A quarter past six — fingers frozen, nose numb, goose pimples galore, and all of us under-dressed.
On the bright side: the darkness had lifted. The sun was making its slow climb out of the Pacific – a big, glowing ball of fire, bathing sky, sea and shore in gold.
This must be how the Gold Coast got its name.
Wow’s the word you want. But I could only think why.
Why I wasn’t snug in bed on a Sunday morning. Why I had become enmeshed in a mass of humanity scampering heedlessly into the semi-darkness. Why I had signed up for the 21km at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon (GCAM) in Queensland.
And people pay good money to do this?
Imagine: You fly thousands of miles in and pay out of pocket for food, lodging, transfers, etc. Come the appointed day, you rise before 5-freaking-am. Put on T and shorts. And shiver down to the starting line.
Then it’s 42km of hard running. Or, if you’re slightly less masochistic, just 21.
Madness? Only if you’re not a runner.
Call ’em loony, tell ’em they’re nuts – just don’t call a runner a jogger. Because then you’re looking at trouble. Like seriously. And if indeed this is a form of madness, it’s catching.
Some 2,523 people flew out of Asia Pacific for the GCAM 2016 on July 2 and 3. Malaysians numbered 258 (91 more than in 2015). Singapore had 430 runners, China-Hong Kong-Taiwan 1,181 and Japan 654.
Last year, the event injected A$22mil (RM63.88mil) into the local economy; this year, likely more. Come for the run, stay for the fun, say the tourism people. And many do.
Sales engineer Jack Siew, 27, and software engineer Joey Kuan, 24, two Malaysians based in Singapore, were already thinking about visiting Australia when they heard about the marathon.
“So we thought why not?” said Siew, who took up running while still in Seremban.
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“I was a little fat at the time and wanted to ‘downsize’,” he laughed, adding that he had pushed Kuan into running too.
“I just run for fun,” she said. “To me, it’s not torture. It’s self-focus. When I’m running, I’m motivating myself. Mentally, you need to be ready.”
The couple, who signed up for the half marathon, was among those who extended their stay.
Accounts manager Geannie Tan, who in 2005 ran a marathon in Stockholm, said she liked to sneak in a running event into her travels.
“I like to kill two birds with one stone,” said the 51-year-old, who ran the 10k on Saturday, and the 21k on Sunday.
Her sister Lai Tee, 42, was on her maiden marathon abroad.
“It’s nice. The weather was nice, the course was flat, and there was a lot of cheering from the crowd,” said the homemaker, who completed her 42km run in 5hr 43min.
It’s true. The vocal crowd is one of the nicest things about running here.
“You’d think we were crazy to get up so early to run, but these people are nuts,” chuckled one runner to another, as we huffed and puffed past people who had turned up in thick clothing to clap and shout.
Civil servant Jaya Prakash (JP), 35, who came with his father Sunderasehran, 60, described the atmosphere as awesome.
“The zest of the crowd makes you want to keep running,” said JP, who did the half.
“Whole families came out and lent support to us runners,” his father added. “It was a source of inspiration – very festive, very welcoming, very memorable.”
Not all who turned up to cheer cheered for all, though. The Japanese brought in their own cheerleaders, whose encouragements were aimed squarely at their own countrymen. But you can’t always tell who’s who.
As I neared one, she went: GAMBATE!…ku-da-sai?
I had set myself a target of 1hr 55mins. Everyone was talking PBs – that’d be “personal best”, failing which, as an Indonesian reporter quipped, it’s just: “Photo banyak (lots of pictures)”.
Conditions were favourable, after all – cool weather, flat course. But running in the cold proved to be odd. You don’t tire so easily, but you can’t tell if you’re pushing too hard. You don’t sweat much, so you don’t know if you’re dehydrated.
My wholly tropical sensors went haywire. I was flying blind. Only one thing to do then: Keep up with the Joneses.
But they were so many and so quick.
The runners came in all shapes and sizes, defying the stereotype. Some were overweight with love handles, some muscle-bound, others were hulking and still others squat. But they were all fast.
In wave after wave, they hotfooted it, leaving me to gasp in their wake. It was chastening.
At the 7k, or maybe 9k, mark – it’s hard to say, details get lost in the judder and jolt of running – a cheer went up. The front-runners had U-turned and were speeding back.
Up ahead: the 10k marker and a digital timer. It said: 51 minutes plus. Yes!
But people were still surging ahead in droves. Thankfully, by 13k, the overtaking had largely ceased. It was starting to become a struggle, though. At 16k, my left calf started to twitch, telegraphing cramps. The wind went out of my sails. A chorus of misgivings rose up inside.
At 18k, I ran out of gas. The battery died. And the tyres went flat.
In a fog of pain and misery, I struggled on – sustained only by fumes now. The pleading started then: Let’s stop. Walk the next 1km. Please? No? 500m? Oh, come on! But if I stopped now, PB within grasp, I’d hear no end of it from the Inner Nag. So left-right, left-right, the legs kept pumping.
All quiet on the eastern front. But inside, storm clouds swirled. Winds howled. And it began to rain profanities. A big steaming bowl of ramen floated by in my mind’s eye, chased by doughnuts with cherry filling. And cold creamy coffee in a bottle.
I want my mummy.
No runner’s high for you; only the Zombie Mode – a slow, mindless, forward-lurching gait. I hate running. Loathe it. Despise it. Detest it. I hate you!
Veins of acid, arteries of vinegar, I was a bird without wings, fish without fins. I was a tracksuit on a hanger perched precariously on a string. Anytime now, I could collapse into a crumple of nothingness.
Time stood still. I was running in place. I run, therefore I’m dumb.
A lifetime and a few minutes later, the finish line finally heaved into view. Sweet mother of cheeses, thank the lard, and goat bless ya, too. There came a flurry of renewed effort – not me, but the other runners, all scrambling for a strong finish.
It was hateful, just hateful.
I limped across the line in 1hr 52mins. What sweet relief!
The clouds lifted then. The sun beamed. The birds chirped (methinks). And everywhere you looked, happy shiny people. All things considered: a brilliant experience, wouldn’t you say?
Let’s do this again, mate.