Blown by the wind I lean in
To each next flailing stride,
Eyes creep up,
Take in the green ‘scape
A rhythmic shudder of coarse
Every sinew clenched,
Fighting for oxygen
With teeth grinding left and right,
Another 100 yards,
– A kilometer even –
Holding on, and holding
Around the corner
Forest breeze surfs through my hair
And then, assured, then –
A gear change,
A release between
Then and now and why and how
Fluid, perfectly fluid,
The strokes as if through water,
Beyond pain and forward,
Turning the latch
An icy shaft blows in.
Outside, a crunch underfoot,
Peering into the silent blizzard
Beneath amber street-lamps,
A scene from a story of make believe form,
I pull my coat tighter,
Blinking into the snowflake tips
That prick my face,
And edge down the street.
A static coat of arms,
Parked cars entombed in snow –
Calm rings out as black clouds shift above.
If I listen hard enough I can hear the calm elsewhere –
The fluorescent entrance lights of the hospital
Hiding the sleepy wards of old and young,
Lost in their dreams of tomorrow,
Silently walking with me
Feeling the life in their fingertips.
The nourishment of movement!
In the eerie quiet of this moment others
To ease out of life.
The brush of pillow on their cheek,
A final revelatory sensation
Of pulse and current,
Minutes become seconds become darkness.
Inhabiting this new paradigm
I feel for my keys,
Their serrated edges temporarily
Escape me back to the confines of
I click the kettle switch and
Read each word of the last holiday postcard,
Holding onto the fridge corner to steady myself.
A very cold IPA is slipping down right now as I wait to board for Melbourne. The crowning of an indulgent adventure in Singapore this weekend with my running compadre, Mr Lars Grombach.
We came to tackle the Craze Ultra 55km night run. Neither of us had necessarily reached pique fitness in the preceding weeks (Lars, in fact, fractured a toe whilst playing football on the beach during my stag weekend 6 weeks back) however both of us were in fine mental fettle, and then increasingly delirious from touching down at Changi airport on Friday lunchtime and checking into our hotel (complete with McDonalds round the corner and 7/11 even closer) all the way up to our 5pm starting time yesterday.
We moved into full prep mode once we got to Singapore. No alcohol Friday night. Lots of carbs and protein. Movie. Sleeping tablets. Lie in. And then an enormous buffet breakfast yesterday morning before plenty of chill time, during which our eyes watered as we watched Eliud Kipchoge smash his sub-two hour marathon attempt.
As soon as Kipchoge was hugging his family and jumping up and down with the Vienna crowds, we were marching off to the start line, vaseline applied, energy gels packed and music playlists at the ready.
Our starting group number was 30 runners in all. A “local” race you could say – a status cemented in full as a young girl, taking our picture on her smart phone, handed out our pre race instructions: “just run straight, unless you see any signposts telling you otherwise”.
Fully confident after such an extensive briefing, we set off through the urban suburbs of Singapore and pitched up at Check Point 1 after 13.5kms running in 1 hour 27 minutes. We were doing good. I switched up my socks (as well as the brand new soles I’d bought that afternoon that predictably were giving me blisters – lunatic) and we headed off with a renewed sense of purpose. The next Check Point we got to would be halfway…
Sadly, the combination of luck along with the race’s local flavor were not on our side. As we departed the Check Point, continuing along the road we’d come up, no one pointed out to us that we were going the wrong way. Caught up in some chat about nothing and the warming realization that we’d passed the 20km mark, we were oblivious to this crucial detail until it was way too late – about 8kms too late to be exact.
Lars’ 4G regrouped us back in the right direction and we eventually caught up with a slow moving group of Singaporeans wearing full head gear and running suits. We’d arrived at the official 15km mark – but we’d manage to run 24kms.
This wasn’t great.
To set out to run 55km in itself requires an element of psyching up. For that km total to increase out of the blue by 8kms was not part of the script.
Hunkering down and fighting our respective demons, we persevered.
Lars, however, was in a pickle. Having not run for 6 weeks, his legs were OK but his heart rate was spiking up to 190 beats per minute. We walked a bit, we jogged on. We walked a bit more.
A few distractions were thrown to us at this stage. Around one corner we stumbled into a fellow runner called Craig, covered in blood. He’d tripped and landed on his face. I assessed he probably needed a stitch on his lip and one of his top front teeth had been snapped in half.
His adrenaline ensured he could keep a sense of humour about the incident. I offered him water, juice, ibuprofen, a tourniquet, but he had all these things, and just wanted Lars to call the organizer to come pick him up.
In an awkward moment of silence whilst this took place, I offered to take a picture of his face for him so he could analyse the extent of his injuries. I’m not sure why, but he thanked me for that, and we patted him on the shoulder and then went on our way.
Thinking this might have calmed Lars’ blood pressure down (being witness to a fallen solider such as Craig) I tried to boost our spirits with some chat. Helpfully, a frog jumped in front of us at that moment, and right into the forward stride of my right leg, meaning he received a boot which flung him a metre in the air.
As ice-breakers go, I thought this was divine. Lars checked his heart rate again – 192 – he was not ready to entertain the perspective of it all. No chipped toothed participant, or slightly winded amphibian was going to district him from the fact that he was in a dark place.
Not before long – at around our 27km mark – we parted company. He’d had enough and I didn’t blame him. Unlike any other race I’ve done, this one was randomly marked out, and took you through sparsely quiet pockets of the city.
I cranked up my playlist and put my head down.
