On 12 August 2011, I made a Covenant with God. I promised that I would “be a better steward of my own body, and [would not] not let fear and inhibition allow this ‘talent’ to remain buried. I [would] exercise more, play more sports, be more expressive, be more spontaneous and be more free.”
On 7 December 2014, the story of this Covenant ended when I crossed the 42.195km finishing line. Or at least, this Chapter has closed.
In the beginning, I was Short. We lined up according to height in Primary School. In Maris Stella, I was the third pair from the front. In Rosyth, I was around there. I befriended E, W, Z, and J because we all stood near the front.
This is something that sociologists and educators have yet to discover (or articulate): there is segregation between the Short People and the Tall People. There is nothing insidious; it is simply a matter of circumstance. We line up (and sometimes even arrange seating) according to height so that we minimise blocking each other’s vision. And then we chat with people around us. This means the Short People talk to short people, and the Tall People talk to the tall people.
Allow me one more hasty generalisation: Short People are less athletically equipped than tall people. Hence, our interests diverge. So do our talking points and common activities. And that is when the dividing line becomes clear.
In Secondary Three, I founded DAYMIST: D, A, Y, Mel, I, Shortie Team. Y was a softballer – our only athlete – and he was our badge of defiance to all the Tall People who said that Short People were weak and nooby. Tall People didn’t really say that, or even think that, of course. We were probably overcompensating.
I definitely was.
These are the characteristics of Jocks. They are brawny, shallow, fit, poser, in a sporting CCA, high-profile, and havoc for the sake of being cool. Almost all the ruggers were Jocks; except L’s goodboy gang, but I did not know L then. Many sportsmen were Jocks.
Short People can’t be Jocks.
Of course, no one is really a Jock once you get to know them. The best sportsmen I know are also some of the nicest people I know. Y is overly polite. G is a SNAG beneath his alpha-maleness. Ok, H may not be the nicest guy, but he is still a Roasted Mushmellow. Even KL made me re-evaluate my anti-jockness. (P isn’t on this list because he does not even have a sports vibe; and I know him too well. And S… defies stereotypes.)
But it was still fun to label people. I felt justified in my prejudices. I was young and immature after all (though still more mature than a Jock, I would like to tell myself then).
I take pride in never being bullied before despite being so Short. So I do not harbour any deep-seated bitterness towards big strong guys who had made me feel small. More often than not, I was the one making people feel small by being bossy and caustic and violent. (Some Napoleon Complex there? Go figure.) But I did resent Jocks – at least the ones that I knew so little about that I could judge them without feeling guilty.
Or rather, I resented the physical strength that they personified.
In Primary School, I loved catching, and being fast enough to dodge catchers and change direction and just run around. I was good at it. But I guess agility is different from strength. Since early childhood, I preferred the finesse of swordplay to the violence of gunfights. I preferred the precision of badminton to the roughness of soccer. I preferred the speed and adaptability of Zerg to the technological might of Terran and Protoss.
Sometime between tween and teen, I decided that I could never achieve the kind of physical standards that came so easily to others. I could never be a Jock. So I decided I would not try at all. Instead, I would focus on and hone everything else. If I could not attain physical strength, then I would attain mental, emotional, moral, and intellectual strength.
The result was a Cartesian separation between my interior and my exterior life.
I did not reject my physical identity. I just did not care about it. I steered my character and moulded my values as a Captain of my Soul. I scrutinised my grades and refined my feelings as a Master of my Fate. But all I cared about my body was making sure it could pass NAPFA. While I did not throw the ‘talent’ away, I buried it deep beneath all my other priorities, and did nothing about it.
I did uncover it from time to time. I tried out for badminton in RI. I got specially noticed during rugby trials (because of how violently I tackled the bolster I suspect). I got shortlisted for gym because of my small stature. But I opted band as my first choice.
Music was more alluring than running. It still is.
