“Do Hard Things.”
That’s the line that had been echoing in my head all night.
It’s the slogan athlete Ryan Tetz lives by. He has set multiple FKTs (fastest known times) including one across Badwater Basin and then up Mt. Whitney. (See his awesome video here). He achieved that with a TT bike and great rock climbing skills.
So when my friend Cyril planned a long run, I was in.
The idea was to run the entire Coast-to-Coast Trail, a new route set up in Singapore.
We would definitely be doing a Hard Thing.
The Coast-to-Coast Trail is not really coast-to-coast, nor is it a trail. It’s more of a whole bunch of sidewalks stretching from the western part of Singapore to the northeastern part.
Misleading name notwithstanding, it’s still a 36 km stretch of nicely-runable and well-maintained paved paths.
In fact, it would prove to be a run probably none of us would ever forget.
This was January 2nd, 2021, and ever since the new year broke just 24 hours prior, it had been raining non-stop.
Thus, it was not an appealing sight when each of the 16 of us undoubtedly looked out our windows that dawn to see tropical torrents coming down in sheets.
Rain, darkness, and running? Not most people’s choice of a fun Sunday morning.
After all, January in Singapore doesn’t equal cool weather. With an average minimum temperature of 23°C (73°F) and a maximum of 29°C (84°F), anything to cool us off was welcome.
We were doing a long run and we’d avoid the relentless sun that normally hammers us in Singapore.
Who wants to be burned, dehydrated, and blinded when you can just stay cool?
We all met at about 5:45 am – most of us taking taxis to the starting point.
We convened under a covered area in a big park, probably all of us doubtful about how pleasant this was going to be.
“It’s just like going into the water for a swim,” I said to the guy next to me, as we started to run.
“Once you get going it’s no big deal.”
I was tricking myself into thinking this was actually fun. The rain had just started seeping through my shoes and socks and the sunglasses on my hat were just dumb, dead weight.
But after a few minutes, once we were thoroughly drenched, the discomfort of getting wet was eliminated as we were too drenched for that to still be a possibility.
Some joked that this was to be the longest swim they had ever done.
Early on, parts of it felt like we were running in a post-apocalyptical world: Dark, desolate, and depressing.
In our two groups of eight – this is in accordance with Singapore’s social distancing policy – we trotted along, trying to keep a sustainable pace.
“Slow down a bit,” somebody would announce every now and then.
There were definitely some fast runners in the group, that was for sure, and you have to watch these guys. If they fall into their default paces, there will be hell to pay later.
Hell to pay for us, not for them.
A flat 6 min per km was about right, maybe a bit faster.
Considering it was dark and raining and that we were usually following somebody, there was very little reason to look around a whole lot.
Normally I’m pretty observant of where I am and where I’m going but in this run I occupied myself through conversation with the others.
In fact, there are certain stretches of the route that I’m very familiar with yet I cannot recollect running them.
But I do recollect puddles that completely enveloped our feet and ankles.
Sometimes running into clear, cool, clean (ish) puddles; other times into bogs stagnant with muddy silt and sediment.
And once, running upstream on an absolutely gushing sidewalk-river.
It was futile and pointless to avoid these water hazards. In fact, it was more fun to run through them, especially when they were really deep.
I hardly ever glanced at my watch to check anything. I wasn’t really interested in distance or time, only in keeping a reasonable pace that all of us could hold.
I ignored heart rate, power, or any of the other things I usually monitor.
We had hit 37 km and I was still feeling fine. I was carrying plenty of water and some gels and I didn’t seem to need them like I normally do.
Despite a humidity of 91%, it was only 24°C – essentially Arctic by Singapore standards.
Apparently this was about the coolest it had ever been in Singapore, and as I found out later, we were experiencing the heaviest rainfall the island had dealt with in 39 years.
By now at our end point, the group went to get a coffee and a snack.
That sounded great, but I had just signed up for the Badwater 267 VR the day before which meant I had 31 days to run 267 miles.
It sounded easy. A whole month? And only 267?
Those are miles, not kilometers.
That’s more than 100 km per week.
Or a full marathon every three days.
Suddenly it didn’t sound so easy anymore.
But Do Hard Things, right?
OK, this meant I should probably just skip the post-run coffee and try to run home. So I set out on my own.
The instant I found myself alone things became more difficult.
Nobody to talk to. No distractions. My morale dropped suddenly.
However, I was at 40 km at that time, and I knew if I hung on for just a dozen minutes more I’d have finished a marathon.
So far, physically I felt fine.
But the instant my watch turned over to 42.2 things got worse.
That psychologically significant distance had just been attained.
Do I quit while I’m ahead and call a taxi?
Do I walk?
Do I schlep it out to a longer distance?
Maybe past 43, which was the distance I had just done on December 21?
