Personal Record: The Singapore Sling

By July 29, 2012April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

How the character of a place comes across in its marathon

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the JulyAugust 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

Think about New York. It’s overwhelming. It’s crowded. It’s noisy. (It used to be dirty, until Rudy Giuliani rode into town.) It’s international, multi-culti, diverse across any spectrum you can think of. Everything is a hassle. There are always long lines.

Think about Boston, with its traditions of Brahmanism and primacy, of elitism and sectarianism. You have to prove you are worthy and show your bona fides. Boston is not a place for the hoi polloi.

Los Angeles, a pedestrian unfriendly city, is forever messing around with its marathon course.

Las Vegas is a place where time has no meaning. This can make it a gamble for certain kinds of events. The year I ran the Las Vegas Marathon there were 26 clocks on the course. Not one of them was at a mile marker.

The editor of Runner’s World France told me that the Parisians have no patience for their city’s marathon. It annoys them. If you are still running when they open the course back up, drivers will follow behind you and honk and curse and make rude gestures.

We all do things in our own image; you can tell something about a person by the way she makes a sandwich, and about a place by the way it puts on a marathon. I was delighted to go to the Singapore Marathon to see what I could see. My friends worried that since I spit and chew gum, I was going to get caned.

Wrong. This is not your father’s Singapore. You can buy sugarless gum behind the counter at pharmacies (it’s seen as a healthy alternative to candy) and spitting is a non-issue. Homosexuality is no longer illegal; there’s a gay bar called “Does Your Mother Know?”

Singapore is the easiest farthest away country I have ever been to. The streets are cleaner than the floors in my house, everything is in English, and the nightlife is hip and cosmopolitan. There are acres of shopping malls offering clothes by the Gap and Armani, providing sustenance from Starbucks and Subway. There are mall rat teenagers.

It’s one of the few remaining city-states, and since the government puts on the Singapore Marathon, logistics are easy. Roads are closed, cops are on duty, and there is plenty of help.

The Sports Council gave 4,000 volunteers specific instructions on how to cheer. The youngsters never seemed tempted to say “Good job”; Singaporeans are not big on praise. Their “Don’t give up!” and “You must finish!” had a hectoring tone, like kids on a playground. Volunteers had been told to “be open-minded, respectful, and possess a positive team attitude.” The rah-rah attitude continued on the 42 kilometer markers, each of which had a sports cliche on the order of “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” Some were in what everyone calls “Singlish.”

On race day the streets of Singapore looked like the Dean Dome during a UNC-Duke game, with nearly everyone wearing a brand new sky blue singlet. When I expressed surprise about this to an expat friend she told me that Singaporeans are accustomed to wearing uniforms. If you give them a shirt, they think they are supposed to wear it. Singaporeans try to do what they think is expected.

The Singapore Marathon started in 2002 with 6,000 runners. It has grown to 50,000, and according to an article after this year’s race in The Straits Times, the national newspaper, is “now one of the biggest marathons in the world.”

This is, of course, not true. There were about 18,000 people in the marathon. The numbers quoted included the half marathon and the 10K. Singapore likes to pump itself up. While there is prize money, the emphasis is on getting folks–even if they’re not runners–out and moving; the average finishing time is six hours.

Singapore, Singapore, is like the big corporate campus of a progressive company. Folks are encouraged to do things that are good for them–to be healthy, active, educated, clean, and to embrace and maintain their diverse cultural identities. They are told to play. (The many leafy public parks are littered with signs that say Let’s Play!) When I asked one of the organizers if they had experienced any race-related deaths, he said, simply, “That is not allowed.”

After centuries of invasion and colonization, Singapore has charted a self-determined and deliberate course. The nation’s financial situation–it’s one of the richest countries in the world–attests to its success. It’s like those American companies where workers begin to think and speak in lingo and don’t even realize it. If you’re cynical, you say they drank the Kool-Aid.

The slogans for the Singapore Marathon say a lot: “Your spirit our inspiration,” “Run your own race” and finally, “Keep Singapore Running”–an intentional double-entendre.

Singapore was nothing like what I had expected. But once I got to know what kind of place it is, the efficiently managed, swag-heavy, orderly and team-spirited marathon was exactly what I would have expected. It’s a long way to travel, but it’s a far more interesting country than I had anticipated.