Marathon: A self-challenging journey

by Kathleen Pokrud

“Why so many ordinary people run marathons?” We know that running offers amazing health benefits, but a long-distance race of 42 kilometres sounds a self-challenging perseverance test.  Expat Life sat down for an interview with long-time expatriate Bangkok resident, Emil Siranovic who has been enjoying this sport for over 30 years.  We are here to learn about his journey, not as a professional athlete, but a recreational runner.  Anyone who wishes to pick up marathon as your new personal goal may find some useful tips.  Every runner has a story and here is Emil’s. 

Three decades ago

In 1988, Emil started running in New York City in a small way by participating in a 5 km run organized for his office and then in his New Jersey neighborhood. He recalled, “I discovered that I enjoyed both the comradeship and the physical exertion of running, something that all office workers could use. In mid-1989 when my work assignment took me to Ningbo, Zhe Jiang Province in China, I worked on an isolated site with no other company, except the Chinese engineering staff who spoke very little English. There was nothing to do for entertainment with that a countryside location – no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines.  Those were the days before Wi-Fi, no communications other than an occasional phone call to the US and a fax machine for business purposes. Question was how to pass the time apart from working (alone)?  I read books and played CDs – all in very limited quantities that I brought with me. So, I turned to running in mornings and evenings through the local farmer’s fields. Then, I discovered that I enjoyed the running and the outings it provided. It allowed me to shift focus from work and find another activity to fill my life. Since I had no other companions, I became a lone runner and have continued to always run alone, but I have seen many people join running groups and realize that this is a much better way to get the most out of the running activity.”

Joy of running

Expat Life asked Emil on his training and fitness routine. “I didn’t do any special training for my runs of 10 km two to three times a week in Lumpini or Benjasiri Parks.  Many people have asked me why I run in the first place.  To put it simply, I feel lucky to discover the joy in running.  I have many reasons – it helps to keep me fit, it takes me out into the city parks where I can enjoy the surroundings.  I feel the adrenalin kick in pushing myself the best that I can. As a lone runner, I also appreciate the pleasure of running in large groups, especially with young people that could be as large as a few thousand.  The presence of a crowd running all around me – with some slower and some faster – provided an incentive to stretch my limit.”  Like many early morning runners, Emil explained the quiet solitude is some form of “mediation” that he religiously follow. 

Organized Runs

Organized runs in many cities are runs on the streets, in often-polluted air and traffic environment. It helps that all runs are early in the morning, which makes things better.  Over time running has expanded worldwide and there are now many half-Marathons (21 km) in many cities. Emil shared, “I was tempted to try running longer distance as a challenge. I found that with my weekly routine run of 10 km, wasn’t too difficult to run 21 km in a modest time. I mastered that for running a longer distance, the training routine was to just run the usual 10 km distances and only occasionally to go beyond that. In this way, you achieved the necessary fitness without too much exhaustion. Professional athletes have different and more complex routines.  This simple routine was just right for someone like me who just enjoyed the morning outings in the park.”  Cities in many Asian countries nowadays hold half-Marathons. Emil ran severals in Thailand, namely Bangkok, Kanchanaburi at River Kwai, and Chonburi; as well as out-of-country in Cambodia at Angkor Wat, in Laos at Vientiane and Luan Prabang. Information on many similar events in other cities and towns in the region are available online.

Full Marathons

Full Marathons (42.5 km) are generally limited to major cities such as Bangkok, Yangon, Da Nang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore among others. These are much bigger affairs and generally involve several thousand participants. To increase runner numbers and their popularity, they also often tack on to the schedule with half-Marathons and 10 km runs. Major cities such as New York and Tokyo have stricter qualifying requirement to enter the race, so not just anybody can take part. In Bangkok there are no special requirements, as Emil echoed “just the will to challenge yourself and the joy of participation.”

