From that day on, I never backed down from a challenge. When a friend dropped me a text informing me of a 100km cross-island walk that was happening that weekend, my reply was instantaneous. I told him to consider it done.
Four days later, I find myself at the start point in the heart of Raffles Place. Amongst the crowd of about 150 people, the enormity of the task that lay ahead hit me.
One. Hundred. Kilometres. Destination: fucked.
In a bid to soothe the rioting butterflies in my stomach, I turn Spotify on and frantically thumb through my music library. But before I get the chance to settle on something to quell my panic, my attention is drawn to the man who is now standing on the platform in front of everyone.
The man introduces himself as Mr Vijay Kumar, founder of SGTrek and organiser of the event. During his briefing, I notice that somewhat strangely, he constantly reminds us that we’re free to stop at any time. I find out why a few moments later when he drops the bombshell that he’s never walked further than 60km in his life.
Fan-fucking-tastic. I resist the urge to walk up and bitch slap him right there and then. With the sad realisation that I’ve well and truly bitten off more than I can chew, I reset my phone’s pedometer and take the first steps on the journey of a thousand miles.
Oh Lao Tzu, if you could see me now.
So far, so good. In the hour, we’ve passed every landmark that you’d expect to find on a postcard from Singapore by taking a rather scenic route through the Marina Bay area. This improves my mood considerably and deciding that ignorance really is bliss, I put off checking the distance we’ve covered and make a mental note to do so for as long as possible.
The past hour has also been a quiet one. I’ve largely kept to myself since we set off but I’m starting to get a bit bored. As luck would have it, the elderly gentleman slightly ahead of me turns around and asks if I’m doing okay. I nod and happily introduce myself.
Mus tells me that he got to know Vijay a couple of years ago through Facebook and adds that he’s helping him ensure no one gets lost along the way—something that happened on a previous 10km hike in Marsiling. As we chat, he also shares with me stories about his adventures, from diving in Komodo to trekking up various mountains in South-East Asia. Upon hearing this, I remark that a hundred kilometres should be a walk in the park for him. But he reveals that he suffers from gout and that his feet have already started hurting.
Mus smiles as he anticipates my question.
“I want to challenge myself and test my limits,” he answers.
Damn. I don’t tell him that I’m only there because I had nothing better to do that weekend.
It’s been a solid two hours since Mus and I bade each other farewell at the start of East Coast Park when he dropped back to wait for his wife. In that time, I’ve managed to catch up to a group of faster walkers, and as we plod along, I hear a lady exclaim in exasperation: “HALF OF SINGAPORE IS THIS BLOODY PARK IS IT?”
Mercifully, after another ten minutes or so, we hit the open road and leave the nightmare masquerading as East Coast Park behind.
But I’m afraid it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.
As any avid cyclist in Singapore will tell you, Tanah Merah Coast Road is an arrow-straight stretch of tarmac that runs parallel to the runways of Changi Airport and then some. And whilst I’m sure that the road is brilliant for cyclists looking to break Mach 1 on their road bikes, it’s the epitome of hell on earth for pedestrians. The place is a dusty shithole void of any human life save for a workers’ dormitory that was built there. Coincidence? Maybe.
By now, both my ankles have begun screaming bloody murder and I’ve spent the last two hours exhausting my vocabulary of profanities. Honestly, the only thing that’s keeping me going is the thought of dinner.
Finally, after 7 hours of constant walking, I have my first meal of the day. Between mouthfuls of the best damn nasi biryani on the face of the earth, I give in to temptation and check my pedometer. Crud. All that agony and effort added up to a grand total of just 32km. I try to drown my sorrows in my cup of bandung. It doesn’t work.
Dinner is a quick affair since we wolfed our meals down like savages. As the bill arrives, my companions inform me that they’re all calling it a night. I stand by and watch them fire up the Grab and Uber apps on their phones and one by one, they leave. After mentally condemning them to the company of Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold, I make the choice to stick it out for as long as possible.
I should mention that at this point, I have absolutely no clue how to get to the next checkpoint in our walk: Punggol’s Waterway Point. Up until now, I’ve just been following the people in front of me, all of whom are currently on their way home to warm beds.
I spend the next half hour wandering around Changi Village in the hope that I’d find my guiding light and not have to trudge my sorry ass back to that dreadful coastal road. Thankfully, just as I’m about to accept my fate, I stumble upon Vijay having dinner with yet another group of walkers. I patiently wait for him to finish his food and while away the time by tweeting about my misery in 280 characters or less.
Off we go again. Joy.
Somewhere along the dim street lights of Lorong Halus, I get a moment alone with Vijay and decide to ask the man behind everyone’s collective insanity a few questions. I start off by asking if he’s always been into trekking, to which he shakes his head, laughs, and tells me that he was quite the party animal in his younger days before getting bitten by the hiking bug 4 years ago.
