Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in Review

A time to review my sporting calendar. I was hard-pressed to find significant achievements or moments in 2008, given that 2007 was quite a stellar year for me. In comparison, 2008 was a year of extreme firsts and injuries.

I kicked off the year with an uneventful GE Pacesetter 30km run in January. Then I ran a pleasantly unexpected PB timing at the HK Stanchart Marathon (4:08h) in February. March saw a spectacular tumble on my MTB during the Sabah Adventure Race, scrapping my chin and getting stitched up for the first time in my life. April was spent clocking back-to-back weekend mileage for Sundown Ultra-marathon, earning myself a nickname of Mileage Queen. And a nagging back-hip pain as a result. Friends and I proudly completed the inaugural Sundown 84km in May, the longest distance I had ever ran, battling the sleep monsters in the dark. The City Duathlon a week later in June was a letdown, one of the most poorly organized local races in my memory.

The 2nd half of 2008 was a very busy period and had its equal share of ups and downs. I survived my first ever OD-triathlon in Port Dickson in July, happy as a fish in water. An irony description because I swam only because I had to. On a triathlon high, I went for the Desaru Half-ironman in August, somewhat ambitious with a new tri-bike and a looming 2km sea swim target. The open sea was described by friends watching from the shore as being tossed in a washing machine. There was some truth in that. Completion was ultra-sweet, never mind my 7h timing. One could walk with a slight swagger when one was half-iron. *grin*

The annual Army half-marathon a week later was a recovery run following Desaru. It was also the start of a series of knee injuries, health issues, dropped races and declining run times for the rest of the year. In the midst of plummeting self-confidence, I signed up for swim and run coaching sessions to improve my performance. September was essentially a wasted month as I combatted an uncooperative knee, reluctantly obeyed instructions by KM to lay low and enviously watched friends peak for various upcoming marathons. It was also a financially bad month as I spent heavily on recovery treatments - physio, sports doctors, acupunctures, massages - I tried them all. Desperate measures for desperate times. In October, I travelled to Sabah again with friends for the first Borneo International Marathon. I changed categories from 42km to 21km to eventually 10km. An uncanny stroke of luck gave me a trophy for 2nd placing in the 10km Women's Open category, even if the timing (53min) was average. My first trophy!

The next week, I made my first trip to Switzerland where I ran the 2nd Lucerne International Marathon with a not-fully recovered knee. The views and experience were awesome, and so was coming in last before the cut-off at 5:30h. The Europeans were awfully fast, and I was mentally flat. The race pictures told a compelling story. Still somewhat in the European time zone a week later, I took a 9h bus ride with friends in November for Powerman Malaysia in Perak. As expected, my timing was worse than 2007, slowed down by the 2nd run segment. We returned to FatBird marathon pacing trainings in the lead-up to Singapore Stanchart Marathon. I missed my 5h pacer target and returned 45min off. It was the first time in 5 years that I did not bother to check my official timings or photos. I had a plane to catch the next day and did not want to kill my legs. I took off a day after the marathon with my climbing mates for an expedition to Nepal, Naya Kanga (5,846m). It was my first climb since July 2007, and I looked forward to being in the snow again. The trip was exciting in itself, with unexpected twists and turns of events.

It was a long and tiring 2008. I hope 2009 will be a better sporting year, with new goals and fewer injuries. Happy new year!

Lazy Swim

It was half-day in the office today. Boss treated the whole department to lunch. I had no plans in particular, so I returned to the office to sort out emails. In the evening, I went to Safra for a swim. I wonder if I still remembered how to swim after 3 weeks' break.

The gym closed early but the pool was still opened. There were a number of swimmers but I could still squeeze into a lane for laps. Lazily, I did 20 laps. Arms and back ached a little. Those muscles had gone to sleep for 3 weeks too. Took a lazy shower and headed to Ya Kun for runny eggs (which I missed so much in Nepal).

I was so tired in the night, I slept through the TV's live telecast of fireworks during the countdown. Not much of a party for me. I felt a flu creeping in. Sniff.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Recovery Run

I went to Safra for a recovery run. My first run in 3 weeks since Stanchart marathon and my return from Nepal. I did a slow run with Adam and Heng in Canterbury estate. Legs felt fresh after a long rest, lungs ok. But sweat pores were still unopened and the humidity wrapped around my skin like Glad-wrap plastic. It was nice to catch up with the runners over dinner.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Sine Curve of a Climb - Naya Kanga (5,846m), Nepal

(8 – 27 DEC 2008)

The 3-week adventure was to climb Naya Kanga (5,846m) in the Langtang region, Nepal, and traverse the valley (instead of back-tracking the same route). During my last climb in Mustagh Ata (7,546m/ 2007) in Xinjiang, China, I described the acclimatization process as painting the mountain face - every brush swoosh going longer and higher than before. This time we turned mathematicians, tracing sine curves along the way. On the map, our route resembled a giant "question mark". Imagine drawing a "?" with a dancing sine wave, gently rolling over the throes of the Himalayan ranges and valleys. There was no standalone mountain and to access any required days of trekking and traversing the crests of the ranges.

