When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The fifth was in Asia.
I stood at the window of our hotel room. Over the road was Kowloon Park and the street below was Nathan Road, the start of the marathon. Since two o’clock this morning there had been activity, and now small groups of runners stood huddled around any available shelter, out of the morning drizzle. The barriers were erected and the starting banner was stretched across the road.
In the park I could see people moving slowly in Tai-Chi style. In spite of Western influences in Hong Kong, there are a great many Chinese traditions, and in the early morning mist, there were many practising one form of martial art or another. There were also people sitting in meditation.
“How am I going to get through this with my dignity intact?”
Anton, our close friend and host was in a jovial mood as he joined Kay and me for a light breakfast. I had a slice of toast with honey, washing it down with a cup of strong coffee. Great planning this was, we stepped out of the hotel foyer and onto the starting line.
“Good luck, hey, Tom.” Anton shook my hand.
“Good luck, love, see you at the end.”
Kay kissed me and she and Anton pushed their way forward to the faster runners. I was unsure of the outcome today, but I knew I had a few things on my side. I was reasonably well trained for this; I knew I was also lighter and faster than for any other race on my pilgrimage. Add to that a cool, overcast day. All the elements that could make up a good, fast race were there. Now it was up to me.
The first watering point was in Tsim Sha Tsui. I followed some old yet sagely advice: drink on the run. I got through the first five kilometres, checked my watch. I had not raced like this since my accident 15 years before. It was exhilarating. Most of the race was on the highway. We ran out of Kowloon and into the New Territories. It was starting to rain hard when I reached the Cheung Tsing Tunnel. The sheltered protection of the tunnel was a welcome respite from the cold driving rain. By the time I ran out the other side, the rain had relented, but it was still cool, uncomfortably cool.
The climb up to the turning point on the Tsing Ma Bridge was strenuous. Then I saw her: Kay was running past me in the opposite direction. She looked surprised. Part of the marathon is out-and-back, so the runners still going out can see those coming back. I knew that the turning point was not far ahead. I was not that far behind Kay. I looked at my watch as I ran past another watering table. Nice and comfortably on time, I could break five hours, but there was still a long way to go.
The bridge is high above the bay and the mist was rolling in. While running back through the tunnel and the New Territories, I felt a sharp stab in my ankle. A reminder of my limitations. Besides the bridge, this race was scenically sterile. It was highway, punctuated by a few single spectators. In many respects I was glad of this, for it gave me the space I needed to focus on my watch, the marker boards and the pain.
Running back, Kowloon was ahead, beyond that the Western Harbour Crossing. The rain had stopped and I could see the tall buildings on Hong Kong Island, shrouded in mist. I was slowing down, battling with the pain. The moment of truth came when we left Kowloon and ran under the sea for about three kilometres. The tunnel was womb-like. Suddenly there was no wind or rain. The orange glow of the lights gave a surreal, detached feeling to the race. The kilometre mark ahead was the 35th, and although I had slowed down, I was still well on track. I couldn’t resist: “Focus!” I put my head back and screamed, the tunnel echoed.
I came out of the warmth and onto the busy, noisy streets of Hong Kong Island. At marker 41, I looked at my watch for the first time in five kilometres. Kay had finished and was standing with Anton. They were shouting and waving at the end. I crossed the finish line with both fists clenched in a victory salute. I flung my head back and with all the strength I could muster I yelled out from deep within my Soul: “Focus!” The clock was stopped at 4:51:37, almost 20 minutes faster than any race on this pilgrimage