Monday, July 13, 2009

A MacRitchie Trail Adventure - The First of The North Face 100 Progressive Runs

Friends are brought together by certain commonalities, be it in terms of background, belief, enemy, interest, tragedy, hobby, mission or cause. I took up running as a sport primarily to fulfill my fitness goal for this year. I've taken steps to increase my success, which included setting up a training schedule, joining as much running events as I could, taking up a healthy bet with co-workers, tracking my progress and plotting it in Excel, and influencing as many people as I can to join me in my simple quest. It didn't occur to me that I'd be gaining a new set of friends while at it.

I've made friends with friends of friends who are also into running. With a little bit of prodding here and there, I'm joining the upcoming The North Face 100 with them. My partner-to-be assumed that we were going for the 100 km category, but I'm glad to have clarified the matter before I registered for the two us and had given him the option of finding another teammate should he really want to participate in the more punishing category instead. I felt there was simply no way I'd be ready for the full marathon in such a short period of time, much more 50 km. In the end, he agreed that we should just go for the shorter distance.

We also signed up for the progressive runs to force ourselves to undergo training. The idea is that runners should be able to increase their mileage over time — therefore the increments of 10 km every scheduled run. The first of three, the 10 km run, took place last Saturday, July 10 at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park. It turned out to be quite an adventure.

The official start was 8:00 a.m. and I got there with a few minutes to spare, just that I ended up making the wrong turn and found myself at a structure that didn't look like it could be called the zig-zag bridge. I called up my partner to ask for directions, who readily handed over the phone to one of our other friends because he wasn't familiar with the place.

When it seemed clear to me where I should be heading, I could not resist asking, just before I put down the phone, "Is it going to push through even if it's raining?"

It had started to drizzle and I could see several joggers going for the nearest shed. The rowing teams who were in the water at that time were being called to come ashore as well. I knew the answer before I even popped my question. I guess part of me was just saying "go home and don't risk getting sick".

When I finally got to the designated place, the runners, led by Kenneth Koh, were in the midst of stretching. One of our friends prompted me to register, stating freebies from The North Face would be given away after the run. I registered and skipped stretching, feeling relieved I wasn't left behind.

It didn't take long before we took of. Our set of friends let the others stay in front, we had to assume they were all stronger runners. Our feet got a taste of the pavement as we headed towards the trail. After that our feet were never subjected to the same kind of surface for more than a few minutes.

The trail had become steeper before I had a chance to warm up. As if that weren't challenging enough, the drizzle turned into rain. Fortunately, it didn't get any stronger. I couldn't help but worry about catching pneumonia. But I soon forgot about that when I couldn't distinguish sweat from rain.

Just when the trail began to ease a bit, in fact it had began to gradually slope downwards, we found one of the runners who was previously ahead of us lying along our path and grimacing in pain. He was supposedly our marker, for he carried with him two orange hiking sticks which made an X mark on his backpack — something very hard to miss. Kenneth asked if he was alright, to which the injured man replied he would be. They motioned for us to go ahead as one of the organizers grabbed her phone and made a few calls. Kenneth went with us while the same lady who made the call stayed behind with the marked man. The diagnosis? Groin muscle cramps. Apparently it was the guy's second attempt to cover the same distance during that morning.

My partner was a strong runner, having already completed the full marathon before, and so I let him lead as I tried my best to keep pace. My only advantage was that I had been training for the past few months. He hasn't joined any running event since last year's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon and hasn't been running on his own either. He was with us during the Suburban Run where I met him actually, but he only acted as our photographer then. Well, whatever he lacked in training, his genes more than made up for it. Thank goodness I was the one who did some training.

What took me, friends and family almost three hours to walk during our first visit to MacRitchie Park took us only a little over half an hour to run. When we got to the Ranger's Station, we weren't sure which way to turn because there wasn't any trace of where the others had gone. My partner tried asking one of the cleaners if he had noticed a group of runners heading towards the direction we were inclined to take.

"There are so many runners," he replied, smiling.

We had to make a quick decision — either we headed towards the HSBC Treetop or took the alternative Sime Track. I didn't remember it then that the route to the HSBC Treetop was a very punishing climb, which is not only obvious but also worth remembering because that was the only way you could possibly get to the treetop level. We would later find out that the route we avoided was where our fellow runners went: steep climbs help build endurance when done on a regular basis.

That wasn't the first time we had to guess which way to go. At one point, we became worried when we noticed a sign at the side of the trail that said "8 km". We knew we couldn't have done less than 5 km so we should be left with just 3 or 4 km and yet here was a sign which hinted we still had 8 km to go. Not only that, the path ahead of us revealed there was more climbing to do. Faced with these circumstances, my partner slowed down to a halt and for a moment considered turning back and retracing our steps. I voiced out that we couldn't go back having gone so far, and that there was a chance we'd be presented again with a few options as to which path we can take if we kept pushing forward — something we wouldn't have for sure if we turned back. We pushed forward.

Kenneth would later point out what I realized while picking where my foot landed — that as opposed to running on pavements where you can plug in your iPhone and just zone out, you had to be mentally present when running on trails. It is very easy to slip, trip or twist your ankle if you don't pay attention to what where you're going. Disallowing the use of earphones during the race for safety reasons makes perfect sense.

By the time we resolved our second dilemma, our feet had already sampled various surfaces: muddy, rocky, grassy, sandy, wooden and solid. Then we came to the part where the trail formed a narrow U-shape path with a very uneven bottom surface littered with sharp stones jutting out, so we had no choice but to avoid stepping on the middle, running with each foot on either side. That mini-obstacle course definitely made the route more interesting.

We found the view somewhere along the Golf Link area as the most exciting, a welcomed respite from the seemingly endless trees, dirt and stones. My partner must have read my mind as he also expressed that it would have been nice if we brought a camera. The sight of the water was truly refreshing and we would've wanted to take that with us if only commemorated in photos.

We would soon find out that we made the right choice by pushing forward. It turns out the signs indicated how much distance had been covered from the starting point, not how much farther there was to go. Soon enough we reached the zig-zag bridge and joined our fellow runners in filling our tummies with as much liquid as we can.

Too bad no one from our group won any freebies. But the microfiber towel they gave away was a prize, not too mention the magazines.

Overall, it was a truly good experience, something we'd very much like to repeat in the near future. If one thing, our adventure made me realize that I prefer to run on trails than on pavements. Well, we're already planning to hold practice runs in MacRitchie park on our own.


Some links worth visiting:

Always Running the Same Way, The Trouble With Running on Concrete and Asphalt

Get Off the Pavement!!!

How To Build Endurance With Trail Running

Running Program to Build Speed

Go Long! Build endurance for a full day or more on the trail

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At July 30, 2009 at 9:21 AM , Anonymous My Caddy said...

wow, this was a great read going through the trail with you guys. thanks for sharing :D

i've done a similar trek with friends but that was years ago, need to go and do it again.

At August 25, 2009 at 1:32 AM , Blogger Singapore Fountain Pen said...

Thank you! I'm glad you liked it.


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