“Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Slings. It’s one of the first things you find out there. What you do in Singapore is eat. It’s a really food-crazy culture, where all of this great food is available in a kind of hawker-stand environment.” — Anthony Bourdain
Traveling for business is a luxury that few people experience. While this luxury is often
common in the corporate workplace if you’re a small business owner you’re less likely to splurge for the business class seats or the $20 cocktail because it’s on your dime. After years of corporate travel, the entire experience can get a bit cliche – traveling to another generic city; staying in another generic hotel; enjoying the day-glow from the same generic fluorescent lighting, etc. For the runner, however, every trip is an opportunity; an opportunity to scrap the expense account and seek out more modest and grassroots adventures; cultivate the off-beaten track and get back to a time in your memory where every flight was special, every hotel mythical and every city a new maze of wonder. The only trick: use your feet (and always, always recap your first paragraph in your best Anthony Bourdain impersonation ).
For all of the gravitas that a “free” trip sounds (i.e. someone else foots the bill), the reality is that you’re always on the clock. Nothing in life is truly free. Your time is NOT your own. You need to spend every precious minute squeezing out your “business” which leaves little time for the unplanned or unencumbered diversions. Like most things in our modern world, it’s the struggle with the diversion that is our primary pre and post-occupation – the time is there if you know where to look for it; you have to turn over every wine bottle, find courage when no help is coming and make plenty of mistakes along the way.
Dean Karnazes has long spoken about one strategy to enjoy the days you wake up in a
foreign location. You go downstairs, put on your running shoes, pack a credit card, ID, some large and small domestic currency and just get lost. Getting lost is actually a lot of fun as long as you don’t go too far afield. In a city like Singapore, you’re pretty safe – it’s one of the safest cities in the world so you should go forth with confidence. Pointing yourself towards a water-way or a natural park is typically a good bet if you’re trying to find where the locals go. When you get up early enough, especially in Singapore where the temperatures reach 100 degrees with humidity all year long, you tend to find your tribe.
The environment shapes the running community, their habits, contortion
s, commotions, and locomotion. Sitting ten degrees above the equator there are no seasons, no pollen and no cool breeze to be found. Except at night. Night time is the right time to run. In the dark with only the geckos to keep you company. During the work week, this can mean either a very early start or a very late finish; treadmills for me to make the week count. The weekends are another story.
No one should go to Asia from the Americas for only one week. You never really get back on schedule – and while “normal” doesn’t apply to most of the things that I do, the idea that your international adventure would be good ultra-marathon training was not lost on me after 48 hours of only sleeping, working and occasionally: running. With only a week to try exploring the new location, there were surprisingly too many options to choose from. Would I try to tackle some of the trails in the north or should I try to stick to the roads where if I got into trouble there would be a lifeline of UBER among other things? In the end, I decided to play the streets like a local and stick to the roads. This meant getting up far before the sun and trying to find the only place suitable for a long run from my hotel: East River Park.
Clubb (run) ing in the Dark
Having never been to the parkway (or country) before, I didn’t really know what to
expect. All I knew for sure was that it hugs the shoreline and has enough miles to get the mileage done (50K race prep requires no excuses) – it also ends at the airport so worst case scenario, I’ll be ready for my flight out of town the next day. After crossing the main bridge from downtown Singapore to the park, I noticed a few of my tribe out early for their long runs. Then the crews showed up – groups of runners running in packs in the early hours, drafting for speed. This was the only game in town it seems. When you follow a familiar pattern of abuse, you tend to find people that have similar patterns of behavior; us runners are creatures of habit the world over.
With the darkness our only friend, we set out East towards the sunrise yet to bubble over the water. The trail is largely paved with plenty of pit spots for bathroom breaks and BBQ for beachgoers. While some sections are lit by streetlights, other sections are quite dark – fear not, as I told my wife who was halfway around the globe at the time: there is ZERO crime in Singapore so running in the middle of the night is about as safe as it gets.
