Many would choose to relax and enjoy the holiday season as the year comes to an end. After all, what better way to sit back and reflect on the fruits of hard labour throughout the year?
NOPE, according to a group of runners who decided that running a relay throughout Penang Island is the very definition of ending a year with a bang!
The Annual Round the Island Relay, organised by the Penang Amateur Athletics Association (PAAA), is typically held in Penang in the second week of December, with the exception of 2017, where it was pushed all the way to 31 December 2017. From a humble participation of just a few teams all the way in 1977, the relay now boasts a participation of 58 teams in 2017. Teams can choose to join any or all of the following three categories, depending on the age and gender of participating runners: Men Open, Men Veteran Open, and Mixed Team. Each team, composed of 12 runners and three substitutes, are required to run the relay through 12 checkpoints of various distances and elevations while holding a baton. The longest and shortest routes of the relay are 7.79 km (Checkpoint 1) and 3.73 km (Checkpoint 5) respectively, with the total mileage of the race set at 72.63 km.
The relay is especially exciting as it involves a great deal of strategy and teamwork, traits that are absent in the usual races. Runners are placed in their respective legs by team managers based on their capability and speed. A wrong move could cost the entire team their timing and placement.
The relay now begins at 4 am, with completion times ranging from about five hours to nine hours, depending on the overall speed of participating teams. Runners for the first leg are flagged off right in front of the City Hall Building at the Esplanade. Runners for the second and third legs are shuttled to their locations by buses prepared specially by the PAAA for the occasion. The rest of the crew are typically ferried to their checkpoints by their team managers and support system. However, runners usually end up gate-crashing all checkpoints to support their teammates and friends, turning the whole area into a cacophonous fiesta.
This time around, I joined team ActifeStyle Happy New Year, a Mixed-category team managed by Andrew Loh. I was designated to run the fifth leg near Balik Pulau, the shortest route of the relay. The route encompassed a few hundred metres of gentle uphill section, followed by a downhill section all the way up to the sixth checkpoint. However, I had the opportunity of visiting every checkpoint before and after my leg as Andrew drove my team mates to all the checkpoints. It was great fun witnessing the exchange of batons among all runners.
Our team began the first leg with Kho Ko King. We kept ourselves busy by cheering for all other participants while waiting for him at the second checkpoint. After passing the baton to Ricky Beh Keng Chun, we picked Kho Ko King and travelled to the third and fourth checkpoints to lend our support to Mathias Adam Maurin and Deborah Chinn. I began feeling nervous as I reached Checkpoint 5, the start of my leg. Fast male runners running in the Men Open and Men Veteran categories flitted quickly between the checkpoints as I waited for my turn to begin. The pressure to perform well increased with the knowledge that my team was ranked top three up to Checkpoint 4. The anxiety tripled when I saw Deborah approaching quickly from afar. She smiled happily as she passed the baton to me. I turned and began my quick ascent up the hill.
I was accompanied all the way by a PAAA official on a motorcycle. The route was a little narrow and dark, but I had company in the form of support cars and motorcycles of various teams who lit the way for me. Two police escorts managed the traffic locked behind me due to my humanly pace. A minor issue arose during my leg in which an impatient driver drove his car beside me and revved his machine a few times before driving away, with the police escorts hot on his heels soon after.
The downhill segment of the route was not very easy on my knees, but thankfully it was a short run. I arrived at Checkpoint 6 in 17 minutes and 11 seconds to a raucous welcome by all participants and supporters there. After passing my baton to my teammate Ewe Bee Hong, I was immediately whisked away by my team manager to follow up with the progress at the other checkpoints.
We dropped Jones Chua Wei Tiong at Checkpoint 7, a route best described as hilly, and wished him well. It was still dark as I reached Checkpoint 8, but I could hear the beautiful sounds of a waterfall in the background. As we waited with the other runners in the middle of a forest, we learnt to our dismay that a runner was accidentally dropped by his team at the wrong checkpoint. A motorcyclist who happened to pass the route at that point offered to send the runner to his correct checkpoint. As Jones arrived, we wished Ling Kee Leong good luck for the next leg, and drove to Checkpoint 9.
Checkpoint 9 was located by the Teluk Bahang dam. A light drizzle and grey skies greeted us as we parked the car to lend our support to Nur Hazimah Idris. The air was cool and the view simply breathtaking. The relay began taking a serious turn at this point as everyone realised that mere minutes separated the top four teams in our category. After wishing Hazimah well, we immediately moved to Checkpoint 10, located by the Batu Ferringhi beach.
As we waited for Kam Woei Yann’s turn to run the 10th leg, the grey skies cleared and the sun began showing itself, despite the drizzle. Wishing for the weather to remain cool, we moved to Checkpoint 11 after Hazimah passed the baton to Woei Yann. It was also revealed at this point that we were in great danger of dropping to the fourth spot. As the baton reached the hands of Gooi Heng Seong, who ran leg 11 of the course, the O2 Hiking Club Team A was proven superior as the team pushed themselves to the third spot.
We then tailgated the final runner of our team, Mayl Yeap Yuh Jiuan, at a safe distance as she tried her best to catch up to the team before us. We drove around and parked ourselves in strategic locations just to yell uplifting words to her as she made her way in the sun to the finishing point. She was greeted by hugs and kisses from team mates and supporters as she crossed the finish line at the Esplanade, tired but happy.
The atmosphere at the Esplanade was carnival-like as teams and supporters lounged around and nibbled on snacks and food generously provided by all teams as well as the PAAA, while waiting for the other teams to arrive. A Milo van was also parked nearby, attracting a long queue that lasted quite a while. Curious tourists milled among us to query about the occasion and snap photographs.
The ActifeStyle Happy New Year team managed to complete the route in 5:25:01, ranking fourth among all mixed teams. We received medals and a team trophy for our efforts. The Annual Round the Island Relay was packed with adrenaline and surprises that were worthy of an action movie. I would definitely recommend this event to runners who are seeking to end their year with a bang!
Photos courtesy of Andrew Loh.