The Beginning

The journey began with a public bus ride from Kathmandu to the Langtang region. Our team comprised 5 climbers, 3 guides and a kitchen-porter crew of 18. The 10h ride took us over winding rocky mountain roads on dodgy tires that held up surprisingly well. Often, the bus had to reverse and slowly maneuver its way up the slopes, with a steep cliff drop-off to the side. A typical public bus in a developing country, it was cramped, crowded, and over-loaded. People filled the aisles and open upper deck. Occasionally, one would witness a shower of food bits splattering on the windows, as passengers threw up from the deck above. The strategy to surviving the journey was to keep one’s windows and eyes tightly shut, and sleep through the ride.

Living Conditions

We started our 6-day trek-in to the base camp for our climb. It was a relatively comfortable trip compared to my previous expeditions. We stayed in teahouse lodges for the first 6 days up to 3,900m, and it was a luxury to shower and wash my hair daily. Outside temperatures ranged from 10degC in the sun, to 2-4degC in the shade. Shower water was solar-heated and dependent on the amount of sunshine each day. Sometimes it was chilly water, which meant a quick 5-min wash – hold your breath, bravely expose body part by part (hair, arms, legs, torso), heart rate increases rapidly from cold water but persevere! – before wriggling back into the same set of warm thermals.

Meals were either bought from teahouses or prepared by our competent kitchen crew – Kumar the cook, an assistant cook and 2 kitchen helpers. There must be a monopoly printer because all the teahouses had identical menus with different prices. Teahouse operators even displayed tourism certificates that announced their training in managing small lodges. While my friends loaded up on garlic soup, fried rice and dhal baht, I often had egg noodle soup (aka instant mee) and masala (spicy) tea or hot chocolate.

At some teahouses, the owners grew their own vegetables. As we placed our orders, they would pluck plump, fresh leaves from the plots. One could taste the wholesome sweetness of the organic vegetables in the dishes. Having one’s meal framed against picturesque valleys and mountains was such a privilege. I savoured the fresh and unpolluted air as much as I could. Fresh meat was lacking in the higher altitudes and there was limited canned meat. We simply turned vegetarians for two weeks. For breakfast, our cook would prepare rice porridge (Teochew porridge style), fried or hard-boiled eggs and toast. My favourite was rice porridge with Marmite and two sunny-side-ups, and I had that for breakfast and dinner almost daily. Marmite was such comfort food, reminiscent of childhood days. On inspired occasions, Kumar would whip up an apple pie, cakes, cheese strudels, and pizzas. All that, over two portable kerosene stoves.


Kyanjin Gompa (3,900m) was our acclimatization point for 3 days. It was the last permanent settlement in the Langtang valley and there was a cheese factory founded by the Swiss in 1955. Yak cheese was produced there and sent to Kathmandu for sale. Fermented from yak milk, it tasted fresh and cheesy with a slight hollowness and chewy texture. For acclimatization, we climbed two nearby peaks from our lodge – Kyanjin-Ri (4,700m) and Tsergo-ri (4,984m), and rested a 3rd day. Then we set off for base and high camps. The rest of the trip was a camping arrangement.

They say that mountaineers are a special breed. One required the finesse of a rock climber and trekker to skip around the scree and rocks, the confidence of an ice-climber to kick the crampons into snow, the lungs of an endurance athlete to last the duration, and the strength of a gym-builder to carry loads at altitude, held together by mental tenacity to go the distance. That was the ideal climber. I was far from that. We usually carried backpacks of 7-10kg, comprising an extra fleece or outer-shell jacket, drinking water, food, and headlamp. I was typically 15min/ 800m behind my team-mates, and often without a pack. It was quite demoralizing to see them far ahead on the next mountain range or slope. My ever-helpful guide deemed me too slow to be burdened by a pack. He solemnly proclaimed that I needed more fats to be stronger, and regularly took over my load. Our porters were as impressive. They carried an average of 30-40kg each and sped ahead of us in their mock-Croc sandals or sneakers. They could very well fit me in a basket and carried me!

