Saturday, April 11, 2009

Suburban Run, My First Singapore Run

It was actually my first time to join any running event. Inspired perhaps by the memories of the recent Olympics, motivated by friends back at home who've taken up the sport, fueled by the long time desire to get as far away from the Alcatraz of an asthmatic childhood, pressured by the bet taken with colleagues to best the half marathon in our group at the Standard Chartered by the end of this year, compelled by the overall goal of a leaner and stronger body, and finally helped by a tinge of vanity, I forced myself to run the track at least once a week for two months in preparation for the event dubbed as Suburban Run. The end result was not disappointing — with a time of 1 hour 6 minutes for 10 km., the sometimes painful and boring minutes spent on the track was well worth it.

A lot of things are indeed won at the preparation stage, with the actual event serving as the coronation event. Not that my time will ever be enough to win the category, but my worst and best competitor is my self. I was merely trying to complete the 10 km. in under 75 minutes, a benchmark set by friends who've done this before, a number they consider respectable.

During that day, we took a cab to get to the venue. The map provided on the web site provided little help for the cabbie. We weren't much of a help ourselves for we were new to the area. But we got there with a few minutes to spare. Just as well as I had to use the toilet, not being to fully comply with the instruction I got about hydrating myself more than two hours before the start of the race.

There were more than a dozen portalets, with about a dozen people lining up before each one. As luck would have it, it rained during the night and since the door of the portalets were facing the grassy area, it was impossible to avoid the murky puddles in joining the queue. I happened to wear a pair of Adizero Mana, which had a lot of holes in it to ensure air circulation. I knew I wouldn't be able to run without relieving my bladder so I really had no choice — my shoes, socks and feet became soaked in mud. I thought about changing socks, but with just a little over a minute to go before the start of the run, I decided against it.

The gun sounded and we were off and running. I started my own stop watch, wanting to check my progress from time to time. I pushed myself forward, trying to remind myself how it was like in the track. I resisted the urge to go too fast in the beginning, taking a friend's good advice, but even at my speed I was overtaking a number of people and yet there were too many who were ahead of me.

I was just starting to warm up when one, then two, then many more runners began coming from the opposite direction. I then realized that these people were racing back to the finish line! I checked my watch. They've completed more than half of the 5 km at an amazingly short time while I still had a long way to go.

Apart from my soaked feet, the following are some of the things that caught me by surprise:

1. The heat. The only time I started running that late in the morning was when I jogged at the Pasir Rir Park. The difference is that there were a lot of trees in the park to provide friendly shade. With nothing to shield me from sun's debilitating heat, I felt like I was running out energy. Good thing there were water stations at strategic locations at the race route. Instead of drinking a whole cup, I preferred throwing half of it over my head to cool me down a bit. It worked like magic.

2. The slight acclivity. I've been used to running on a flat surface, but part of the race route was a sloped bridge. It was quite alright coming from the starting line but it became quite challenging on the way back. I'm thankful that after every run at the track, I always opted to climb the flight of stairs up the 5th floor where our unit was located. I just have a feeling this helped.

3. Overpowering scents. I had two choices: slow down so I'm left behind or run faster and overtake the source. I went for the latter, realizing that I might be catching up with the same thing again and slowing down every time wouldn't help me accomplish my goal of finishing in 1 hour 15 minutes. I just kept doing that each time I came across something undesirable. I think this is an example of turning a crisis into an opportunity. ;)

In summary, I think the Suburban Run was pretty well organized. The race packs, the bananas, caps and medals were very much appreciated.

Of course, there's also room for improvement. The following are my suggestions for a better race next time around:

1. Earlier start. It's just too hot when it's almost 9 a.m. It would definitely be better for the runners to start earlier.

2. More signage. That goes for those that point to the start of the race and those that indicate the turns for 5 km. and 10 km. Might as well improve the ones that indicate how far more you need to go. They have to take into consideration the number of people in the race — the signs are not easy to spot when there are too many people running.

3. A better place for the portalets. Or some way to ensure that water does not accumulate near the entrances. What about stepping stones or elevated steps?

Next race: JP Morgan 5.6 k.m. on April 16.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Mass Food Poisoning Proves Hawker Centers Have Room For Improvement

Aside from the deadly L'aquila earthquake, the Geylang mass food poisoning incident is also another terrible news that we are forced to bear. The death toll may not be as high or the damage not as extensive as that of L'aquila's but there's reason to be concerned — with two deaths, a comatose patient, one miscarriage and dozens of others affected, it's Singapore's worst case of food poisoning yet.

