Running The World: Malaysia

This week’s Running The World interview is from the country of Malaysia. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about Malaysia beforehand, except that an old boyfriend was obsessed with the place. So I had to do some investigating.

Malaysia is a small country with a population of 29m, made up of the Malaysia Peninsula (which borders Thailand and which is linked to tiny Singapore by a bridge) and East Malaysia, on a large island which it shares with much larger Indonesia. Brunei is nestled snugly into the land making up East Malaysia. The business capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the administrative capital, Putrajaya, are both on the Malaysia Peninsula. The main ethnic groups are Malays, Chinese and Indians.

Our interviewee is the wonderful Fairy. I wish that was technically correct but her real name is Farah.  I met her following my interview with Holly and Grace about running in SingaporeSanthi tweeted me to say I should speak to Fairy…so I did…and this is what happened.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My real name is Farah but close friends and family call me Fairy. I am a business IT professional working for a financial institution. I live in Petaling Jaya, a township about 15-20 minutes away from the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur. My hobbies are running, travelling, reading and writing/blogging. At one point I was blogging about my observations on Indonesian pop culture. But now my interests have shifted to blogging about my adventures in running at run.fairym.com.

Fairy trail running xxx
Fairy running the trails in Kiara, near KL

How did you get into running?

I first started running after I worked to lose about 20% of my old weight due to exercising using video games like the Wii Fit and Xbox Kinect – that was 2010. I then took up running as a way to further develop and increase my fitness level. So far it has been 3 years since I took it up, my first race being a 5km at a race called Energizer Night Run which took place on the track of the Sepang International Circuit where the famous F1 motorcar races are held. I normally run 3-4 times a week and nowadays I incorporate some gym work in between those sessions.

How big is running as a sport in Malaysia?

Running as a competitive sport has always been around in Malaysia, in schools, universities and national teams; runners compete in district, state, national and world levels as they do in other parts of the world. However, running as a hobby has become even bigger and popular in recent years among recreational and amateur runners. Log on to any social media and you’ll find more and more Malaysians coming forth to excitedly share their experiences in running, whether it’s a solo thing, a group effort, a gadget review or achieving a personal best at an event. And personally I think it is happening worldwide too, not just in Malaysia.

There are road races every weekend across the country, mostly as a result of some corporation wanting to increase their brand visibility or a NGO aiming to raise funds for charity while providing an outlet for runners. Every year the number of runner allocations for the big races increases. For example, Malaysia’s major marathon, the Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur Marathon (SCKLM) in the capital city debuted in 2009 with “only” 13,500 runners. By 2013 that number had increased 61% to about 35,000. Penang Bridge International Marathon (PBIM) which takes place in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia also enjoys large participation rate; last November they saw 34,500 runners and this year (2014) they are expecting that number to double at 70,000. It’s truly mind boggling!

The Penang Bridge Marathon Source
The Penang Bridge Marathon
Source

If you could encourage a traveller to do any Malaysian race, which would it be?

If you’re looking for a road race, I’d recommend the KL Marathon or Penang Marathon (PBIM). If you’re looking for a mountainous trail, The Most Beautiful Thing ultramarathon in Sabah (the Borneo part of Malaysia in the east) is also breathtaking.

(Cat’s note: The Trails In Motion Film Festival featured a film about this race. You can actually watch it online for free HERE. 8 mins of trail gorgeousness. If you’re local, the TIMFF is at Sunnyvale on August 7th).  

What kind of people are running?

Traditionally males are always more active and visible in sports, running notwithstanding. If you observe a race event in Malaysia, you’ll find more male participants than females (about 2/3), female participation is always lower than the men’s. But that is not to say women aren’t embracing running. Our numbers are growing too!

Any idea on how big running is amongst women in Malaysia?

I don’t have the exact statistics of number of female runners in the country but if you want to get a feel of how we stack up against the men, we usually make about 25-35% of all participants in a running event (assuming it’s not a ladies-only event like the Malaysia Women Marathon). We have a diverse age range; you can pretty much find 20 year-olds as you can ladies in their 50s; in fact some of the faster female runners I know are well above 40!

I think what’s driving the growth is women’s propensity for networking and self-awareness of wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle. There’s also that desire to look good too – and how can you resist all those cute fashions they’ve got for us lady runners.

I see more urban women running than their rural counterparts. It may have something to do with education and disposable income levels (running gear is not cheap). Plus cities have more access to facilities that promote running (gyms, parks, support groups, etc).

Also, since there are many Muslim women runners in the country, the availability of sports hijab (headcover) offerings has also taken off, giving ladies who would like to preserve their lifestyle more options for their exercise attire. But at the heart of it all, I think women who run have found some sort of enjoyment from the physical and mental challenges that the sport brings them.

Fairy and her running buddies at the Petronas Towers xxx
Fairy and her running buddies at the Petronas Towers

How safe do you feel when you run?