13h Summit Attempt

High camp was situated in the snow at 4,900m. I shared a tent with Joanne and the temperature inside was -4degC in the evening. Summit day was a blessing with clear skies and no wind. We set off before 5am for the long trudge up the peak. It was a test of balancing skills on crampons as we crossed a mixed terrain of ice/ snow, giant rocks and scree before hitting pure snow line. It was good to be on compact snow. Front-point, side-step, front-point, side-step, and up we go. Daylight was breaking and our surroundings came alive.

Along the way, I munched on kit-kats and ClifBars. We clipped ourselves into the fixed rope and used our jumars to ascend the steep slopes. We had to cross several slopes before reaching the Northeast Ridge that led to the summit. The Ridge resembled the sharp end of an axe blade, and Joanne and I were climbing on it without any ropes. The summit loomed ahead, alluring, teasing. 100-200m vertical height from us and another 30min-1h climb. On either side of us, the ridge sloped steeply into the valleys.

Unfortunately, our guides underestimated the length of rope required. It was a tedious process for them to repeatedly bring up the ‘used’ ropes from behind, and rush ahead to anchor them. That cost us unnecessary waiting times and also the summit. It was 1pm, we had overshot our turnaround time and there was not enough time to haul up ropes for the last stretch. Joanne decided to turn back and begin our descent. At that rate, we would likely have to descend in the dark and cold. Nepali guides and porters are known for their excellent strength and service. That afternoon, some of our porters showed up at the base of the snow line, waiting with hot lime juice. We returned to High Camp at 6-7pm. Kumar had baked a cake, but our mood was hardly celebratory after a 13h climb and a missed summit.

Ganja-la High Pass

On a normal expedition, the summit day was usually the climax. For us, it was the start of many adventures and the expedition was just beginning. The next morning was a challenging trek over the Ganja-La High Pass (5,120m). It was a terrain of rocks and snow, up steeply towards a narrow ridge and pass, before descending over the other side. It took us 3h just to cross the Pass, and another 3h to descend to our next campsite, a lovely field beside a flowing river. We moved out of High Camp because it was warmer and better to rest at lowered altitudes. Our crew did not have enough warm clothing it was a harsh environment camping in snow. More crucially, we were using up precious kerosene because there was no running water and it took more energy to melt snow for water.

11h Trek in Search of Water

Sunshine and water are the source and sustenance of life. Electricity betters it. Basic needs that we take for granted are magnified in the mountains. Our next campsite was a 6-7h trek away. We crossed countless of mountain belts, descending a mere 50-100m every 2h before ascending again. The hide-and-seek continued for 7h, as one’s emotions roller-coastered from frustration, anger, to resignation and blank. And then the bombshell. The intended campsite had no water source nearby and there was no way to set up camp. The kitchen crew had thus gone ahead to find alternative grounds. We continued walking. The sun was setting and the prospects of trekking aimlessly in the dark sank in. It was soon 7pm and I was desperately praying hard for a solution, for everyone’s safety and hopefully no mutiny. In less established countries, porters were notorious for walking out on clients or extorting money during a crisis.

From afar, we saw a beeping red beacon to signal the crew’s location. We headed towards it, expectantly. Alas, it was not a campsite, but a landslide! We waited with the porters as some went ahead to clear a path. Everyone was hungry, tired and thirsty. The crew had trekked since morning with little food and no water. I had only two muesli bars and one kit-kat for the entire day. We shared the remaining of our drinking water with some of the guides and porters. Silently we trekked in the dark, mentally prepared to walk through the night if necessary. I had no idea where we were, except that we passed various scents – juniper fragrance filled the air, followed by crisp pine. No water source in sight. At one point, we passed a deep puddle of water amongst the roots. The crew thirstily crouched around and drank from it.

We reached a used campsite and rested. There was a makeshift shed, someone lit a fire and we crowded around it. The kitchen crew had ran ahead to scout for water. Finally, news returned that they found water an hour from the campsite. With great relief, we pitched a giant dining tent for 5 of us to sleep in. As we settled down and prepared to sleep, our remarkable cook produced piping hot thermos flasks of tea, popcorn, tomato soup and pasta. At 1am! We were speechless.

The Finishing

The rest of the expedition involved relatively easy but long 6-7h treks into villages as we made our way out of the Langtang valley and finally back to Kathmandu. It was an eclectic city, the colourful Thamel stretch overflowing with shops and touts catering to tourists’ whims. Power cuts had increased from 2h to 8h each night compared to when we first arrived. The supply of hot showers was questionable depending on where one stayed. Food options were plentiful, ranging from cheap local meals to pricier international cuisines. Even so, I was starting to miss the comforts of home and Singapore hawker food.

