Seven Continent Quest Series — 5 Penang Bridge Marathon, Penang, Malaysia December 2010
Carl Byington, a professional engineer and owner of PHM Design LLC in Ellijay GA, is one of only about 500 people in the world to run a marathon on all seven continents. In this latest installment, he shares some of his experience of traveling to Malaysia in December of 2010, his fifth successful world marathon after he nearly died in a rock-climbing fall a few years before.
It’s a long bridge by almost anyone’s standards. The Penang bridge is about 13.5 km (8.4 miles) long and connects the island (near Georgetown) to the mainland of peninsular Malaysia. This location would be the cornerstone of my fifth world marathon.
My friend, Nick, and I needed to find a place to run our 5th continent marathon in Asia, and Malaysia appealed to us for a variety of reasons. We had never run over a bridge that long. When we also discovered that the Penang Bridge Marathon was run in darkness through the middle of the night. Well, wow, okay — SOLD! This was going to be a cool reason to visit and explore Malaysia.
I decided to go early to do some jungle trekking and climb Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. After the trek and climb, I was getting a little concerned about this decision to run Malaysia. It was really hot and humid, especially for this German-blooded cold-weather athlete! I knew this would be challenging even though we would run it in the middle of the night. While that time would provide some cooler temperatures; it would also mean the relative humidity would be near 100% for the whole race. Thus, the sweat would just drip down you and not do its job of evaporatively cooling your body. And that would be bad my friend.
To compound my concern, I had not run much at all in the 10 weeks before the race due to a knee injury that had been troubling me. I did the Australian Outback Marathon and then a 26-mile mountain race called the Megatransect in Lock Haven, PA earlier in the year, and the body was still complaining a bit about the strain. To train for a marathon you will ideally do that over the 18 weeks prior to the event. If you do so you will definitely finish barring some major injury. I had not been able to train the long runs due to this knee pain. So with barely any miles run in the weeks before the race I was going to muster up for the suffer-fest in Penang and hope the wheels didn’t fall off.
Being the adventurous traveler and eater that I am, I couldn’t resist trying all the wonderful street food carts that line the streets of Georgetown. I don’t know what it exactly it was but I picked up a bug of some sort in the days before the marathon. Of course, every traveler can relate to this situation. What perhaps is unique is that I had to run a marathon that weekend, and if you have not experienced it first hand, let me tell you that running a marathon can wreak havoc on your digestive system as well. As the day approached I couldn’t shake the feeling that “This race has suck written all over it”. In the hours before this sentiment was replaced by “Okay nothing to do but embrace the suck and just do it”. It is an interesting transformation of thinking that naturally occurs as any big event with adversity comes upon you.
After sleeping for a few hours on Saturday during the afternoon, Nick and I got up at 10 PM to get ready for the 2 AM start of the marathon. We had prepared our bags and race materials (food, water, body glide, bib, etc.) so we could pretty much dress and go. We would have to drive from Batu Ferringhi down past Georgetown to Queensbay Mall area for the race start. We needed to arrive by midnight because they were going to close the roads and the bridge around the race. All was going well until Nick decides that he knows better than the GPS. Ooops, it is too late we are now headed over the bridge at around 11:30 pm. Normally that would not be a major concern, but of course, this isn’t the bridge from Jersey to Philadelphia over the Delaware River. This is the Penang Bridge and it takes some time to drive 8 miles to the other side and then find some way to turn around and then drive 8 miles back again. We were in fine form already.
We made it back to Queensbay Mall with about 10 minutes to spare before they closed the access road. At this point, we still had a couple of hours before the 2 AM start. People were camping out in tents all around us.
We slept the best we could in the car until about 1:30 AM and went out to the start at that point. We joined the roughly 1600 other runners that would be running the full 42.2 km marathon (the other 22,000 people were running the half marathon and 10 km “Fun Run”). As we milled about the crowd in the dark and made our way towards the starting area, we stopped and saw people selling street food in stalls along the Mall walkway. Ugh, no more street food!