As of this writing, a certain type of bacteria has been identified as the possible cause of the outbreak. But further investigations are underway.

I am a hawker center customer although I must confess I have avoided eating there as much as I could since early last year. Don't get me wrong, there are compelling reasons to enjoy dining in hawker centers. Take hawker center L for instance, I like it for its variety of choices. Also, a number of stalls serve real good food, not to mention they give good value for my money. But then, there are also substantial reasons to trade good, inexpensive food for equally good but more costly grubs. The huge number of patrons and the uncomfortable heat during day time are part of the hawker experience and I'm not referring to them. I'm talking about cleanliness or the lack thereof.

Just a few months ago, when I entered hawker center L at around 1:00 p.m., it was impossible for me to miss the the stink of garbage. The reason being, garbage is consolidated or taken in instead of being taken out. You'd see the uncles and the aunties wheeling the huge, green trash bins in and displaying them in the middle. It wasn't the best way to get customers to fast.

What about utensils? As much as possible, I go for plastic spoons when eating in food centers because it's easy to see that the dishwashers are not taking their jobs seriously. Even then, the plastic spoons and forks are not always clean. Friends and I have once tried to count the number of tries we had to take before we are successful in picking out clean spoon and forks or even the number of times the aunties and the uncles hand out the spoons properly, holding them by the handles. The results were frustrating. I'm bound to try it again and post the results here.

I have mentioned in a previous post, Of The Best And Worst Singaporean Habits, about what I termed as the irresponsible handling of food:
Now this isn't funny or annoying. It's sad.

I find it hard to believe that some things I consider common sense need to be taught. For instance, when a waiter brings your soup or desert, you wouldn’t expect to see his thumb dipped inside to provide additional flavor, right? What about when serving drinks and putting cups on the tray? Being able to hold several at once may seem like a neat trick but I certainly don’t appreciate it if the fingers go into the cup and touch the ice. Same goes for handing off straws, spoons and forks; shouldn’t the food server know by instinct that he shouldn’t touching the parts that go into the mouth?

Call me finicky or kiasu (I've learned that word late last year), but I believe good service means not taking such things for granted. Educating our food handlers will certainly lessen the risk of spreading disease. But how?
I have the same observations in my recent visits.

If it were a comedy show, this scene might have looked funny:
    1. Customer orders two slices of papaya and asks for food handler to slice it even further into smaller pieces.

    2. Food handler puts on a plastic glove on her left hand and takes two slices of papaya from the cold storage using the same hand.

    3. Customer sees this and appreciates the food handler's sanitary practice.

    4. Food handler slices the papaya into smaller pieces.

    5. Customer asks how much and reaches into his wallet to get a $5 bill.

    6. Food handler answers and extends her left hand, gloves on, to receive the cash.

    7. Customer hands his money hesitantly and with great disbelief.

    7. Food handler opens the cash drawer, puts in the $5 bill and takes coins to give as change to the customer.

    8. Customer receives his change and walks away nodding his head.
It's not funny at all when it happens in real life. It happened to me. I should have told the food handler that the plastic glove wasn't supposed to be used to keep her hands clean.

The scary thing about unsanitary practices is that they're contagious and later on become the rule rather than the exception. There was a Filipino stall in the same place, hawker center L, that colleagues and I would frequently buy food from especially when it was new. During a recent visit, the same food handler was not as careful when handing out dishes. Her thumb went as deep as a centimeter into the sauce. She did it to me, the person ahead of me and the one following me. Three strikes. She must have observed this was considered normal practice in some neighboring stalls.

All the above examples are those that our senses can easily detect. What about those that we don't see, smell or even taste? Shouldn't we be even more worried about them?

Still, I don't think it's hopeless and I have an example from real life to base this conclusion from than merely saying "This is Singapore!" There was this small cafeteria chain that operated in a few corporate offices. In one of their branches, we regularly observed their staff following unsanitary practices. Taking the cue from a huge sign that said something like "for feedback and suggestions, to:", we sent an e-mail detailing our observations. We got a reply the day after sending out the e-mail and immediately noticed the change.

I often hear that Singapore has an obsession with being the best or being #1. There's no use denying there's room for improvement. Maybe it's high time Singapore puts having the best food centers not only in terms of taste but also in terms of cleanliness among its to-best list.


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