Ironically, the next stretch of 15km was great. Inside parks, alongside rivers. I reached the halfway mark (still 8kms extra on my watch) and did a quick U-turn to get on with the job of reaching the finish line.
Doubling back and covering more familiar pathways was OK. But the psychology of constantly reminding yourself you’ve run more than is required smarted a bit.
My legs were in good shape though and I had one fortunate encounter with a Filipino runner who helped ensure I didn’t deviate off the badly signposted roads. His name was Renate and he’d walked the route last week and taken pictures of himself by distinguishing trees so he wouldn’t get lost. Clever guy. Lucky me.
Midnight came and went. I’d reached 55km. I should have got to the end. Instead, more gels, more water, some salt tablets, some pain killers, some loud guitar chords, and before long I was into single km figures and I knew I’d make it.
These races, these “tests”, these adventures. There are always moments of doubt, moments of pain and moments of comradery and laughter.
As long as I can, my biggest hope is to always put myself in these bizarre, and yet extremely ‘human’ arenas – to compete, to roll the dice, to live a little bit differently for a brief moment in time.
This man sleeps in five-star
high above and
on that man
a pyramid of limes,
waiting for a customer.
This woman feels forever
and ill prepared
to teach the class,
sleeps under a tree
whilst traffic stuck,
shuttling him and her and them
onward to a new
moment of playing at
who they are.
We are all in sales,
to feed the
pulse and curiosity
of where each
investment might take us too next –
a better paid job
a clearer conscience
A young girl stands weeping,
Waiting in line to board the plane.
Behind her a family of four
Shuffle forward their assortment of
Bags and purchases.
Teenagers splayed out on the floor,
Entangled phone chargers and
Tannoy announcements ripple in the distance,
White noise to all.
Outside, convoys of suitcases
Zig-zag across the concrete apron –
The sky painted grey and about to strike.
This motley queue of human cattle
Marking territory, clenching fists.
Talk of putting “a man on Mars” seems over-stretched,
As the minutes tick by and I wonder why
Putting one hundred people
On an airplane appears so much of a test.
We are airborne as my eyes open
And wince through the glare of the clouds,
Broken up and disappearing.
Many thousands of feet below and Monday morning
Crankily tilts on its axis.
The ennui of emails, the promise of lunch.
As tail winds pick up, the urban fringes of Saigon blur,
Our metallic tube arcs over Cambodian borders,
Paddy-fields and water buffalo,
Agrarian pastures – a daily grind of different stock.
Through glimpses of rubber smoke we land,
Suvarnabhumi airport, again.
Ten years of touching down here,
Too familiar a pilgrimage,
My toes twitch as I wait once more.
The young girl has long stopped her tears and stands nearby,
Nodding politely at the customs official –
Breathing in new beginnings,
Or the tingle of something left behind?
Pit-stopping on the way back to Saigon – Starbucks, Kuala Lumpur airport, no less – I’ve the usual frisson of excitement about walking back through our garden at home a few hour’s from now, picking up the girls (Issy is in Germany this week, checking out fashion trade shows) and flopping on the sofa.
After five days in Sri Lanka, to work with our Chrysalisteam there (musings on which from earlier can be found over here) I don’t, in some ways, feel like I was away from ‘home’ much at all this week.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Sri Lanka about ten times since 2009. I’ve written about it quite a lot, and that, no doubt, underscores why it’s one of my favourite places to spend time.
Aside from the professional experiences gained from engaging with our team there, and the organisations and people I’ve met along the way, it’s the day-to-day flow of contact and the momentary interludes that weave through these trips, which I think bind each together in a way that feels so familiar and reaffirming.
Moreover, it’s the simple easiness curated by the people you meet which imbues such a comfortable backdrop.
Dropping down to Galle on a quick pre-wedding whistle stop reconnaissance earlier today, to check on bookings and inhale the ocean breeze, I learnt about the reality of the recent Easter Sunday attacks, in terms of their impact on the tourism industry.
Not unsurprisingly, many tourists canceled their trips in May and June as a result of the bombings, and some hotels had to close completely. July and August are typically low season months too, and so a few hoteliers I met spoke of the “double whammy” of the events happening when they did.
Bookings are picking up again now. And whilst there is heightened security evident, things seem to have settled down. The country just this week was elevated to “middle-income” status by the World Bank, and the high ranking top spot given by The Lonely Planet earlier in the year to Sri Lanka, appears to have been reallocated back to the country, even though most of Sri Lanka remains in a state of deep shock over the events of April 21st.
With such charming scenery, culture and opportunity for the visitor, let’s hope that a positive trajectory of tourist bookings returns.
As my taxi driver, Mahinda, took a short detour this evening, on our way to the airport, to stop and offer me tea and bananas at his house, and the opportunity to meet his wife and daughter who was awaiting her ‘A’ level results, I was touched by the sentiment and the care he took to make me feel welcome.
I found the same hospitality and warmth earlier in the week when invited over to my Air BnB host’s living room, to share dinner with him and his wife.
Listening to Mahinda’s daughter talk about her plans for university, and for finding work somehow with her degree (biology) I couldn’t help hope that, in the future, not only will my daughters have the self-esteem and spark to be excited about a feeling of “doing my best” in the world, as this young woman did, but also that they – and beyond them, that I too – hold close that very core humanitarian embodiment of connection and understanding that I felt, sat with a cup of tea in my hand, listening to and being a small part of, this family’s time together.
The overwhelming feeling of being truly welcomed into their home, for a few precious moments, will stay with me forever.