Saturday, December 13, 2008

Running With A Mind Of Steel

'Marathon' is a formidable word I very much respect.

This famous foot race over a distance of 26 miles or 42 km, definitely has its charm for there is no lack of suitors. Every year, more than 800 marathons are contested at different parts of the world and the elite runners seem to have an insatiable appetite and want to have more.

I am not a runner and I do not even do any sports competitively. Running has never been my forte. On record, I have participated in cross country runs and scored A's in NAPFA 2.4km runs, and yet, I know running is not for me.

I have been egged by many runners to join the fun of running. I was told that I would not need any sports talent and that I would just need to go with tons of mental strength and physical stamina. Are they telling me that I have no sports talent and I should just be happy to be able to run? Well, I choose to take it positively that I show some promises to demonstrate great determination, a quality which is much needed in a Marathon race.

'Marathon' was originally not a race but a place in the ancient Greece in 490 B.C. Legend has it that a messenger named Pheidippides, was bringing news of Greek victory in a battle with the Persians. He ran from a town, Marathon, to Athens to deliver the message before he collapsed and died.

When the first modern Olympics was inaugurated in 1896 in Greece, the legend was revived after 2500 years. Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker crossed the finish line at the end of the 40-km distance. His clocked 2h:58m:50s and became the first winner of the modern Marathon.

Marathon was initially an all-male tradition and women were not allow to participate. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon and became the first woman who run in a numbered entry. Attempts were made to yank her out but she finished the race. No one knew her exact timing as she reached the finish line when all the officials had left. Although it was never on her agenda, she was all over the headlines the next day.

It was not until 1984 that the women's marathon was introduced. The race was won by Joan Benoit of the United States with a time of 2h:24m:52s.

The distance of the race was not fixed until 1921 and since then, the official distance for a full Marathon is 42.195 km. This distance seems astronomical compared to the 2.4 km run I did for NAPFA test. Every day, I drive to and back from work and I do not even cover that distance. It will probably take me days to complete a full Marathon!
The 7th Singapore Marathon was held recently on 7 Dec 08. This is an annual event held on the first Sunday of December. It attracted 6,300 participants when it first started in 2002. Over the years, the number grew impressively.

Last weekend, the race attracted a record turn out of about 50,000 runners. Kenyan, Luke Kibet, came in first with a time of 2h:13m:01s, setting a new record time.

In this race, the Kenyans took the top 3 positions for Men's Full Marathon and 1st and 3rd places for Women's Full Marathon. An amazing feat! Just four months ago, another Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru won the gold medal in the men's marathon in the Beijing Olympics, breaking the Olympic record. The Kenyans also dominate the winning lists in many other similar races.

What is with these Kenyans?

First of all, many of the Kenyan runners were born and raised at high altitude. Running at higher elevations builds greater lung capacity, because athletes grow accustomed to the thinner air. This area also possesses a fairly mild climate that allows for year-round running.

There is, apparently, a running culture in Kenya, particularly among the Kalenjin tribe. Although Kalenjins represent just 12 percent of Kenya's population, they comprise about three-quarters of the nation's elite runners.

Kenyan training regimes are notoriously difficult and many young Kenyans view distance running as a ticket out of poverty. In the Singapore Marathon, Kibet earned a prize money of US$35,000 which makes him a rich man by local standards.

Physiology and genetics may also factor into the Kenyans' accomplishments. The Kenyans had a born advantage and speculated that it might have something to do with their "birdlike legs.

The Singapore Marathon was the second race of the 'Greatest Run on Earth Series'. The first leg was held in Nairobi in October. The other two will be held in Mumbai on 18 Jan 09 and Hong Kong, on 8 Feb 09. It will not be surprising to see the Kenyans rule the remaining 2 legs again.

The Marathon is a tough sport but it holds a certain cult-like allure that draws increasing number of participants. To many runners, the race is not about winning. They are in it to keep fit and achieving self-fulfillment by completing a personal challenge. Just crossing the line was a big enough prize.

This article is a tribute to all the Marathon runners who, to me, possess the mind of steel.

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