Start to finish, a colourful contest

SINGAPORE - A sneakered army of solitary people stand penned in like cattle in the Punggol darkness.

There are thousands at The Straits Times' Run in the Park, yet the runner is mostly a lonely creature.

Yes, couples photograph each other. And friends Ritu Jain and Christina Michael shadow each other. And Mr Sridhar Malur promises to run alongside wife Anupama Kannan.

Usually, she gently laughs, "he takes off". On Sunday, he says later: "We finished together. Holding hands."

But really, for all this, the runner is a lonely traveller who must pass internal examinations.

Ms Gaby Thornton knows that and at 54, as her heart pounds, she demands of herself: "Finish it. Finish it."

There is spirit to be found by the waters of Punggol. But this is yet to come because dawn is yet to come.

Walking towards the start, a young man - slight, shy yet certain - is my first conversation in the morning darkness. He has never run a 15km race. By the time it is light, Mr Ivan Low will win over 15km.

At 5.30am, Singapore is a foreign city - contemplative, quiet, deserted. You can hear insects argue and men yawn.

The sudden loud music is an impertinent visitor on a reflective morning. Still, the best runners just look lost, as if they have already departed to a more spiritual place.

Just 1km into the run, a rhythm can fade. Just 3km in, Mr John Chew, who wanted to stick with running buddy Timmo van de Bunt for 10km of 15, fell away.

But at the start of the race, runners wear optimism like a musk. Everything is still possible.

Well, perhaps not for the gent who starts the race by walking and texting. Dude, put the phone away.

Everyone runs for dissimilar reasons. For Mr Peter Butterfield, from Boston - who was seven to eight blocks away and driving home when the bombs went off during his city's marathon - running is a time "to reflect".

Mr Jimmy Kum likes "sweating". Mr Ben Tan and wife Alison are trying to beat not a time but the flu. Mr van de Bunt "resets" his life while on the move and enjoys the "chemical happiness" of endorphins.

All are ready, then air horns blare and the runners disappear round a bend like a school of straggling bluefish.

Runners are constantly prisoners of time. They flick on stopwatches at the start and then Mr Yee Ah Seng shows me his at the finish: 1hr 16min 47sec. For 15km. He's 67.

Here's what he says: "I'm off target." He wanted 1hr 15 min. It is stirring proof that age is no barrier to ambition.

It is true also of Mr Abedeen Tyebally, 61, who finishes in a fine 1:27. Mr Tyebally runs 15km but he has journeyed a much longer distance. At 56, he thought, "I need something meaningful", decided a Porsche didn't quite qualify and opted for a different locomotion.

By last year he had done seven to eight marathons, quite an accomplishment, till he met a 73-year-old in Kuala Lumpur with 50 marathons. Always, someone is older and faster.

By the finish, optimism can dry but adrenaline is compensation.

The sight of the finish line makes people faster and perhaps it is relief, or a chance to snip off a final few seconds or vanity. To show they can run to the end; to show they still have something left.

Then hands sit on tired hips, lungs inflate and honesty prevails.

Runners rarely lie because you can't fool a clock. Ms Thornton is dissatisfied and calls herself a "plodder". Yet runners rarely return home empty-handed and she finds the "camaraderie" of a run to be a blessing.

While in motion, so much is discovered by so many. Ms Jain says: "I plan arguments for my PhD in my head." Mr Colin Tung simply feels alive and says, almost profoundly: "If I don't run I feel there's something wrong with my day."

Race over, runners linger in the grim sun. There is little talk yet all are connected - a tribe of exhausted, accomplished blue. Behind them, at the line, a clock is still ticking as if symbolically telling them their race against the endless road is not over yet. But for last Monday at least they are finished.

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