You see the trail during your first week in Singapore. If not impossible, it is certainly improbable – a slash of scarified green tissue running under a traffic interchange and continuing into the distance before abruptly turning a corner. It is not its appearance that grabs you – though it is striking, like something from a different world – but rather its lack of finity in a city that you know already to be bounded, both in its insular geography and in its tight, effective urban grids.
Your immediate impulse is to drop down from the road, to see what happens after the first corner. But it is too organic, too untameable, too resistant to routine. And routine is suddenly very important.
For the past three years, your body has been slowly suffocating you, smothering you, sapping you. Occasionally you break out of your torpor, go on a crash diet, lose a couple of pounds, lose a couple more. But then something – “something”! Work, it is always work – intrudes, breaks the routine, and within a couple of weeks you’re back where you started, stifled. When you were still at work you accepted this futility grimly, but earlier this year you quit. One night, you had realised you could no longer bear to look back through Facebook pictures more recent than about January 2012, your feelings were so complex about the half-stranger looking back at you. You decided to do something about it. And now you have moved to the other side of the world. You are studying on a course that affords regular whitespaces of time, and you are determined to make the routine stick. So you banish the trail and its anarchy from your mind, find a running route that loops around a storm drain in highly customisable circuits, and get to it.
It is work. Fuck. It is such, such hard work. Three years of lethargy interspersed with a handful of gruelling, stiff-backed games on the cricket field have left your body almost wholly unprepared. Your feet suffer worst of all. Masochistically, you have also chosen to do much of your running during the hottest hours of the day, under a pitiless sun. Workers look at you askance from the shady grass banks they are resting on; sweat pools on you. You don’t care – you tell yourself you actually like it that way. You wonder if you are punishing yourself for the excesses of the past few years; you conclude that you are, that the storm drain is the crucible in which you burn off your accumulated uselessness. This is a powerful image, and you congratulate yourself on its fire-and-brimstone Puritanism. You wonder if running in 30-degree heat is starting to mess with your head.
It gets better but not easier. Your iPod takes on totemic importance. You discover songs championing female empowerment in the face of men being bastards (e.g. ‘Song for Mutya’ by ex-Sugababe Mutya Buena) motivate you far more powerfully than the nu-metal you used to use to get amped for rugby matches.
For the longest time, 10 kilometres elude you. Your running app, housed in a phone clamped to your arm like a parasite, starts to mock you. You hit 9.76, 9.88, 9.90 – each time peeling the phone out of its carapace and meeting its readout with a grunt of disgust. One day, you simply refuse to stop running. You throw in another loop, take an extra detour on the way home. The phone tells you 11.04km but it feels like four times as much. You can wring the sweat out of your t-shirt. Three days later you pass the 10k mark again. It hurts, but it’s fine.
And there – always there, its nagging growing imperceptibly louder – is the trail, its promise of a route unconstrained by concrete and uninhabited by cyclists, parents and children, dogs. But you hold off – and become grindingly familiar with the storm drain, how the fauna on its grass verges changes depending on the weather, the time of day. You begin to count monitor lizards – your PB is seven in a single run – and begin to recognise dogs and their owners. Worryingly, some dogs seem to begin to recognise you. You begin to question what dog you’re walking. This is a strange question, and you wonder if running in 90% humidity is starting to mess with your head.
One morning you look in the mirror and realise you are different. Not skinny, not thin, not slim – but also decidedly not-fat. You take a more thorough inventory of your body. Your feet are practically unrecognisable, your toes toughened and absent anything that could fairly be called a nail. Your thigh muscles, when tensed, are physically hard to the touch, like teak or something. You remember how in the past you would have celebrated this sort of achievement with a blowout lunch, instantly regretted. Now you lace up your trainers and head out the door. It is, you realise without a trace of regret, the last day you will ever run in the storm drain again.
When you take the phone off your arm after your first run on the trail, it tells you you have run 13.32km. The second, 15.40km. The third, 17.52km. It is a fantastic machine for drumming distance into your legs, the trail, because, like all good trails, it poses a simple but irresistible question: what is round the next corner? The answer is a hidden Singapore, one of abandoned railway bridges and stations, of fragrant clutches of pandan, of weird birds rooting through the grass that have wings but never seem to fly. One Sunday afternoon after a morning full of rain you very nearly step on a black snake, onto which your panicked imagination paints the hood of a spitting cobra. You have no idea if it is a spitting cobra, but when you look back through your kilometre splits for the run, there is unmistakeable proof of the surge of adrenaline, a four-and-a-half minute kilometre in a sea of five-point-fives.
Even when you are not on the trail, you are on the trail. Your fiancée visits for ten days from London and while, initially, you welcome the respite – your personal best is now 18.88km, and your right knee is starting to feel it – after a couple of days away you start to feel antsy. You concoct fantastical scenarios in your head (if you got up at 5.30, you would still have time to break 20km, recover, and have breakfast with her before class!); you spend at least five minutes during your trip to the Singapore Zoo wondering if you can get the cab to drop you both off near the trail, so you can show it to her, maybe walk along it together. You do not share this information, obviously.
She leaves for England as the rainy season kicks in in earnest, a pathetic fallacy so obvious it is faintly embarrassing. At times the rain is so heavy it affects your ability to breathe. Now the trail takes on a different complexion, poses a different challenge: mud sabotages your footing, which gives way under creaking knees, puddles cover whole sections of the path. You try to pick gingerly through them; blot from your mind the thoughts of the water filling your socks teeming with bilharzia and other unmentionable parasites, now in such close proximity to your pinkly vulnerable toes.
You realise that 20k has become the new 10k. You pursue it with something approaching monomania. You feel yourself retreating inside yourself, turning down invitations to go out or to have one more beer. You Google tips on what to eat and how to recover. You are not sure you like this behaviour.
You go for a 15k run one day, and wake up the next day knowing that today you will break 20. You set out determined. But after about 10 minutes, your iPod – which has been a little erratic since you took it out in a deluge about a week ago, but which you had left on to charge overnight – dies undramatically, like a light going off, in the middle of a Killer Mike track. It feels like that bit in ‘Castaway’ when he realises he’s lost Wilson – you are now at sea, practically all 20 kilometres still ahead of you, your breath ragged in your ears, your quads dead from yesterday’s exertions. There are landmarks on the trail where you have turned around on previous runs, and each of them exerts a siren song as you draw closer. But you know if you can break 20 today, you can break it any time you want in future, and you stumble on, zombie-like, until you get to a section of the trail you’ve never seen before. For only the second time since you bought it, you detach the carapace from your arm before finishing your run, to check how far you’ve come. The readout shows 10.2k; you can turn around, if you want to. You turn around.
Your app will later tell you the journey back took about as much time as the outward one. Privately – App, you crazy! – you cannot countenance this: the return trip possesses the slow-motion logic of a waking sleep paralysis nightmare. Your right knee and your left foot keep jaw-clenching time, sending you a jolt of pain with every alternate step. Your posture crumbles, your stride shortens. Where once you devoured kilometres with masculine vigour, now you nibble ascetically at tens of metres. Somehow, agonisingly, you begin to pass the landmarks, in reverse this time. In the last couple of kilometres you begin to stumble, you have developed a splitting headache, your ligaments feel like they will snap. But you make it.
When you get in, you drink a litre of water, rush to the bathroom, and throw it up almost instantly. You shower, then lie on your bed in the foetal position for about an hour. You are absurdly cold, especially since you have turned the air conditioning off and it is still about 25 degrees outside. You drink more water, and again feel sick, but keep it down this time.
After another hour or so, you feel well enough to sit. Weeks pass. And then, on your last weekend in Singapore, you return to the trail for the final time, with a simple goal in mind: you are going to run it all. And you do. Moreover, you feel fine while doing it: it is almost a pleasure. The weather is fittingly valedictory, a Greatest Hits of Singapore edition: brutal heat and humidity at first, then a restorative deluge, then something approaching late-afternoon calm. You are past the railway station before you know it; you smile grimly to yourself as you pass the first place you ever turned back. At the end you finish the last of your water and limp slowly home.
When you get in, you fire up your laptop and register for your first marathon. It is in four months’ time, in Barcelona. Your personal best is still almost 20 whole kilometres short of marathon distance. You think you confront this knowledge with equanimity. The sweat that has built up on your collar from the past two hours’ exertions breaks its confines and begins to make its way down your spine, mapping its own erratic trail.