In JC, I almost joined Modern Dance. I even took a couple of hip-hop classes outside school after becoming enamoured with SYTYCD. But then I decided I preferred the flute, the friends, and the familiar in band, and I buried what could have been in the ground again.
These are not decisions that I regret. But I do wonder what life would have been if I joined a sporting CCA, did theatre earlier, or learnt to dance.
Naturally, my fitness plummeted from inactivity. In Secondary 3, my 2.4km timing was 15 minutes. I forced myself to run every morning before class began for 2 weeks to shave off 3 minutes.
15 minutes reified my physical inferiority. 12 minutes reified my mental superiority. Mind over body, I would tell myself. Every NAPFA and IPPT since then, I told myself the same thing. Every training, I willed my body to its (rather low) physical limit so I could have as few training sessions as possible. Every training, I dreaded how much I would push myself.
I like running to race. I like running to a destination, or running from a catcher, or running for a ball or frisbee.
I don’t actually like running per se. And in my teenage years, running had become painful. I detested it.
Bucket lists are one of the purest forms of backward reasoning. The list simply forms. There is neither reflection nor argument for an item to make the list. You don’t put something on your bucket list because you are this person with this personality with this goal in life. Instead, you are this person with this personality with this goal in life because of the items you put on your bucket list.
I do not remember when “Finish a Marathon” first appeared on my bucket list. And I did not question why it appeared when it did.
But pain is the great catalyst of reflection. So when I began training, I asked myself why I was spending so many hours on an activity that I found so painful. I swiftly concluded that the only reason I wanted to finish a marathon was pride. I wanted to tell myself that I could do it. I wanted to prove to myself that I was strong, that I was not physically weak because I was really weak, but only because I allowed myself to be.
Hence, I enthusiastically agreed when Jason bounced the idea of running SCMS2014.
I did not know what I was getting myself into. After paying for registration, I googled for a training program. Then I gaped at the search results. I did not realise that I would have to burn all my Saturday mornings (or evenings) for 4 months to strike this item off my bucket list.
But I am an INFJ. Discipline, schedule, routine – harnessing our will to force our dreams to come true – these are the gifts that we have been blessed with. These are the temptations that we have been cursed with.
All these came together in army. Barely scraping through NAPFA, I entered BMT at the lowest percentile of the physical normal distribution. The fitness adjustment curve was steep. There were ample opportunities to train. And regimentation is discipline and routine taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Being the Invictus-totalitarian-of-my-life that I was, I should have thrived. I should have subjugated my physical self, and ascended to new athletic heights. I should have proved beyond reasonable doubt that the material me was subservient to the inner and transcendent me.
Instead, army was the first time I began to reintegrate my body and my soul.
Route marches were my biggest fear. I dreaded everything about it – the crushing weight, the trudging through mud in boots, the crazy Ninja pace, the hours spent in sweat-soaked uniforms, the mass of people, the forced singing and steps. More importantly, I dreaded how it exhausted me to the point of giving up. I was shocked at first, and then ashamed at just how much weaker I was compared to the average guy.
I rarely fell out though. As poetic justice would have it, I came back to BMT as a commander and completed three more 24km marches. I refused to be the safety specialist each time. If army with all its unimaginative vulgarity-spewing culture thought it could conquer me, it had better think again.
That said, I constantly pushed my body to its breaking point. My sergeant would have to hold the tip of my gun and drag me from the back of the company, where I had lagged to, all the way to join my platoon at the rest point. At the end of the march, I would be shuddering from how tired I was, unable and unwilling to care about anything and anyone apart from my own needs. That kind of ravenous desperation made me feel animalistic, primal, sub-human.
One particular route march, I became near-delirious at the end. It was as if my mind dissociated itself from my body. I saw myself flailing pathetically, and I could not do anything to stop it. I could not hold on to any shred of dignity.
I was repulsed. Yes, I completed the march, I attained my goal, but at what cost? My dignity? My humanity? My capacity to care for others and to love?
