OUTDOOR running has become one of Malaysians’ best-loved sports activities.
Despite the tropical climate, you see elderly people running laps in every park during the early morning hours, and younger ones even in the unforgiving midday heat. How come this is a good idea?
Before moving to Malaysia, I subscribed to the slightly patronising and clichéd notion of groups of retirees engaged in silent sessions of tai chi in the wee hours of dawn. I imagined scenes featuring serene crowds of elderlies in loose fitting attire and comfortable canvas footwear practising this art of slow and meditative movement, preferably somewhere close to a pond or a river.
While you still see this in and around Kuala Lumpur regularly, many of the frail little ladies of my imagination have somehow morphed into sword-wielding, fan-throwing or techno music-supported congregations of anything but defenceless seniors.
There is some clinical evidence supporting health benefits of tai chi. Better balance achieved through core strength reduces the risk of falling and its slow and deliberate execution enables people with certain ailments to enjoy a form of exercise without causing shortness of breath or pain. However, as it is best enjoyed in groups, it isn’t the perfect sport for today’s individualistic, “me, myself and I”-focused society.
So, everybody else is running. Running laps on the reasonably flat jogging path around Lake Gardens, running up and down the — literally — breath-taking slopes of Bukit Kiara, or running along the footpaths of their neighbourhood streets. Each one plugged in to some sort of entertainment courtesy of modern mobile communication; each one in their own little bubble.
Long-distance running has become massively popular. While I would call it individual mass competition, others call it marathon running. In fact, an online search yields no fewer than 27 organised runs between 3 and 30 km this weekend alone.
Venues are spread around the country, and forms vary from regular road running to forest trails and even to the super challenging KL Tower International Towerthon Challenge, where contestants run to the top of Menara KL and back.
My own experience is restricted to one puny 10km run through the gorgeous, and flat, landscapes of the Angkor Wat temple complex of Siem Reap, Cambodia. My motivation got seriously challenged when I was overtaken by a young guy in flip flops and all but destroyed as I was left in the dust by an older participant on one leg.
Let’s agree that marathons are not my cup of tea. That doesn’t mean, however, that I lack admiration for my fellow humans who embrace this sport. One clear plus is certainly the fact that it is accessible to virtually anybody, since it hardly requires any expensive equipment at all (not even running shoes, since flip flops seem to work just fine). Another big bonus is the amount of money that goes to deserving charities, as many events not only collect funds, but also highlight the plight of disadvantaged members of our society.
The most important factor, however, in my mind, is the benefit it awards the runners themselves. Of course, there is the perk of being physically fit. But more importantly, running long distances seems to aid one’s psyche tremendously. As one record holding professional runner puts it, “running is like a relationship. It’s hard work, but the rewards are remarkable”.
Many spare-time runners will agree with her that running enhances their quality of life. “It’s not only the endorphins released into my system,” she continues, “it’s not an addiction”.
Instead she tells of a sense of freedom, the uninterrupted play with thoughts, the serenity that she feels while running. “It’s about all the good feelings that an early morning run lets you bring into your day.”
Like I said, I’m not a runner. But freedom, serenity, time to let your mind run wild? I now understand why so many Malaysians, young and not so young, engage in marathon training before they brave the morning rush hour traffic of a loud and crowded city.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate.