My Journey Back Towards Sanity
I would like to think of myself if not exactly a sportsman, but maybe a sports-loving person.
From a young age I’ve always been active in sports. I’m the kind of kid who loves being out on the field. Running, kicking, hitting, rolling, anything. The best smell in the world to me is the smell of freshly cut grass.
Those who knows me know that I was once a school and PJ district runner, Selangor state hockey player and ardent footballer, school team captain and played amateur football for as long as I can remember. I also play a bit of racquet games like tennis, badminton and squash, though only occasionally and as a pastime.
During my younger days, I used to cycle to Taman Tun Dr Ismail from my home in Kelana Jaya. I would take the Sri Jaya number 33 bus to my mate Nazri’s house in Kampung Tunku to borrow his racer (road bike) and ride off. This was pre-LDP. Even crossed the Federal Highway from Kelana Jaya to Subang Jaya to see friends on my BMX back in the day.
There was no helmet, no clip in cleats, no glove, no nothing. Just pakai selipar and ride. I hate to use this line, because it makes me sound so old, but yes, those were the days. These days, when I put on my gear and outfit to go cycling for just 10km around the neighborhood, it is like putting on armory to go to war.
I was still fairly active after I left school, dabbling with Senior/Veteran League football and futsal. Then life sort of got in the way.
I was traveling a lot for work, and weekends were spent on familial duties. Jemma was born in 2011, and having a newborn child curtailed a lot of extracurricular activities. Plus, the fact that my wife works on shifts, makes it a tad more difficult to find time to go out and do sporting stuff.
Life begins at 40, they say. Not if you let yourself and your body go. It’s pretty woeful when you look at the image of yourself in the mirror and all you see is just a sad, sad reflection of your former self. Well, it is bound to happen if you let yourself go physically and psychologically.
I never really like running distances. I was more of a track runner in school with the 400m and 4x400m being my pet events. I never did have to jog to maintain fitness. The reason why coaches loved me for football, hockey and athletics was not because I was particularly gifted or talented. It was because I could run and run all day and chase whatever comes my way. I was a skinny but fit kid, and I had endurance.
So, eventually I felt like I needed to be active again. Bought my first mountain bike way back in 2011, before cycling became a thing. I cycled alone, around the neighborhood back then when I was staying in Nilai. Then, when my BB batch boys wanted to get together again and play a football friendly match, I knew I needed to get fit again and started jogging. This was in 2015.
I tried to make a comeback after not playing football or futsal for so long. The desire and enthusiasm were still there, the legs weren’t. They were gone. It didn’t become enjoyable anymore. When you’re not fit, your game suffers. Your technique and skills desert you. And you get injured more often and more easily. So you need to rest to heal. And make a comeback again. Rinse and repeat. Same old story. The harder I tried, the less successful I became. Legs gone, fitness gone, technique gone and I became angry. The ‘Roy Keane’ in me reared its ugly head more often in games. I started to kick at opponents. Not that I never used to do that. It’s just I was doing it more often and seemingly without provocation. Just frustration, I guess. In the end, I realized it was high time I quit football for good. You must just know when you just can’t do it anymore. After spending more than three decades of my life playing amateur football, I finally hung up my boots in 2017, aged 43.
The realization that you cannot do the things you used to do when you were younger was at first very hard to take. But at the same time, I do realize that I need to be active to stay healthy. I wasn’t really living the healthiest of lifestyles. Bad eating habits and diet, coupled with smoking cigarettes was not doing my health any favors. There were days when I subsisted on coffee and cigarettes only. And donuts. I love donuts.
The change came when I moved the family to Denai Alam in 2016. I started to take up running. I had to do something to regain some semblance of my former self and not let myself go like this.
Running was easy to do, relatively cheap (all you need is just a good pair of shoes), and you can run anywhere and anytime. Since I was still living in my glorious sportsman past, I thought there was nothing to it. I didn’t bother about heart rate, breathing techniques, cadence, or any other science behind running. All I cared about was how far I could go in the fastest time possible.
To my surprise, I started to enjoy running. Although I don’t do the half or full marathons, I was still doing fairly well in the lower distance races or events like the 5k or 10k runs. I was averaging one to two running events a month throughout 2016-2017. I loved the early morning flag offs, or even a night run event. I loved training and getting ready for events. I loved running with the crowd. It was a spectacular feeling.
What was the catalyst to the change of heart, you may ask? What was the motivating factor? Well, it was because I decided to quit my smoking habit. Having been smoking for 27 years, I never thought I could ever quit. So I told myself, if I wanted to do running and run well, I have to stop smoking. And conversely, if I wanted to stop smoking, I had better start running. Well, it made sense to me then… hahahah…. And I eventually did manage to quit smoking. It was quite an achievement that I’m actually proud of.
I entered all sorts of running events back then. I ran in events in KL city center, Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Shah Alam. The best was running on the NKVE Highway during the UEM 50 Years Anniversary Charity Run in 2016 flagging off from the Subang Toll Plaza. Now that’s something that you don’t get to do very often. If ever.
Apart from events, I was also training at least twice a week with an average of 8-10km per week. And on rest days, I would be on my bike to scout new running routes and measure the distances.
I wasn’t a very fast runner. I would say I’m more of a pace 7-8km/h kinda runner. My best ever time for a 5k event was 30mins at pace 6. And my best 10km was done during the Hari Sukan Negara 2016 race at Dataran Merdeka clocking in at 1:16:52. Not bad for a novice runner, I guess… So I can say that I’ve been there, done that, got the running tee.
The nadir came about April or May in 2017. I was in Perth for a short working trip. After a couple of meetings, my colleague and I checked into a hotel near the airport. That evening, I went for a short run by the Swan River. It was late autumn and the weather was nice and cool. That night however, as I was falling asleep, I had my first serious acid reflux attack, although I wouldn’t know it at that time. I couldn’t breathe, my chest was heavy, and my heart was racing. I panicked. I really thought I was having a heart attack and needed to go to the hospital. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. After about an hour or so, the pain subsided. I didn’t know what hit me. Upon returning to KL, I went to see my GP and he told me I was fine. All vital stats were okay. That episode started the panic attacks and anxiety disorder that I endured until now.
My chest, especially on the left side, continued to feel some discomfort though. I suspected it was gastritis. I continued my usual weekly runs and cycling, and one day it hit me again. After one afternoon run, I came back, rested and took a shower. As I was doing my Maghrib prayers, I started to get cold sweats. My palms and feet were ice cold. My heart was racing. I knew something was not right. My wife rushed me to the nearest clinic and had an ECG. The doctor said everything looked okay but she couldn’t be sure and referred me to a hospital. So off we went to a hospital emergency room and did another ECG. After a while, the cardiologist came in and said I was not having a heart attack. Rather, it was just dehydration.
This was the start of a journey of running in and out of clinics and hospitals. At the slightest onset of pain in my chest, I would rush to do an ECG. My biggest fear? That I would fall victim to a cardiac arrest. I fear for my wife and children. Of what would happen to them if something bad where to befall me. This thought kept playing in my head that I almost fell into a depression.
My late father passed away due to a heart attack. It is said that cardiopulmonary issues can be hereditary, indicating inherited genetic risk factors. This fact weighs in my mind heavily. I was not ready to face up to the fact that I may have a heart problem.
I gathered up enough courage to eventually seek help. I first went to see a gastroenterologist. Did the whole works. Full physical test, blood and urine work, stress test, ECG, x-ray, endoscopy, even a Holter test. This was when I was diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). To put it simply, GERD is basically a more severe form of acid reflux and gastritis. It is a treatable condition though, and in my case, it wasn’t at such an advanced stage yet.
But what GERD does is it also plays with your mind. This happens when the stomach sends confusing signals to the brain, rather than the other way around. It’s called the Brain-Gut Connection. And when this happens, it creates an imbalance in your serotonin levels, the hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. So, you can imagine what impact the imbalance of serotonin can have on a person’s mental wellbeing.
Because of this, I succumbed to regular panic attacks. I kept thinking I’d have a heart attack and fall really sick. Or worse, that I could die. I couldn’t get this thought out of my head. The slightest sensation in any part of my body will send tremors to my head. I was convinced I’m sick with something even when the doctors kept telling me there’s nothing wrong with me physically. It’s a condition called hypochondriac, when you’re obsessed with your health and you imagine all sorts of illnesses that you don’t actually have. This in turn will possibly lead to a mental health condition called psychosomatic, where you actually indulge in overthinking of a non-existent medical condition that will actually manifest itself into a physical ailment. In other words, stress-induced anxiety disorder or another term is ADPA (Anxiety Disorder Panic Attack).
At this point, I knew I needed help. I eventually went to seek psychiatric help in late 2017 and was diagnosed with Panic Disorder. I was put on antidepressant medication and got almost immediately better. But I just couldn’t get rid of the phobia of getting a heart attack or falling sick. The fear caused by the earlier panic attacks was too much to overcome. My confidence lay in tatters.
Although I managed to control the panic attacks with the help of the medication, I was still a nervous wreck. So I dropped everything and just stopped all sporting activities. No more running, football, futsal, even cycling. I avoided exerting myself in any sort of physical activities or any kind of work that would stress my heart.
This went on for a long time. From the time I fell sick in mid-2007, I just couldn’t bring myself to go out and exercise. I knew I needed to. It was supposed to help with my GERD and stress. But the fear of it all just got the better of me.
After a long hiatus of almost 4 years, I eventually gathered enough courage to break the glass ceiling holding me back and went out for short walks around the neighborhood in late 2020. Encouraged and supported by my wife and family, we did a few rounds and finished a Virtual Run event in 2020 for my first physical activity after such a long time out.
