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An inaugural women’s marathon next month is a first for the country and the region, writes Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan
SHE is busy running around, making sure everything is in order. Sponsors, check. Speech, check. Refreshment, check.
Karen Loh, 43, is in denim skinny jeans and tucked-in tee. Her tummy is flat, of course. Her long hair is half tied up at the back with a white flower gracing her head.
Her long, lean arms and prominent jaw are an indication that she is super fit with an endurance level that will put most of us to shame.
Karen is a running junkie, an ultra marathoner who recently completed a 100km run in Hong Kong “that went up to the mountains”.
Last year, she ran two marathons in a single day — a morning event in Singapore and a night run in Putrajaya. And if that’s not crazy enough, Karen, who was a lawyer before she quit three years ago, has run 25 marathons in as many months.
“You wear heels?” I ask, surprised that she is wearing footwear that trainers frown upon.
“Yes. I’m used to it, actually,” she says.
She smiles, her eyes squinting. She is in a super happy mood today, seeing how her baby is coming to fruition.
Her pet project, one that she had conceived, is the inaugural Nestle Fitnesse Malaysia Women Marathon, the first such marathon in the country for women only.
“It’s the first in the region. There are three women’s marathon in Japan but all of them are very competitive,” she says.
STEP BY STEP
When she started running three years ago, Karen built her strength and stamina from scratch. “When I started, my energy level was so low I couldn’t even sustain 3km without feeling tired. Today, I can finish a 100km race,” she says.
The endurance she has built along the way shows that cardiovascular exercise can help a person sustain energy in the day and not feel exhausted.
“I always feel more energetic on the days I go running in the morning,” says Karen who loves long distance running because of the low intensity.
“That itself is meditative to me and is my ‘me’ time. When I start running, hormones like serotonin and endorphin rise, making me lighter and happier after the run. But seriously, running helps calm me down.
“I’m also addicted to the feeling when I cross the finish line. That singular joy of accomplishment is addictive.”
The mother of two says she doesn’t have any strict training regime. “I don’t run to win prizes so I don’t really need to follow the set of rules to get to the top. However, I condition my body for marathons by running on alternate days and a long run on weekends.
“I wake up at 5am to run so that when I am done, my children are awake and my running doesn’t affect their schedule. This is basically what all other mothers who run, do,” she says.
Karen says that while runners run individually, it is hardly a solitary sport.
“The weekend group I run with has grown in size. When one needs to run longer distance for training, it is always advisable to run in a group. This is especially so for women. It is not safe to run alone. Also, the camaraderie from running in a group also helps in encouraging one another to improve timing,” she says.
On weekdays, she runs in her neighbourhood and on weekends, she runs with a group from Bukit Aman to Sri Hartamas, a distance of 21km.
RUN FOR HER
The Nestle Fitnesse Malaysia Women Marathon brings together running and women’s interest including health, beauty and fashion. Yes, women’s athletes are interested in fashion and aren’t afraid to show it.
British Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis, for example, never goes to a competition without full make-up, saying it makes her more confident.
And patterned nails at last year’s London Olympics showed that fashion statement can be bold, even when done in small ways.
“We want to tell women that they can run and still be fashionable and girly,” says Karen.
“So instead of running tees, we are giving out pareos when they register. We also sell T-shirts and hoodies. And instead of medals, we are giving away dog tag finisher pendant with an option to engrave your timing on it. It’s like a piece of accessory that you can wear when you go out. Regular medals are bulky with wide straps and you don’t use them after a race,” she says.
Organised by Ironman Malaysia Sdn Bhd, the MWM is expected to attract 3,000 participants. Karen is expecting 500 women to register for the full marathon category, which is 42.195km.
“If we can get that number, I am satisfied. That will make us almost at par with the country’s main marathon event,” she said.
The race will start and end at I-City, Shah Alam, and depending on the distance, runners will run past Masjid Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah, Istana Bukit Kayangan, Stadium Shah Alam and Stadium Malawati.
THE right to run
IN 1967, Kathrine Switzer, then 20, became the first woman to run the prestigious Boston Marathon. Back then, the race was open to only men but Switzer signed up, using the initial K.V. Switzer so race officials did not know her gender.
When race day came, Switzer ran with her boyfriend Tom Miller and some other male friends. That was until the race officials saw that she was a female participant.
What ensued was classic. The race director tried to strip Switzer of her No. 261 bib while she was running.
She kept on running and Miller pushed the race director to ensure that she could run the race.
“I had to complete the race. If I didn’t, it would only give race officials a reason to not include women in the marathon,” she said in a video.
She completed in 4:20. The next day, the story was splashed all over the papers. She said she was questioned on whether she was a feminist and a suffragette?
“I just wanted to run,” Switzer said in the video aired during the Press conference to announce the Nestle Fitnesse Malaysia Women Marathon.
PAVING THE ROAD
Needless to say, Switzer paved the road for women runners to take up the gruelling distance of 42.195km. In 1972, the Boston Marathon finally allowed women participants.
For Switzer, the incident saw her improving by leaps and bounds, running a personal best in 1975 of 2:51 minutes. She has ran 35 marathons.
In 1974, she won the New York City Marathon. She also created the Avon International Running Circuit, a global series of women’s running events in 25 countries, involving over one million women, which led to the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the Olympic Games.
Switzer will be here to flag off the MWM next month in Shah Alam. She will have a dialogue session with runners the day before the race.
Great female runners
1. PAULA RADCLIFFE
She is the world record holder for women’s marathon at 02:15:25 achieved at the 2003 London marathon and smashing her own previous world record by one minute and 53 seconds.
2. JOAN BENOIT
She won the first women’s marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 at 27. For the race, she set a pace which put her out in front and alone most of the way.
3. CATHERINE NDEREBA
Nicknamed Catherine the Great, Ndereba is a Kenyan runner who won the Boston marathon four times and broke the women’s world marathon record in Chicago in 2001 with a time of 02:18:47.
4. CONSTANTINA DITA
One of the most successful Romanian athletes of all time, she won the marathon at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — the oldest runner — male or female — to win an Olympic marathon. She was 38 then.