Truthfully, I only feel safe running on the roads when I am with friends, preferably with one or more guy friends in the mix – I never run outdoors alone. Unless you live in a gated neighbourhood, I wouldn’t recommend running alone especially if you are a woman.  I’ve seen a friend almost getting car-jacked after she left a group run to change, which is why I am so paranoid about safety. My friend was brave – she screamed and shouted to grab attention, and people rushed to her aid, scaring the perpetrators off. If you are new to Malaysia and are looking to explore new territory or trail, find some local running buddies.

Do Malaysian runners often go to nearby Singapore to run or race?

Yes they do in fact, since our countries are so close to each other. I personally went to Singapore last year to run a race (the GE Women’s half marathon, loved it), that was my first time running in the Lion City and it was one of the best races I had ever ran.

I did notice a something however during the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM) 2013 early December: I had expected to see many post-race photos from SCSM from Malaysian runners on my Facebook timeline but there was little to show for it. However, there was an overwhelming surge of shots from my Indonesian contacts instead! When I asked around about it, observers pointed out to me that the Malaysian runners had gone to the Macau Marathon that fell on the same date instead! So the theory was, seasoned Malaysian runners had gotten bored of racing in Singapore (Holly has mentioned in her interview with you that running routes in Singapore are just slight variations of the same main one so it can get boring if you’re there every year) and so people were seeking new venues and routes. The Indonesians on the other hand have picked up running in droves also and the trend of going overseas to race was picking up fast, hence Singapore became a hot destination last year.

But casual theories aside, yes I am certain many Malaysians head down to cross the Causeway to enter Singapore and participate in races, Singapore has so many scheduled in the year. We don’t go there so much for training I think, that can easily be done back in Malaysia, our weather’s pretty much the same and the Singaporean exchange rate is much higher than our currency so people tend to minimize their stay to save on accommodation expenses.

What I have been reading is that Singaporeans are coming to Malaysia a lot for the trail runs too as we have more routes and places for these events. Plus the fact that their money doubles here is a big pull factor, I suppose. Dining out and shopping becomes cheap and they eat like kings.

Fairy xxx
Fairy running in Putrajaya – the Prime Minister’s office is in the background

What do Malaysian runners use to fuel and hydrate when running? Any Malaysian specialities?

I think we fuel up like any other runner in the world – bananas, gels, isotonic drinks. What is unique is what we eat after running; we are spoilt for choice when it comes to local fare. We enjoy our famous breakfast food like nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk served with cucumber, spicy anchovies with boiled egg and other optional side dishes like cuttlefish) and roti canai (a flaky Indian-origin pancake typically served with curry or dahl –lentil- gravy). We also like to drink teh tarik (a hot milk tea beverage that is ‘pulled’ between two cups till frothy) and we do love our ice Milo chocolate malt drinks. Oh, have I mentioned that we love our food?

If I landed in your city or country, where would you send me to find out about the local running routes, group runs, and local races?

For running-related resources in Malaysia, Runners Malaysia is a good website to start at.

If you’re looking for races, I’d direct you to runwitme – a website that is maintained by a local blogger named Max who is passionate about running; he is always on top of things and has more race launch news than any other independent resource I know. MyRaceOnline is also a decent local site to scout for events.

As for running groups there really isn’t one particular group I’d recommend, it would have to depend on your interest (whether you’re into trail/road/short distance/ultramarathon /expat/local scene) – it’s best to ask around first.  Otherwise stick to something predictable and safe like KL City Centre (KLCC) jogging track but only in the day time, avoid night time if possible! If you want to run on decent sidewalks in a nice, safe neighbourhood, head down to newer townships like Desa Park City just on the outskirts of KL or Putrajaya further down south.

What you need is a bunch of friends like this
What you need is a bunch of friends like this

Are there any bloggers or Twitterers in Malaysia you’d recommend?

I’d recommend these three Malaysian bloggers:

  • Lina – a running mom with a quirky and nonsensical way of recapping her races, she gives some pretty good down-to-earth tips on running too. Twitter: @lina1975
  • Tristupe – a triathlete dad of two, loves sharing his take on all things related to running, cycling, swimming, nutrition, gadgets, safety and self-conduct while doing these sports. Twitter: @tristupe (he is active there).
  • Jamie – a running junkie who writes captivating race recaps of his trots around the world, has a shoe reviewing style that is reminiscent of Pete Larson’s (i.e. weighing them on food scales and everything – such a runnerd guy thing, right?

Malaysia is currently observing Ramadan, when you fast from sunrise to sundown. In July, that’s a pretty long day without food and water. As a runner, how do you handle that?

Indeed July 2014 coincides the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan; every year the Gregorian calendar month for fasting shifts because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle (so next year it’ll fall about a month earlier). Depending on where you are in the world, the number of hours you fast will vary. In my part of the world, the average number of hours to fast is about 13 hours. Fasting does not only mean refraining from food and water during that period but also from other acts (e.g. sex, smoking, bad-mouthing) – it is truly a test of one’s patience and virtues. Even though we have our religious obligations to fulfil, being runners we are always thinking about how we are going to work around our schedules to fit our favourite routine in, especially if you are training for an upcoming full marathon or another event and don’t want to disrupt the flow. Since fasting only affects the Muslims in Malaysia, we will tweak our training plans to accommodate the conditions that come with fasting. Every year we tirelessly discuss and share tips as to what will work for each of us, it’s constantly an experiment and it’s definitely a different approach for different people.

