Go with a smile!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A history in physical activity

I was having a run at McRitchie the other day, and it occurred to me that I had started the long and slow physical decline that would continue for the rest of my life. It’s hardly edifying to know that everything’s downhill from now on. So I thought I’d think back to all the times when I pushed my body to physical exertions.

There was very little of it before I was 12. I knew that my father jogged a few times every week, and I used to marvel at him for doing so. But keeping fit was something that was quite foreign to me, and I thought that it involved a strength of will that I didn’t have.

There was this one incident, though, I was 8 and occasionally, we went to East Coast Park to cycle. During those days, it was a nice place, and the largest park in Singapore. (This was before it got over-commercialised, and before it got taken over by the homeless.) We were all curious about the milestones, so one day I rode the bicycle all the way to 0, which was probably around Tanjong Rhu. I could see the city skyline from there. (minus OUB centre, minus UOB centre, and a lot of other buildings that weren’t yet built). At that time, I didn’t know that Tanjong Rhu was going to feature again in this tale.

I wasn’t ever a sportsman. I was, and still am, physically clumsy. My sister was better at sports. She played softball for her primary school, and was a frenemy of a certain person called JK who will appear in this story again. When she was 12, she actually embarked on a school tour to Malaysia. It was something more adventurous than anything that I had experienced up to that point. My father was a farmer in his teens, and in adulthood he still had a pretty impressive set of biceps. In contrast, for myself, up till I was 12, my physical activity was limited to police and thieves during recess.

OK, there was swimming. I was a fast swimmer when I was 8, and I won a few medals at the local club. But that was as far as it went. I think I didn’t continue to become competitive, although it was always a form of exercise.

When I was 13, that was when my father decided to teach me how to do some long distance running. There were a few times when I didn’t manage to last the distance. I would start off fast, but there was no consideration about how long I could last. It took me a few times to get it right. And even though I did participate in the annual cross country runs with everybody else, it was probably not until I was 16 that I became comfortable with running on that McRitchie track.

What I do remember is the scout camps. When I was 14, I joined the scouts. It wasn’t my intention to join the scouts. But they made it a rule that everybody had to either join a sport or a uniformed group. In other words, something that is physically strenuous. Because my mother had been a girl guide, she thought that I should join scouts. The people who joined scouts were those who couldn't cut it in sports. You didn't join a sports ECA unless you had talent.

They told us that the scout camps were going to be tough. In fact they were a lot like military camps. And I didn’t really have the physical preparation for it. The first one took place in a school near Yio Chu Kang road. There were plenty of runs, plenty of push-ups. I don’t remember doing much scouting at all. And there was this run, I’ll never forget. We had to carry 5kg bags and run. I was dying. I remember having to cook our own meals using kerosene stoves, and making a complete hash of it. I remember that soft drinks were banned, so we just drank a lot of water. I found a bag of sugar, though, and I often stole spoonfuls from it. Disgusting, I know, but still…

I remembered, though, that this was around the time when my sister was having her back operation. She had scoliosis, and one of her shoulder blades jutted out like a camel. This may or may not have had something to do with how one of her legs was longer than the other. But that operation spelt the end of her being a sportsman. No more softball, no more squash, and no more running, except on dirt tracks (concrete’s too hard.) And she was lucky not to be in the 5% of cases in these operations where the people ended up as quadriplegics.

So as tough as that 3-4 day camp was for me, I thought about my sister who had it much harder. And I suppose the camp came to an end for me. I couldn’t get out soon enough.

Later that year, I went on an orienteering trip. We were supposed to run to 3 or 4 checkpoints, over a distance of around 10K. My legs gave out at the end, and I experienced such serious cramps for the first time: later on I was told that not only did I have to replenish myself with water, but also with salt. That was a good piece of knowledge to have.

There were other camps. There was a camp where we had to run all the way from the campfire of a sister school to East Coast Park, carrying 5 kg as well. We were dying as well. Just as well they let us off easy once we had gone to the beach. I remember running past the McDonald’s near the National stadium, thinking that it’s a nice place to hang out at night. I remember that I had just listened to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” for the first time a few weeks earlier, and I was playing it to myself as the sun rose (I have an inbuilt walkman).

I actually recall the scout camp at the end of that year the most vividly, but that was no longer an introduction to physical fatigue.

A large portion of what physical training was about was preparation for national service. So much than when national service was over, I was thinking, “well what was all that fuss about?”

In the build up to national service, the main thing was to concentrate on passing the fitness test, so that I would not have to go in 6 weeks early, and so that I would actually have a vacation in between my “A” levels and the national service. I don’t remember much, but the pull ups were a main thing. The other station was the sit and reach, and because I didn’t have the flexibility, I actually grew my fingernails by 1 cm to make the cut.

The details of my national service are remarkably hazy. I think, once I’m past the age of 25, I can no longer look back on any part of my life with reliable clarity. First was the punishing basic military training. It was not as punishing as what it was 10 years before I went in, but it’s nowhere as soft as it was 10 years after. It was a mid period of a gradual softening.

I will most probably remember the mental stress of adjusting to life with people from vastly different backgrounds from my own. But the physical bit was punishing too: getting up early in the morning, going to bed late at night. No napping. The weather was always hot. The physical training was always tough but what made it even tougher was that your muscles were all aching at the end of the day, and you would still have to strain them even further.