Eventually, with the sun starting to rise you get a clear view of how that cocktail of heat and humidity is going to hit you later in the morning – now, my small amount of water I left with isn’t going to do the job. I needed to find more hydration sources and fast. This was roughly two hours into my run with an hour or two to go. Typically, I would do a dehydration run here and there to test and verify “the suck”. While on vacation halfway around the world, it’s not the time to take these type of chances.
Prior advice about taking large and small bills is great advice. Taking small coins didn’t even occur to me. While I was fortunate that there were many bathrooms and drink machines along the route, at that hour there was nothing else open. The machines only took coins and with my water dwindling I was starting to recognize that I was in quite a hydration pickle (and yes, pickle juice would have been welcome).
Thankfully, as the sun rose the stores opened as well and with them the ultimate
refreshment: coconuts. With a quick pit stop along the road, I quickly found a stand with fresh coconuts – perhaps the BEST, MEATIEST and nutrient dense coconut I’ve ever tasted. Clearly, I was significantly dehydrated and a wee bit loopy – I slurped up the milk and the meat and was on my way in no time at all; the rest of the adventure fueled in the right way. An electric buzz filled me for the rest of my return to the city and I could tell that this adventure would be a success. My last crossing of the bridge back into the city saw the latecomers – the 8am crowd shuffling to their coffee and the rowers getting ready for a dragon boat regatta. Not to mention, I saw the tail end of what looked like a corporate 10KM race in the heat of the day – amazing commitment folks.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to a number of resources available online to navigate the area and all of the options. This medium article, in particular, pointed me in the right direction – Singapore truly is an amazing place with a vibrant expatriate community; I can’t wait to go back. Equally, some of my colleagues (new and old) made the trip amazing – truly warm hospitality; connecting with friends anywhere in the world reminds you that in a pinch, human connection is the only thing that matters (there goes that Bourdain-voice again).
Being a tourist isn’t all bad. In fact, it can be downright intoxicating if you know where to go to get intoxicated. Singapore is a food and wine culture; with the crackdown on other solicit and illegal activities, the country throws its weight into some of the oldest remaining vices: food and wine. And it does not disappoint. My favorite restaurant on this trip was Praelum
– absolutely insanely good and a collection of expert wines. There was also Din Tai Fung
at the Sands by the Bay – I mean you have to get the dumplings if you’re in Singapore. And the noodles. And the pork. And the hot damn everything.
It’s often said that if one has more time to write, then for sure they could have written less. Trolling the disorganized wreckage of my iPhone photo history has reminded me of
this far too often; many stories, factoids – irrelevant, poignant and encouraging all left to wither; may be brought to life one day in the middle of a run or at dinner; a colorful history that remains locked away for some time. A few nuggets that have bubbled to the surface:
- Come for the food. Stay for the toilets. It’s true that Japanese Toilet culture has permeated all things in modern Asia and I do NOT want to go back to a land of toilet seats that are not heated in the winter.
- Treadmill Technology. Same as everywhere. It’s truly funny that the same treadmill technology in Singapore is the same I used to run at in lower Manhattan. They have screens with visual running routes to make the time go by – same trail run in the California Redwoods that I ran in NY, I’m running inside in Singapore. Halarious.
- Rooftop Pools. It’s true that pretty much every hotel in Singapore (and there are a TON) have rooftop pools – and what better way to travel than taking a dip in the middle of the night – the weather is always perfect so wtf not.
- Formula One. It’s true that the entire roadway turns into a race track – just like Monaco. And with that you have the casinos, the fine dining, the gazillionaires – somehow they turned Singapore into the destination for excess – in a city that doesn’t do excess (penalty for narcotics: death, sorry, play again).
The best part of this trip was that I’m pretty sure I left a LOT on the table. Some of the trail running I never got to check out due to time constraints but I’m definitely going to check them out next time. Getting around was just too easy – between local cabs and Uber, I didn’t even ever need real local currency to get around and get things done. Next time, will have to coordinate to take part in one of the local trail or ultra races – and yes, there ARE ultra-runners in Singapore (a TON actually).