It was a dreary day to hold a fund-raising charity run. Han Min supposed he should be grateful that the sun wasn’t out to add to the challenge, but if the clouds got a tad too dark and it started raining…
“You keep running,” Liang Cheng supplied, looking out from under the tent the organisers had set up. “A little rain never hurt anyone.”
That had definitely been what Han Min was going to say.
His throat felt dry but he was too nervous to drink. He settled for looking past the other participants under the tent to stare at the Styrofoam ice box set at the corner, telling himself it would be here for him once he got the race over and done with.
Most of the people who’d arrived in the park for this charity run looked like they were able to run the entire five kilometres without pausing, not just jog or walk it even though there would be no judgement if they did. Han Min himself prioritised the ‘fund-raising’ and ‘charity’ parts, not the ‘run’ part.
Han Min knew a few people who could run five kilometres without breaking a sweat. His sister was the best of them, and he couldn’t be more different from her in that aspect. Liang Cheng, on the other hand, knew people who ran half-marathons since at one point in time, he’d been one of them.
Liang Cheng looked rather at home, crossing his legs while he settled in the camping chair. He’d waited for running events to begin with more enthusiasm than he’d waited for school exams. His very professional-looking grey sports shirt was branded with a checkmark and his running shorts had the signature three stripes.
There were plenty of instances from the past where Liang Cheng showed up in similar sports attire, be it to classes or a casual Friday night out. They were good memories and seeing him in something so familiar once again was comforting.
The lid of Liang Cheng’s dark cap was tilted low and it struck Han Min that maybe he didn’t want people to recognise him. His friend looked down, brow furrowing when he noticed something.
“Why is the back of your hand bleeding?”
“Ah, scratched it there a bit too much.” Han Min pulled his arm back, rubbing his thumb over the red-speckled patch. “Had a flare-up with the hives a few days ago and it triggered the eczema a bit.”
Liang Cheng’s shoulder jolted a little and his eyes widened slightly, but he mostly managed to stay still.
“Doesn’t sweating trigger it?”
Han Min had spent a few weeks reluctantly running around the neighbourhood in his very sloppy semblance of a training regimen. If sweating had been a trigger, he would have figured it out ages ago and actually might have had to turn down the very kind offer of attending this run.
“No,” he said at last, kicking back in his own camping chair. “For me, it doesn’t.”
“How bad is it?” Liang Cheng asked after a pause.
“Manageable. I took some medication and it’ll go away soon.” When he’d woken up in the morning, he had reapplied prescription cream and lotion over his shoulder, on his right upper arm, abdomen and thigh before wrapping the affected areas in bandages. Maybe it was excessive but as much as he dreaded today’s event, he’d deemed it important.
And it was important to Liang Cheng as well. Han Min knew that well.
Two years ago, Liang Cheng had been a very active and prominent runner before the herniated disc. It had left him unable to walk on his own for a week and had put an abrupt stop to his athletics for around a year.
Han Min glanced at his friend out of the corner of his eye; Liang Cheng pulled his cap off, allowing his hair to sweep across his forehead and fall by his ears. He’d recently dyed it a shade of light brown and although it was not as drastic a colour as it could have been, it was still unfairly intriguing.
The square-framed glasses cast shadows against the slope of his face. A month after completing his rehabilitation program at the hospital, something to help him walk without crutches, Liang Cheng had switched from the contacts that he’d been using since the dark ages to glasses.
The contacts had always purely been for the convenience in sports but it had still been jarring the first time Han Min saw him with glasses, realising what that meant.
“Are you going to be alright?” Han Min asked, looking down at the ground. He could see ants crawling across the soil between the green blades of grass.
“I taped analgesic patches from my prescription to my lower back but more as a precaution, nothing serious. It’s a painkiller gel.” Liang Cheng raised his arms above his head. “The packaging stated it was for people with arthritis.”
“You’re an old man already, huh?”
“Must be the worst kind of old man. My grandfather never had any sort of back pain. He told me to fix it by doing tai chi.”