Emil recalled his journey to challenge for full marathon, “For anyone who enjoys running and has achieved a half-Marathon level, doing a full Marathon is such a temptation and a challenge that’s hard to resist. It’s like wanting to climb to the top of Everest. You wonder, “Can I do this?” and rationalize “It’s only twice the half-Marathon distance” and “how hard can it be?” And if you are young enough (say under 50) and fit enough, and enjoy some punishment, with reasonable training over several months it should not be a problem. There are a lot of advice online and written materials on how to train and time frame.  I encourage anyone interested should take the time to research and select a routine that suits your body type.

Emil candidly recollected a few lessons that he learnt along the way, “Do keep in mind that thinking “it’s only twice the half-Marathon distance so it can’t be too hard” is fooling yourself. In my case, the second half would come to many points of “eternity”, especially when I start experiencing leg cramps. However, there are always enjoyable offsetting experiences such as the time when I was near the end of the race I felt like dying and focusing on my poor cramping legs when a gorgeous young girl ran up to me and placed a flower wreath around my neck. I forgot my cramping legs and speeded up for the last half kilometer and finished the race with a smile.”

Emil ran five Bangkok Marathons between 2008 and 2015. Now focusing on half-marathons, which he regards as  “a doable challenge”. He recalled how he was inspired for his first marathon immediately after returning home from a three-week trek in the Himalayas to Mt. Everest base camp. “That was a hard trip that involved grueling up-and down vertical climbs over a distance of 50 km, starting at elevation of 1,900m and ending at 5,500m, sleeping in cold rooms and eating very meager rations. As a result, I came back to Bangkok in skin and bones. I thought this would be a good time to attempt a marathon. I was toughened and lightweight, and thought this would make the run easy. It just goes to show how easy it is to fool yourself as I discovered that what I thought of as “tough” was just latent exhaustion after a long trek and the marathon turned out to be painfully hard. After I completed 30 km and was crossing the Rama XIII Bridge. I was about ready to quit and get a ride back to the starting point. It was then that I came upon an elderly Thai man on the bridge that was watching me struggle and who started shouting what was clearly “keep going, you can do it”. It was all in Thai but you did not need words – his actions were easy to understand. At that moment I knew that I could not give up, and I redoubled my effort and went on to finish the race, much the worse for wear, but elated that I had done it. The moral of the story is that do the marathon when you are fit and strong and not just under-weight and exhausted.  In the following year 2009, I was in much better shape and well trained and the run was a joy.”

Another memorable experience Emil encountered, “Runs can be fun in the least expected ways as I discovered on a half-Marathon in Vientiane in 2017. After crossing the finishing line, I was approached by two young Japanese ladies who came to thank me profusely and give me a gift of a plate of brownies that they had baked the night before and brought to the race. It seems that they were running behind me and near the end of the race they were exhausted and about to give up. Then they saw this old geyser running ahead of them and not stopping, and were inspired by his example to finish the race. I was pleased to have I pulled them to the finish.”

General Tips for Running

As an enthusiastic leisure runner, Emil shares some his valuable to pursue his healthy hobby.

  • A general tip for running beginners is to enjoy being out in the environment and look for the pleasure of challenging yourself beyond your norm. Start slow and build up your ability and strength and with time both your capacity and pleasure will grow.  
  • Kick-start by doing short distances of two km and work up to more as your fitness increases. You will find after a short time that doing too little becomes boring and you will challenge yourself to do more and more.
  • Start with initial slow jogging you can also increase both your capacity and enjoyment by related activities such gym work and walking up stairs. I walk up and down 27 floors in my condo. It is a great cardio workout and being close to home so there is little excuse not to do it. Baiyoke II Tower (89 stories) and the Banyan Tree Bangkok (65 stories) hold annual vertical climbs that are fun to take part in.
  • Join a running group to combine social interaction with physical activity. There are many running groups in Bangkok, with information available online.
  • Along the belief in “no pain, no gain”, the compensation is the adrenalin rush that comes from vigorous physical exercise and achievement of what you do not think was possible. 

Running is not for everybody, but Emil concludes that he knows many people who were initially reluctant and thought that they would prefer the easy chair in front of the TV, change their mind when they try it.  Let us all start our first running steps! 

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