I then learn he used to play host to couch-surfers in his apartment. After growing sick of showing his guests the same boring buildings time and again, he decided one day to bring them on a trek through the greenery of Singapore. The rest, as they say, is history.
And why a hundred kilometres?
Yes, you guessed it. He wanted a challenge.
Of the 20 of us that left Changi Village at midnight, only 7 make it to Waterway Point and morale is at an all-time low after learning that Vijay sprained his ankle and dropped out near Safra Punggol a few hundred meters back.
In an attempt to cheer myself up, I check my pedometer but once again, it makes for grim reading. A mere 42km. I want to hurl the damn thing against the wall and watch it smash to pieces. A pretty apt metaphor for my emotional state really. Frustrated and mentally burnt out, I agree to abandon the predetermined route and follow everyone to The Punggol Settlement where we can wait for daybreak and the first buses of the day.
As everyone sits by the bus stop comparing their various aches and pains, I zone out and give the small voice that’s deep in the recesses of my brain the attention it’s so desperately been craving for. It’s defiant and refuses to let me just quit and go home. I close my heavy eyes and boom, suddenly, I get it.
I get why endurance athletes put their bodies through sheer agony for a medal they’ll never wear. I get why armies force their elite soldiers to complete seemingly impossible tasks.
I realise that I’ve misunderstood Mus and Vijay when they told me that they were looking for a challenge. It was never about conquering a physical distance.
I finally understand that the body is merely a vessel through which the mind executes its will.
Mustering every last shred of determination I have left, I get up and start to put one foot in front of the other again. Right. It’s time to find out exactly what I’m made of.
Two and a half hours after finally taking shit seriously, I’m back on track. I’ve somehow managed to hobble through both Punggol and Sengkang and I’m feeling pretty good about myself as I make my way deeper into Seletar.
I text my family and let them know about my accomplishment. My mother replies with a single thumbs-up emoji. Nice.
Having headed north from Seletar Airport, I’m now in the dystopian town otherwise known as Yishun. The heat has started to come into play and my breaks have become considerably longer. During one of them, I have an epiphany while resting in the shade of some random tree. I figure that short of getting stabbed, I’ve maxed out my pain levels.
Yeah sure, every muscle south of my waist is on fire and my inner thighs feel like sandpaper against my testicles. But when you hit rock bottom, the only place to go is up, right?
Buoyed by the fact that I can’t possibly feel any worse, I not-so-discreetly adjust my balls and soldier on.
Maybe because my body is so severely depleted of every mineral known to man, I start to feel as emotional as a woman before her monthly visits from Aunt Flo. I find myself close to tears as I read the messages of support and encouragement from friends and strangers who’ve followed my journey via Instagram. Or maybe I’m just a huge wuss.
Whichever the case, I decide it wise to self-medicate with 100plus and buy a few bottles from the 7-11 at Admiralty’s train station. After a few moments, the emotions pass and I go back to being the stone-cold asshole I usually am.
Interesting. I wonder what other surprises my body has in store for me.
Jesus Christ, I’ve been on the go for an entire day now. Even I didn’t think I’d make it this far. A quick glance at my pedometer shows that I’ve covered a distance of 80km. Not bad. And yet, not good enough. I do my best to stay optimistic but right on cue, the heavens open as I make my way down Upper Bukit Timah Road.
Wow. I guess I really am going to have to go through hell and high water.
Nothing to see here folks. Just another guy in tights limping down Dunearn Road in the rain. Bored, I try singing to myself to pass the time and for reasons unbeknownst to myself, the first song that pops into my head is the Stefanie Sun national day classic: ‘We Will Get There’.
Naturally (or arguably conditioned to), I sing with gusto:
“Deep in my heart, I just know.
Right from the start, we will grow.
Look where we are, we’ve come so far.
And there’s still a …”
I’m running on nothing but pure adrenaline as I enter the Botanic Gardens. I know that I’m agonisingly close to ending the madness and a sense of excitement has started to build inside me. After navigating the garden’s maze of pathways in a frenzied blur, Nassim Road comes into view, signalling the final leg of my trek. All I have left to do is make my way downtown.
Rather amazingly, halfway along Orchard Road my brain blocks out all my pain and I break into a jog.
This is it. The homestretch.
Battered, blistered and broken, I arrive at a deserted Raffles Place. Since the walk isn’t an official event in Singapore’s race calendar, there’s no finish line to cross or medals to collect.
Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’ve managed to prove something to myself and that’s all that matters.
Only by going through abject misery did I learn exactly how strong my mind is and I can honestly say that my journey was one of self-discovery rather than a hundred kilometres. The pain I felt afterwards was a reminder of that. And as cliché as it might sound, it was all worth it.