Every expedition, I would mentally bemoan the associated hardships and lack of creature comforts. Yet after days of urban recovery, I would eagerly look forward to the next trip. Would I gripe? Sure. Would I do it again? You bet. Bring on the climbs!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Day 1 in Kathmandu

We arrived in Nepal Kathmandu yesterday. It was my 3rd trip here, but the place looked the same. We stayed in this dinghy place called Potala Tourist Home. It was anything but a home. First there was no hot water. The lady in charge looked at the window and commented 'with this weather (cloudy), there's no water'. And that was it! Luckily our other room had a gas canister heater, so I managed to get a shower in the afternoon. The rest were not so lucky, as they waited til evening to wash up. By which time, there was a power cut (every zone had a 2-3h power cut every day), and then the water supply started becoming erratic too. So they either washed in the cold, or had the water stopped in the middle of the shower. *shake head* We skipped dinner I slept around 7pm.... all the way until the next morning 7am. Shiok!

Today we went around the shops to get our equipment etc. Breakfast and lunch were both satisfying. At least the food here was good and cheap. My strategy was to get back to the room while there was still light, and wash my hair, pack my stuff etc. True enough, today's power cut started at 5pm and lasted til 8pm. Which explains why I'm using the internet only after power resumed.

Tomorrow we are off. A 10h bus ride to the start of our trek. We leave early at 6am to take a local bus (ie. public, ie. crowded and dirty and totally uncomfortable).

Monday, December 8, 2008


It was a hopeless & messy marathon for me today. Had a bit of a personal disaster, so in the end I did not start with my pacer group. By the time I squeezed through the pen, I crossed the starting mat very late. I spent 20km trying to catch up with my group, and gave up by 26km. So I took off my pacer shirt so as not to mislead runners, and continued with my own run. This was one marathon where I (a) drank the most at drink stations, and (b) ate the least power gels (only 2!).

In any case, it was a pretty screwed up run. I'm just glad 2008 is drawing to a close and SCSM was the last run for the year. Time to retire my legs....

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Last Stairs and a Silk Liner

My last day of training before marathon and expedition. Should I be happy that I could rest for a few days, or anxious that the events are ticking close? I did the same as before, 8 sets at TB flat. My backpack seemed heavier - maybe the packing and weight distribution was not ideal. The wonders of the human body to adapt to a differen training routine. Legs were definitely conditioned by now to the demands of stair climbing with load. So unlike the first time a month ago when I started and ached for a few days. The 8 sets were still a boring routine, but at least it passed rather soon. Alber was waiting to have dinner so I had inspiration to rush through the last set. *pant pant breathe*

Now to go home and dig out my silk sleeping bag liner. Last night I experimented with one, sleeping in my air-con room inside the liner. Then I felt cold, and pulled over my silk blanket. My arms were directly cocooned by the blanket and were nice and warm. My toes though were wriggling inside the liner and kinda cool. Hmmm... maybe the liner was not 100% silk. Ok, it really was not, given how cheap it was. So tonight I am going to experiment again with my pure silk liner and see if there is a difference.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Yellowfish Swim Class

It began raining at the start of the class at Mountbatten pool today. Brrr..... the water was cold. Underwater, I could hear the rain splatter, in addition to my arm splashes. I thought the rain might get heavier, given the dark clouds looming overhead. Thankfully it stopped after 15min.

Class was kind of tough today. Well, Monday's class was faster than Friday's, so I ended up back in Lane 1 (no complaints though). We did quite a lot of drills too.

4-6 laps of freestyle kicks (cos can't remember the exact laps)
2-4 laps of front crawl arms only (buoys between legs)
Easy 200m swim
6-12 sets of 50m sprints
Recovery 200m
6-12 sets of 50m sprints
Long swim moderate pace 400m (other lanes 500m)
100m butterfly/ front-crawl
2 laps of catchup drills
2 laps of one-arm pull (alternate side)
2 laps of fist-swim
2-3 laps of any-style swim (literally 'free' style)

Wow, that was a long agenda. I was quite bushed after class. And cold..... so cold that I wore my jacket in the car after the (cold) shower, and drove off in search of dinner. A bowl of nice hot soupy stuff was comforting. :) I drove to NUS prata stretch. First, I had a ban mian from the Taiwanese shop - I quite liked the place. Then I went next door for a prata-kosong. Nicely warmed up and satisfied. :)