friend's number, don't leave the course and rejoin it conveniently. The clock doesn't care if you fool it, but of what use is a fake time? If you wear a marathon T-shirt without having travelled 42.195km, you have misunderstood the event. It's not a distance but a quest. It's why my friend who completed the pilgrimage, rarely wears his shirt: He ran to prove something to himself, not to wear a shirt to brag to you.

I hope at your worst moments, when pain collects and the lungs threaten to sue, that you think of the Le Marathon du Medoc in France, where wine is the hydrating fuel and oysters are the health food. It sounds like fun except, unlike those runners, you won't add calories and pick up a hangover along the way.

Remember that you're lucky. Remember this is not the Everest marathon, which is a trifle colder and has a few more slopes, since it involves 2,777m of ascent and 4,579m of descent. Remember to struggle. When a 4cm by 3cm blood blister blossomed on the bottom of Liew's foot in Chicago 2014 and the pain was tortuous, he thought of his mother. She died in 2010 of colon cancer and he told himself, "my mum wouldn't have given up", and he ran on.

I hope you know you are the descendants of the ancient Greeks, even if long-distance running for them - as Charlie Lovett wrote in Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History Of The Games' Most Storied Race - "served as a means to communicate not to compete".

If Greek runners sometimes carried news of battle, you're also in the business of messages for you're pleading with yourself, to push, to move, to not stop. Maybe like the cyclist Jens Voight, you'll shout "shut up legs" to your whining limbs. Maybe like Liew you'll find comfort in a bracelet on your wrist, which has the Kenyan flag on one side and the word "Strong" on the other.

I hope, if you're a woman, that you remember the footprints of those who cleared the road for you. Like Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to officially run the Boston marathon after entering as K.V. Switzer. As she said later, "The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women. An arduous activity would mean you're going to get big legs, grow a moustache... your uterus was going to fall out".

When she ran that year, a furious race official grabbed her shoulder mid-race and shouted, "Give me those (bib) numbers and get the hell out of my race!" Her boyfriend intervened and then, as she recounted in her book, Marathon Woman, she told her coach: "No matter what, I have to finish this race. Even if you can't, I have to - even on my hands and knees. If I don't finish, people will say women can't do it." She finished in 4hr 20min and five years later women were officially allowed to enter.

I hope you grin at the phantom pain in your knees, that you smile when you feel a second wind come, that you - as Mok says - "enjoy the company of people, feed off their energy, immerse yourself in the race, occasionally looking at the scenery, occasionally looking at people and their faces, and knowing you are all going through it together".

I hope you will sleep early tonight after rehydrating with pure water untouched by Scottish malts. I hope you wake energised on Sunday and walk through the darkness before dawn with the opening lines of Walt Whitman's Song From the Open Road whistling through your soul:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Best regards

The Jogger

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Time to take the open road in your stride'. Print Edition | Subscribe