I knew I couldn’t rush things in making a comeback. Don’t want to make the same mistakes of overtraining and overdoing things like how I did back in 2016. This was also about the time when I discovered the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training method.
What is MAF?
Simply put, MAF training is to improve your aerobic system. It dictates that you run the majority of your runs underneath a certain heart rate, and by doing so, you build aerobic fitness. If the usual measure of your maximum exercise HR (heart rate) is 220 minus your age, MAF encourages you to train at 180 minus your age. So at that lower heart rate, you’re less likely to get injured, over train or get totally puffed out after each run.
I discovered MAF training through my friends and Sifoo Edward Yong and Jimmy Wee who taught me everything I needed to know to start MAFfing. It was an important step back for me to regain fitness by starting slow after the long time out of any physical activity.
At their behest, I also invested in a Garmin sports watch to monitor my HR accurately during my activities. I can’t stress how important it is to have this especially at this age, and more so when you hear and read all the tragic stories of seemingly active people falling victim due to cardiac arrest during or after doing an activity. I needed this to feel safe and secure when I go out and do my walks, runs or cycling.
The Garmin is actually more than a sports watch. It does all that a sports watch supposed to, like giving you real time HR, distance, speed etc. The best part of my Garmin is that it also comes with features like Incidence Detection, where if you are involved in a crash, the watch will actually send a message to a preset next-of-kin phone number so they’d be aware of what happened to you. Another nifty feature is the Assistance function, where you can send a message to your emergency contacts should you be in need of any help during your activity. And it also has LiveTrack, where your friends and family can actually view your live activity on their devices when you start your run or cycling. Since I do all my activities alone for the most part, I find these features to be very helpful.
To me, more than anything else, exercise is just a means to an end. It’s all about the gear and the gadgets… hahah! Well, you have to look good to feel good, right? And that’s a motivation factor in itself. I always have this thing of putting together all my gear and gadgets before I set out on any activity. Everything has to match, in terms of color and design. Baru nampak hensem walaupun tak terer or tak laju… hahahhaha….
But, seriously, the whole point is more for self-maintenance and health, and maybe lose some extra weight. I’ve gained some unwanted additional weight through the years, though I’m still within my BMI range. But I’d like to be a fair bit lighter. Who doesn’t, right? Plus, as my sifoo always put it, I’d like to be self sufficient when I get older. To be able to age gracefully. Meaning, I would be able to stand and walk on my own and do the simple things at that age and still enjoy doing it.
They say that to maintain good health and weight, it is more about 80% diet, and only 20% exercise. But dieting is hard, it needs discipline. Just ask my wife! Haha…. I do try to watch what I eat, but I already don’t eat a whole of things because of my GERD. Plus, I just can’t do the calorie count thing.
So, now I am just grateful to GOD that I’m back on my feet and out and about again. I try to do a brisk walk or a short run at least once a week, then throw in cycling for fun and recovery. I’ve kept my expectations and ambitions now particularly low, to just do what I can within my limitations.
I’ve decided some time ago when I started again that I was not going to stress myself out when I see people go 10km, 15km or even a Half or Full Marathon run. It is probably beyond me now. But it’s not an issue.
The thing is, I’m genuinely happy with what I’m doing. I feel blessed that I can still do them. Every day, I thank GOD that I’ve been given another day to live and do the things I love to do and I hope long may it continue.
I’m also thankful that I found this bunch of slight nutty guys, the serial marathoner, speed demon, gym junkie, multi-disciple sifoo, trail blazer and other fitness aficionados that I can call my running mates. People like Philip Puaa Wen Piao, Edward Yong, Jonathan Chan, Jimmy Wee, Faisal Shah, Dr Azam, Dr Ridzuan Khusairi, Wan Anwar and Jeff Huzzes. They’re all my ex-high school mates who are into all sorts of fitness, exercise, and adventure regime. I may not measure up to them, but they never, ever once chided me or degraded me for my shortcomings. Rather, they are never judging, very supportive and always encouraging me to be better than yesterday. I’m truly blessed to have this group of friends to call upon.
My biggest achievement last year was undoubtedly the Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2021. Although it was only for the 5km category, I was chuffed that I was able to complete it at all. With the encouragement of the group and my family, I finally did it. Something that was unimaginable a few years back. It’s something I’m rightly proud of.
My goal? Fit before 50. By that age, I should be fairly healthy again, in mind and body. It is time to slay the demons that are running wild in my mind and live life again to its fullest. Slowly but surely, I will get there. I have roughly two more years to go having just passed 48 years old a few days back.
My advice to you, dear readers, is simple. Listen to your body. Do the annual health checks and consult a doctor. A proper one. Not the Google or FB types. You’re better off knowing your physical condition rather than taking the ‘ignorance is bliss’ route. Prevention is always better than having to cure.
Take care all. Stay safe, stay healthy.