Of course, I keep running. Let me hit 44.
Passing through Seletar that Sunday morning, a place where many cyclists train (especially triathletes), I saw no bikes. Not one.
This was unheard of on weekends at this time.
Despite its weekend popularity, many of us have considerable disdain for Seletar due to its soulless roads and dull, characterless expanse of rough asphalt and sand piles.
Its population of dump trucks and stray dogs has done little over the years to endear any cyclists to it, to say nothing of runners.
Before big triathlons I’ve seen some runners out there, presumably doing bricks with their bikes in their cars, affirming they are the most devoted and / or masochistic athletes of all.
And here I was. I had to reaffirm to myself that being here was my choice. It was just a bit harder alone, not even a single cyclist to wave to or share the pain with.
The rain was still coming down in sheets.
The sea to my right and an estuary to my left. Rainwater everywhere in between.
Suddenly, one of the puddles, this one dark with mud, started to burn my ankles. Serious chafing on the tops of my feet had worn my skin down and the water felt like razor blades.
Still, I didn’t avoid the puddles. That would have been a silly, losing game.
“45. OK. This is a good number to stop on,” I thought.
But it’s too close to the 43 I had just done two weeks prior, I reasoned.
“50 is a much better distance to shoot for. A nice round number. The minimum number you could even think of calling a run an ultramarathon, I’d say.”
By now, I was in an area I had cycled in hundreds of times over the years. It was familiar. It felt close to home. The end was in sight.
Once I hit 50, I still didn’t feel that close to death, so I opted for 51.
Then, once I reached 51 I told myself I could do 52. Then 53.
Then, I decided to make the jump all the way to 55.
“OK, at 55 I can stop. Call a taxi, walk, whatever.”
The soles of my feet hurt the most. I wasn’t really bonking, but I was hungry.
At 55, I just stopped running.
The walking felt great.
Furthermore, I couldn’t believe I had just run that distance with no real issues.
I knew that it was only 4 km to my house.
No freaking way I’m calling a taxi for 4 km. Plus, I need the mileage for this damn thing I signed up for.
I toiled on, under a single blanket of white cloud, spanning horizon to horizon. Rain only varying from tropical-storm-heavy to Oregon-Autumn-heavy.
Suddenly, an emotion of desperation washed over me.
It caught me off-guard. The satisfaction of having run 55 km with less pain than most half marathons I had ever done was immediately erased.
My personal victory, fleeting, gone.
“What are my kids doing right now?” I wondered in panic.
“Am I neglecting them? Am I going to recover from this? Will my feet be hamburger? Will I even be ambulatory when I get home? Will I be a capable and functioning father and husband or will I be a useless, emaciated vegetable?”
I tried running again. It hurt. The pounding was just too much.
My fingers were cold and I could tell my hands had stopped sweating.
I took stock of myself to ensure I wasn’t dying, paying attention to muscles, joints, breathing, thirst, mental state, and more. I was fine.
A half-hearted jog ensued.
Screw it, I’ll walk, a grimace of pain across my face.
That’s what my watch read when I stopped it. I pushed the lift button to go upstairs.
Peeling my still-double-knotted sopping wet shoes off my heels I plodded into my house.
Both my kids were standing there with kickboards, goggles, and pull buoys, “Oh you’re going for a swim, great!” I said as cheerfully as I possibly could, ensuring I showed a confident and content countenance.
They had no idea what I had just done.
“No, papa, our swim lesson is in half an hour and we’re waiting for you!” they replied.
How could this have slipped my mind? I knew there was something I was missing.
I had 20 minutes to take a shower (and silently scream when the water hit the chafes – I’ll spare you the details), change my clothes, and down a giant protein shake before the last little muscle on my battered body atrophied into a useless semi-conscious bag of protoplasm.
What did I say about Doing Hard Things?
The irony is, that Hard Thing I set out to do was presented to me on a silver platter: Possibly the easiest running day our tropical island had offered is in 39 years.
What were the odds that the running gods (or devils) would bestow such perfect conditions on the longest run I had ever attempted yet?
On top of that we had great company, along with stress-free navigation on a pedestrian-made route.
Sure, it was hard, but it wasn’t ‘question-why-you-do-this hard.’
It wasn’t ‘soul-sapping, sun-searing, life-affirming hard.’
What actually ended up being the hardest thing of the day was coming home to my family and putting on a strong face.
Especially after that foreboding feeling of despair swept over me.
Assuming responsibility for the parental duties I had signed up for nine months before each of my kids was born and not letting them see my bloody ankles and chafed other parts I probably wouldn’t show them anyway and continuing with our Sunday like any other: That was Hard.
As it turned out, the Hard Thing I sought never materialized, but another one did, in a totally unexpected form.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
View the run on Strava