There were the big 3 things we had to complete in order to pass basic military training, over an above the military stuff: the rifle range, the physical training and the standard obstacle course. I had height, which was a great advantage for the standard obstacle course, but I don’t know why I was one of the fastest in my platoon, in spite of not being particularly strong or a particularly good runner. I suppose I was pretty handy with the monkey bars, or I knew how to pace myself, or I was just good at running with a standard battle order.

There was the 24 km route march. It wasn’t particularly tough, and very few people dropped out. I admired the Muslims who had to endure that through Ramadan, but as I was to find out later on, exerting yourself on an empty stomach isn’t particularly tough.

It’s true that I was physically exerted during my national service. But it was never like what it is during my first scout camp, where I was – let’s say – a virgin to physical punishment. It was just a load getting heavier and heavier, but it was not traumatic.

The 3-4 weeks I had with an air defence unit were even tougher. It was a totally crappy system which was completely user- unfriendly. Deploying it involved moving a lot of heavy equipment around within 10 minutes. We did the drill over and over again, and there was a lot of sadistic punishment. Mercifully a horrendous but not quite horrendous injury ended my stay over there.

There was not much else that was really significant about my military training. Those 3-4 weeks were the worst of the lot. There was still some training in the school of infantry specialists to come, which I didn’t really enjoy. Especially one night where we were supposed to dig a trench in the middle of the night. But by that time it was mainly mental fatigue, it was about getting thoroughly sick and tired of the military life.

I also ended up back in air defence. Since there was so much emphasis on arm power, we did pull ups every morning. My maximum was 14 pull ups. Then after I left the army it quickly declined to 6. And now I’m fighting to make it stay at 4, or else I don’t pass my physical tests.

When I finished the 2 years and 4 months, it felt funny. Ever since I entered the scouts, there was this subtext – get yourself fit, otherwise you will suffer in national service. Almost everything had been geared up towards being able to manage national service. But all those years of preparation only really matters during your first 3 months of national service. After that, your body adapts, and you will cope, no matter what. (And if you don’t cope, you just get a long term injury and subsequently get rewarded with clerk work.)

After that was college. One of the things I wish I found out early in my college life, and not only halfway through the 3rd year, was that you just had to exercise 2-3 times a week. Otherwise, depression takes hold of you and housework doesn’t get done and homework doesn’t get done.

During the 2nd year, though, I fell in love. There was this week, I just wanted to go running every day. I did push ups at night. Maybe I just got that taste of endorphins and I just wanted more more more. But it didn’t amount to a steady regime yet. This “thou shalt exercise once or twice a week” was a commandment that I have stuck to for the last 10 years, although during the last year, it has faltered more than a few times.

For 5 years, a group of people in my office got together for basketball games. They didn't always start off as basketball games, there was a lot of soccer in the beginning. One of the players was my sister's old friend JK, who turned up as Sniper's friend's wife. I didn't have strength, and I didn't have skill. I was a fringe player at the best. But I knew how to read a game, and all those last minute blocks and crucial interventions did have their impact on a game. I figured that it was the last time I would ever have the opportunity to play ball. Basketball eventually won out over football when the numbers of that gang dwindled to the point that there were only 6 of us left.

For some reason I never bothered to play ball when I was in secondary school - probably couldn't get past my awkwardness. But it was good that I had the opportunity. Although that didn't stop me from deciding one day I had enough of Sniper sniping at me. I left that gang for good. I don't know how long they carried on after that. I thought that Sniper was too fussy about who was in that gang, otherwise there were a lot of people who were willing to join that bunch.

3 of the people in that gang were the Real Madrid of 3 on 3 basketball. They won every title in the club for 3 years in a row.

2-3 years ago, I made a go for the half marathon. There were a few people in my office who had done the marathon. Some did it 20 years ago, some did it recently, some did it many times, some did it only once. I didn't think the marathon was for me, so I did the half marathon. Later on, after succeeding, I began to seriously think about the full marathon, especially on the urging of my jogging partner. I promised myself that I would do it once: no more and no less.

The fact is, you can carry on running for an indefinitely long time as long as you don't get injured. After 30 km, your body runs out of fuel, but if you know how to properly replenish yourself, and if you can condition your body properly, you can keep on going after that. And you can keep on training for as long as you can so long as you don't get injured.

But in both the year of my half marathon, and my full marathon, I did get injured. 4 weeks before the half marathon, I got a very deep gash in my knee. And I missed 2 weeks of training. I still managed to go all the way. For the full marathon, I found out, to my horror, that I got injured quite often if I were to run for more than 20 km. I switched away from the McRitchie gravel track to the pavement of the streets, and that helped.

Anyway I've blogged all about this before, shortly after I finished that marathon. I suppose this would be the greatest and the last big bout of physical activity in my life. In a way it was full circle: my legs gave way around the 27-28km mark, at Tanjong Rhu where more than 20 years earlier, I had done my first long distance event by cycling 8km on a little boy's bike.

I think, after that, my physical fitness would go downhill. I think it already started going downhill while I was training for the marathon. I noticed that it was more tiring keeping late nights. There was a spring in my step that I ran the half marathon with, that was no longer there by the time I progressed to my full marathon.

I think back on talking to an old colleague of mine. He told me that he played a lot of football in his youth. I couldn't picture it. I suppose I have to always remind myself: all these physical feats you did as a young man will one day disappear.



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