Today is the big day, a culmination of 12 weeks of on and off training. This is going to be the first marathon that I will run with 80% of training plan followed. 20% is missing through illness in Week 8 and Week 9.

The flag off is at 3:00 AM. The plan is to sleep in early and squeeze at least 4 hours of sleep before waking up at 1:00 AM. That means I have to be in bed by 9 PM. I know it is a tall ask. Waking up 2 hours before the race is essential so that I can take few carbs for energy. After hitting the snooze button a couple of times, I end up waking up close to 2 AM.

I arrive at the starting line some 30 minutes before the flag off time. Although I already spend good minutes in the toilet before heading out, I know that I have to take another toilet break to avoid unnecessary pit stops during the race. The clock is ticking fast but I manage to squeeze 10 minutes of warm up.

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The announcer announces that there are about 500 people who are running the full marathon. But from my observation, the announcer’s number is way off. Maybe 200 at most. Maybe there are people who are still rushing to the starting line. That’s fine with me though. The less is better. It requires a little to no effort to tiptoe to the front of the line. I find myself standing next to a bunch of Kenyans. That’s it. Top 10 or so are already sealed. There is no surprise to see them as the organiser offers RM1600 plus voucher to the winner of full marathon. The organiser is generous enough though to split international and local marathons. I am standing next to Will and we notice that we are missing a lot of familiar faces. The probability for us to finish in a podium position suddenly rises up. My level of excitement rises up thinking of the probability but I am still sticking to my race plan.

Coming to the race, I have laid out 3 goals. The A-goal is to run 3:15, first step in achieving the ultimate goal before I turn 30. But since I am down with an illness for about a week or so, I realise that B-goal is more attainable, which is to run 3:20. Doubts still linger though, so I set another goal, C-goal, which is to break 3:30. Moments before the gun, I am still contemplating which goal I am gunning for.

Starting at the front is an unfamiliar territory to me. As predicted, the Kenyans lead the race followed by a bunch of locals. I do not want to get swallowed by the relentless pace so I hold back and watch from behind. Due to adrenaline rush, the pace feels like jogging pace when in fact I am at least 15 s/km faster than my goal pace. I know that some running in front will soon realise that they are biting off more than they can chew. True enough. Less than 2 kilometres in, many wheels fall off the wagon before me. The Kenyans are now out of sight though. There are two locals runners in front as far as I can see, one starting to leave the other one behind. I have no idea how many runners in front of the two locals. Definitely, the Kenyans and maybe one or two more locals.

It is tempting to push the pace to close down the runner in front of me. But I tell myself to be patient. I am still running about 5 s/km faster than goal pace. Despite running 5s/km faster, I am actually holding the pace consistently. The guy in front of me seems to be tiring out and slowing down and after 8 kilometres, I run past him. He sticks behind me for a good hundred metres before disappearing behind. The other guy is distancing himself at the front though.

By now, the struggle and attention shift to holding my bladder and tummy. The botched attempt before the race means that I am battling the urge to pee and poo from the gun. After passing few water stations and not seeing any portable loo at all, I stop next to a tree and relieve my bladder. Those who have experienced peeing in the midst of working out know that this is no easy feat. I stop for at least 30 seconds relieving myself. I glanced behind before continuing and fortunately I have widen a sufficient gap to not get passed. I can’t see the guy in front of me though. He has vanished.

One disaster averted, one still remains. I am still on my quest to find a portable loo to do the ‘number 2′. After 13 kilometres, I resign to the fact that there won’t be one. We run past few petrol stations and I guess the organiser expects us to do a slight detour to the petrol stations to relieve ourselves. They are not new to organising running events. They have organised Kuantan Half Marathon for the past couple of years and by now they should have matured and understood runners’ needs. I am left with a decision to make. To make a quick pit stop or try to hold it in hope that the urge will disappear? I have lost 30 precious seconds and stopping for another time which may take at least 2 minutes is not an option.