Nick and I hugged and wished each other well as the horn blew and the race started at 2 AM sharp. (We don’t run together as our paces are just too different.) The beginning of the race was uneventful and I stayed at a nice easy pace throughout the first kilometers. I ran nibbling on a whole wheat roll in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. I was just hoping for the best digestibility experience possible.
Somewhat unorthodox but I was off the playbook and doing whatever I needed to keep my stomach calm. It was working for the most part. We crossed up onto the bridge close to 8 kilometers in. The run-out was straightforward and it felt good to hit the turnaround point on the same cloverleaf we had accidentally driven on in our earlier driving adventure mistake. As I came back over the bridge and at about 21 km, I took my first walk break to let my undertrained body catch up to the demands I was making and the punishment to come.
As I started running again, the rain started. Then the rain turned heavy and then finally a total deluge of buckets fell upon us. I chuckled a little as I saw some people holding towels above their heads in vain trying to keep dry. There would be none of that on this night! We will all be totally soaked.
Don’t fight it, embrace it! And I did, the rain gave me new energy like a kid that just received a new pair of sneakers and immediately feels he can run faster, jump farther, and be better. But it was also playful and perfect in that present moment like the way you would be coming home from school and jumping into every puddle — just for the fun of it!
As I picked up speed, I howled at the nearly full moon and some people around me laughed while others just looked oddly at me. (It is okay, I am used to it!) Those that laughed recognized the connection we had to our own inner children and some lightened their step as well. Some opted to just move away as they couldn’t get the “just be a kid today” part. Ahh, you see it is just like the rest of life…some people just GET IT. :) Either way, it was just plain fun!
The rain also had the benefit of cooling me down and that helped a lot. I was able to clip off a good pace from 22–30 kms before I took another walk. I then had another good 4 km or so. After about 35 km, I was starting to feel it. The tightening hamstring, the right knee, the tweaked lower back. Every marathoner feels something like it at this point, so this was just my lot to deal with on this day.
This was also the point in the race that the organizers at the marathon could have done a better job. The refreshment stops were a little too far apart at this point and I narrowly missed having some serious cramping come on due to too little hydration. They should add some more from 30–40 km section. The big fiasco was from about 39–42km of the race. The 10 km “Fun Runners” were coming in the opposite direction to those running the marathon. Most of these “Fun Runners” were actually walking, BSing, and texting on their phones. They were unfortunately fairly oblivious to the fact that a marathon was also being run in the opposite direction.
The mob of many quickly overcame their cone barriers and spread out to fill up the entire 3 lanes of the highway we were running on. The now very tired marathon runners were relegated to a nearly single file lane all the way up against the median. At one point I jumped up on the median to run around another marathoner because the sea of Fun Runners prevented a pass on the road. At another point, I ran into a girl coming towards me as she was not paying attention and swung out into the marathon path. In order to prevent a serious collision, I and several other of the marathon runners were gesturing and yelling for the Fun Runners to move over and make room for the oncoming runners. Some did and some just blankly stared. Ahh, I see, it is just like life, some just DON’T GET IT! ;)
The last bit felt great as I crossed the finish line. It was after 6 AM but still dark out. I collected my medal and ate some food at the tent designated for the marathon runners. As was typical, the food and hospitality were great — it must be Malaysia! I talked with a few other runners and we each took our turns bitching about the Fun Runners. That venting and good food seemed to help to diffuse the anger and grouchiness we had at the end of the run. I went back to the car to change and then returned to the finish to wait for Nick. He would come in a couple of hours behind me, but smiling and enjoying his wild Bridge ride as well.
We congratulated each other on completing this race and our 5th Continent. While not a great time for me, it had gone much better than I anticipated. An average time felt like a victory on that day. Our job for the morning was done, it was time to go back to the hotel and fall into the arms of Morpheus for awhile. Soon enough we will be up to eat again. For, after all, it is Malaysia and this is Penang!