What some people will do is to run about an hour before the break- fast time so that they can have their sustenance right after. Usually intensity and mileage are reduced, what’s important is to have a constant routine in place that is within reasonable physical capabilities. Others will choose to run much later in the night after the breaking of fast and the special ‘terawih’ prayers have taken place, which may mean anytime after 9:30pm. I plan to do my long slow distance runs this way with my group of friends every Friday at Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia located south of Kuala Lumpur. It’s usually very well-lit there and it’s beautiful to run at night with all the lights from the intricately-designed government buildings and bridges, many runners and cyclists enjoy going there.

I recently also went to the gym on a Sunday, an hour after my ‘sahur’ early morning meal at around 7am, I could do exercises for about 1.5 hours comfortably without compromising too much and still be able to function throughout the day, it is the weekend after all. My routine there so far has been to hit the cycling machine instead of the treadmill; this way I get to work different leg muscles but still get a decent cardio work out. There I also did some moderate weight training with guidance from a personal trainer, and so far I’ve been OK with not drinking after this modified morning routine. So I will most probably do a combination of the last two routines I mentioned throughout this month.

Last year I tried to run right before the breaking of fast and it was the hardest 30 minutes I’ve ever ran. At the end I almost blacked out from low blood sugar and just the humidity of running in the evening as the heat rose into the air from the hot ground. So now I know what training practices I’m more comfortable with. What will work better for me is night running post-breaking of fast and training in an air-conditioned gym early in the morning after ‘sahur’.

Are races still held during Ramadan?

Races in Malaysia are usually put on hold till after fasting month, as a sign of respect. Runners being runners will find ways to deal with the month in terms of training, as I’ve mentioned above. Those not affected by Ramadan are of course still racing; some will most likely travel overseas to join races. One Australian race this year, the Gold Coast Airport Marathon in Queensland, is a popular one with Malaysians (there are special programs to attract Malaysian and Singaporean runners, in fact) that falls in Ramadan. Malaysian Muslim runners wishing to go will forfeit and wait for a year when the date doesn’t coincide with the fasting month – but I know many other non-Muslim Malaysians will be flying in.

Fairy running at xxx Looks awful, doesn't it!
Fairy running on Langkawi Island

What are the best thing and worst things about running in Malaysia?

The best thing about running in Malaysia now is that there is a lot of visibility, awareness and support for the sport, there are many race events, independent running groups and product offerings which can help nurture your interest. There are plenty of runners who are chronicling and sharing their experiences via blogs and social media too, so there’s plenty that we can learn from them. In addition, we have pretty some nice jungle and hilly/mountain trails too if you’re into off-road running.

One of the most challenging parts about running here is probably our hot and humid weather. Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia very near the equator line so it’s tropical, hot and humid all year round – energy-sapping, to say the least. Hence running can be a dangerous sport if you’re not hydrating adequately on the go. Expect to sweat buckets while you’re running, more so than usual if you’re coming from a 4-season climate. There is a little insider joke that goes around the community which says runners only reach their personal bests when they’re racing overseas in cooler climates.

Another aspect which I wish we can improve is our sidewalk infrastructure – we are not exactly the most pedestrian-friendly country in the world, much less so for runners. When we do hit the city we’re almost always running on the roads next to the cars, literally. If you want to run on decent sidewalks in a nice and safe neighbourhood, head down to newer townships like Desa Park City just on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, or head down to the parks. We have some nice ones actually like Lake Garden in KL or Taman Lembah Kiara in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail (TTDI).

Safety is also another major concern of mine. It is no doubt a great concern to many people, not just for runners but for society as a whole. Criminals take advantage when we least expect it so we have to close down every window of opportunity that exists. While we can’t always rely on authorities to make us feel safe, we can remain vigilant and aware of our surroundings and never once for stray too far away from the group.

But don’t let my stories discourage you from trying to run in Malaysia, though. These are just my personal observations. Malaysia’s a fantastic country to run through, it’s just that I advise you to exercise caution, make loads of friends to accompany you and come prepared to experience the heat.

Fairy, thank you so much for your hard work. You can (and should) follow Fairy on Twitter HERE, on her blog HERE and best of all on Instagram HERE. I love her IG feed.

For more Running The World interviews, click HERE.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Fairy says:

    Thanks so much Cat, it was a pleasure working with you on this write-up. 🙂 xoxo, Fairy

  2. Grace says:

    As an international, non-US runner, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this Running the World series! – previous interview notwithstanding. I may be slightly biased. Ahem. 🙂 (Hi Fairy! Hope to see you in Singapore again soon.)

    1. Cathryn says:

      Grace thank you for your lovely comment. I love doing this series and it makes my day when people say they enjoy reading them!

  3. Jen says:

    Really interesting insights – especially regarding Ramadan and how Muslim runners have to plan around it. It never occurred to me until now! (Yes, I live in my own little bubble.)

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yeah, me too. Fascinating, isn’t it! I take my hat off to Muslim runners who train and fast at this time.

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