As the marathon progresses, the route becomes darker even though we are running along a major road in Kuantan. Worse, the marshalling is poor and no safety cones separate the outer lane that we are running from other lanes. It is early morning but the road is busy. Buses and lorries speed past us which comprises our safety. What more irritating is the over-enthusiastic motorists. Honkings, shoutings, yellings as they drive past us at high speed. Some tailgate us closely and pass us then make abrupt turns without indicators. I have to shout on a couple occasions to vent my annoyance and anger.

It is flat all the way from the start till this point. We are presented with the first inclination just before KM16 mark where we have to run up a ramp, across a flyover heading towards the airport. The illumination from the street lamps is a little better nearing the airport. I am closing on the front runner gradually but he is about 200m ahead. From afar, I can see that he is in a slight discomfort, occasionally holding his sides. Past the airport, the road becomes dark again but I can still catch a glimmer of the guy in front of me. We run past workshop area and my worst fear quickly comes to life. As I run past a workshop, a dog chases after me. I have to break stride and deal with it quickly. I run past few other dogs but fortunately they are all in their best manners. Barking from afar is fine with me.

The first 15 kilometres are flat, but the rest is not. Next 10 kilometres are undulating but straight. Despite losing 30 seconds from the earlier pit stop, I cross the halfway mark 1:16 earlier than planned at 1:38:44, averaging 4:41 min/km. The plan is to run the first 32 kilometres at 4:45 min/km pace and push it down to 4:40 min/km till the finish line. Of course it is easier said than done. I am absorbed by the initial pace set by others and do not hold back. One thing I am doing right though is that I run at a consistent pace, bar the first kilometre and the kilometre that I have to stop to pee, my pace ranges from 4:33-4:48 min/km with most kilometres hover around 4:38-4:42 min/km. That’s a pretty consistent pacing!

The consistent but quick pace soon proves telling. I am starting to struggle and the pace goes down to almost 5:00 min/km. Despite slowing down significantly, I am gaining on the front guy and soon catching up with him. The guy looks familiar. I know this guy but I am not sure where from. I glance at his wrist and immediately recall who he is. It’s Osman (I call him Aiman though. Sorry Man). I bump into him few times at MSN Setiawangsa track. He does not run with GPS watch. He runs with G-Shock! It’s great to run alongside with each other when we have been running by ourselves for the last 20 kilometres. I am complaining of boredom running alone but when I am reunited with others, I am slowing down, a lot. We are both struggling, clearly.

After running some time alongside each other, something funny happens. We have been quiet since our reunion and suddenly he breaks the early morning silence.

“It’s already 28 kilometres, right?”, when in fact we just cross 23 kilometres mark.

I am not sure how he does it, but I can’t run without a GPS in hand. I need GPS to tell me the distance, the time, the pace, and most importantly to upload it on Strava. Does it really happen if it is not on Strava? No GPS, no running. That’s my philosophy.

The course takes a right turn after a long straight and suddenly we are joined by a marshall on a motorcycle. The marshall rides alongside us for a good few kilometres. The lack of sight of others in front of us, and the close marshalling, make me wonder, “Are we the leading Malaysians?”. I wish! But it is not improbable.

We take another right and Osman surges past me just before the water station at KM 26. He takes his own sweet time to replenish and I don’t see him again until after the conclusion of the marathon. I am not running alone though as the marshall continues to ride alongside me for few more kilometres before leaving just before KM 30.

This is the best marathon to date since I have not stopped yet. My previous best was during SCKLM where I stopped at KM 28. I run past a water station, ask the marshall of my current position. But I get mixed answers. Soon, a car slows down and the girl driver asks me whether I am leading the race. Definitely not! At least 4 or 5 Kenyans in front me. I glance back and do not see anybody behind.