My will had enslaved my body so harshly that both slaver and slave had been dehumanised. The person was dead, all that remained was feral. After all, the death of a person is the disintegration between his body and his soul. And that was what I had been doing to myself: disintegrating.
In that moment, I began to realise something that I would only articulate years later after studying Theology of the Body, and even later, while studying Biomedical Law and Ethics: I don’t just have a body; I am my body.
In August 2011, I attend the pre-WYD MAGiS. The track that I am assigned to is Corporal Body Movement: we pray with our bodies. We learn mimes, we act spontaneously, we dance without choreography, we stare into each other’s eyes. These are awkward things. They make me feel uncomfortable to be in my body. They make me feel inhibited.
This particular day, I am lying on a classroom floor in Valladolid, Spain, just breathing, and sensing, and feeling. After long sleepy moments, our facilitator asks us to imagine that Jesus is entering into a room, with nothing inside except a sculpture of ourselves. Then he asks us to imagine what Jesus will say or do.
I envision an unfinished sculpture like Michelangelo’s Slaves. Then I see Jesus chiseling away at it, freeing it, refining it, perfecting it. It is as if Jesus is sculpting my body. It is as if he is challenging my physique.
Two days later, I make my Covenant.
The road after this is smooth and swift. I begin running beyond training for IPPT. I join in frisbee games and Captain’s Ball. I re-discover swimming. I learn to dive. I attend badminton regularly. A group of us even hire a coach for a while. I moot, and moot some more. I travel, and realise that the real sensorial world can hold as much wonder as my own inner worlds.
I audition for a musical. I perform in a musical.
go am brought for shopping.
I run a marathon.
Not all of these were conscious steps towards reintegrating my body and soul. But the doctrine of grace legitimises hindsight bias in seeing God’s plan in our past. And grace was abundant in my marathon training.
My 35km training run – my farthest – was a complete fluke. I began at 9pm the moment I got home after SOW dinner. I intended to run only 33km, but when I reached that distance, I was only at Serangoon Gardens. So I walked into a petrol kiosk, bought some Yakult-like drink (because I was saturated on isotonic drinks), and continued running home. When I finally pressed stop on Runkeeper, it was 2am, and I had finished the last half of my audiobook.
Similarly, it was pure accident that I suddenly remembered the Covenant after a few weeks of training. And I thought to myself: aha, there is my pure intention. Since then, I have been moving away from seeing the marathon as an achievement, and moving towards seeing it as embracing my physical potential – that ‘talent’ I buried away so long ago. The marathon, like all created things, was another stepping stone to God.
To that end, we offered the marathon as an intercession. We collected prayer intentions and wrote them on our arms. Then we prayed as we ran – especially for the sick and the physically suffering. It also helped to take our minds off our own suffering (albeit, self-inflicted).
Running 42km in 6h25min is nothing very much to brag about (though perhaps having Crim and IPP the next day is~). That amounts to 6.5 km/h; just a little faster than walking. And considering how much of the marathon Jason and I walked, that really isn’t too surprising.
I will never be as fit as a hypothetical Jock. Part of this journey is learning to accept that gently rather than raging against it or overcompensating for it.
But the other part is learning that physicality is not just about fitness, but about freedom. It is not just about standards, but about sensations. It is not just about pride, but about prayer.
At the close of this chapter, I think I can say that I have learnt a little of these things.
 J doesn’t count because he’s not a bully; he was just a sadistic asshole. Besides, I retaliated in kind. I stabbed his arm with a pen (and got traumatised by my own violence after that -.-). I asked GGY to make a mini stun-gun for me and I burnt (small) holes into him with it. And we all played pepsi cola together in between classes.
 This would have been arbitrary, but for a Resurrection Theodicy: that He makes all things new, that Adam’s fault gained for us so great a Redeemer, that Heaven works backwards and turns agony into glory.