Few moments later, I stop and walk. It is not ‘The Wall’. I am tired but my legs and body are fine. No cramps either. Timing to take gels at 40 minutes interval works. I set an alarm every 40 minutes on my brother’s Garmin FR235 and the vibration function really helps. It is something that my Suunto Ambit2 does not have. My Suunto Ambit2 does not vibrate! Thanks to Jubaque too for the Hammer gels. I may have found gels that work on me. Apart from that, I carry 3 Saltstick capsules that I take every 1 hour or so.

It is not ‘The Wall’. It is a mental block, a barrier that I still fail to penetrate after 5 marathons. I actually have been contemplating to stop and walk for the past 5 kilometres I think. The only thing that keeps me going albeit slowing down is that I want to get past 28 kilometres mark before stopping. I want to get better than SCKLM. After that, it is all downhill.

I ask a lot of question to myself. Is a marathon too much for myself? Am I better in half-marathon than full marathon? One of reasons of the mental barrier is boredom. I love running. But sometimes (more like most of the time), I get bored after running more than 2.5 hours. I love running, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps, I don’t love running as much as I think I do. I believe I am better suited running half marathons. But half marathons do not get me to the Olympics, they do not get me to Boston.

I fall deep into a dark abyss and I don’t find any shining way out. Despite the walk-run routine, I still don’t see anybody behind. Eventually, I get a company at KM 34. Initially, I think it’s Osman but it is not. A guy with a bright orange cap passes me. It is unmistakably Will. He is running his second marathon out of five which he plans to run in 5 consecutive weekends. So much hoping to run the marathon in 4 hours! I follow him for few hundred metres before walking again. He tells me not to walk too long before parting. I know the drill, but it is easier said than done. I am done! I try to convince myself that I am still in the running to win cash prizes, I try to think of my family, I remind myself of a promise that I make to my wife. But they don’t work. There Will goes with my RM500 cash! Haha.

The lack of number of good runners becomes evident when there is nobody else passes me although I am in a deep rut. I am caught walking by another marshall about a mile before the finish line. He tells me that there is a runner catching up fast about 200 metres behind. I start to run again while constantly ask the marshall about the gap between myself and the runner behind. With few hundred metres left, I am informed that the gap remains at 200 metres. But to my perplexion, out of nowhere, the guy who is supposed to be 200 metres farther back is running alongside me with 100 metres to go. Fortunately, I have something (I always know a lot is still there) left in the tank and speed up and manoeuvre around the crowd (who are making their way to the start line for their 10k/5k start?) and cross the finish line in fourth local (Poor organising. No information about the placing. I only get to know that I finish fourth during the prize giving ceremony itself which occurs more than 3 hours after I cross the line).

I am grateful for the marshall who accompanies me in the last mile. Without him, I would have continued to run-walk and consequently lose my placing not only to the fifth place guy, maybe to few others. I meet my wife and daughter who have just arrived, at the finish line. My wife tells me that she is cheering for me during the last stretch of the race but I don’t hear it because I am full of adrenaline trying to cross the line before the guy behind.

I cross the line at 3:24:59 (official). No PB though as it’s only 40.85 kilometres, not a marathon. This is a fact that I suspect beforehand as I have plotted it on Strava. The plan is to continue running after crossing the finish line to make up the marathon distance so that I have ‘Best Estimated Marathon Time’ on Strava. Like I said, it does not happen if it is not on Strava. I am exhausted and scrap the plan as soon as I cross the finish line. But I can’t deny the fact that I am actually relieved to see the finish line early. Otherwise, I would have caught by few others.

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It is not the race that I had envisioned. I don’t even attain my C-Goal which is to run a sub 3:30 marathon. I would have crossed the finish line at 3:31:42 if the distance is extrapolated to the full marathon distance. It’s definitely a setback to my long-term goal which is due in 8 months. I am not beating myself up though when my wife tells me that she is proud of me. Isn’t that what really matters? But she’ll definitely be prouder of me if I can attain my long-term goal within stipulated timeline that I set myself, that I know. Back to drawing board!

Strava: Pahang Marathon

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