“Really? Mine told me to solve things by drinking warm water.”
Liang Cheng’s right hand twitched as if ready to clench into a fist, but Han Min waved it off.
Just before Han Min could ask what time it was and when the race would start, an airhorn blared through the area. Liang Cheng put his cap back on, setting his hands on the armrests to lift himself up very carefully.
“You look good.” The words were out before Han Min had thought them through because after all, they were true.
It might not have been the most ideal thing to say before a race but when Liang Cheng inclined his towards Han Min, there was a small smile on his face. “So do you.”
“You’ve got to be joking.” Han Min hadn’t slept properly in the last two weeks—his own fault—and he was sure the dark circles under his eyes were finally going to sink into his flesh and tattoo themselves beneath his skin.
Liang Cheng sighed resignedly but it aligned with the scintillation in his eyes. He stood up and waited for Han Min to get up and follow.
“You should run ahead of me,” Han Min said in a low voice, walking a little faster to catch up. “Go in front, like all those cool running people. I’ll meet you here like everyone else.”
That promise went both ways, meant that both of them would make it back here without incident.
Liang Cheng nodded. “Back before you know it?”
Liang Cheng disappeared to the front.
Han Min had run around the neighbourhood solo, feeling like each new run was more difficult than the last. He told himself that this charity run wasn’t that different. The park was just a very eco-friendly green urban area project and these runners were neighbours he’d never seen before in his life.
He wasn’t sure how important the position at the beginning was, but he wasn’t planning on getting first place or anything like that, so he didn’t mind being at the back. He tried not to ignore the much nicer running gear of other people and tuned out whatever was being announced through the megaphone before the air horn sounded again, sending everyone off.
Which meant he actually had to run.
Admittedly, running in the park was more pleasant than running in the neighbourhood. Despite the grey skies, the overcast day and shade from the trees provided a wonderfully cooling atmosphere.
Part of the run included a circuit around the lake and Han Min tried not to despair at the sight of how long that stretch was. If he started thinking too much while running, he’d exhaust himself before he reached the finish line.
A woman running with a pram overtook him—not a participant of the event, likely a regular at the park. He chanced a glimpse of ducks gliding across the lake’s surface. He tried not to panic when a raindrop landed on his arm.
It started to drizzle once he finished the route around the lake. It was hardly an inconvenience more than a welcome occurrence. Han Min blinked away the salty sting of sweat that had dripped down from his forehead to his eyes.
He reached a sloped area in the park and he powered through it with thoughts of sleeping for a week and was careful when running downhill. His bandages were soaked in sweat by now, their grip loosening and threatening to chafe his skin. To keep up his current momentum, he’d only be able to take them off at the end of the race.
Some people overtook him and he overtook people in turn. He wondered if Liang Cheng was already done and waiting around the icebox.
Last year, months before Liang Cheng even proposed the idea of attempting a 5k run together, they’d met up at the sandwich chain restaurant with a name that meant underground electric train. If Han Min wasn’t wrong, it had been May, a little over five months since Liang Cheng had been diagnosed.
“Sometimes, it feels like there’s someone inside the bone constantly hammering at it,” he admitted. “Or there are a thousand needles poking through the bone, like my hip is forcefully morphing into a porcupine and I feel it all.”
Han Min knew that if he were actually saying something about the pain aloud, it had to be over the top agonising. An itch was starting to crawl up the back of his knee and across his waist, his stress making itself known.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, last December.”
Liang Cheng had taken a bite of his meatball sandwich, so he couldn’t reply until he’d finished chewing, which he did so furiously. Han Min marvelled at how a concoction like a meatball sandwich simply didn’t fall apart in his hands.
Liang Cheng took a gulp of his drink to swallow his food faster. “Don’t apologise,” he said at last. “I don’t think I wanted anyone to see me in that state in the first place.”
“I should have left you flowers or something.”
“You’re here for me now.”
“But does that really make up for it?”
Liang Cheng took a few more sips of his lime and lemon flavoured soft drink, staring at the tabletop for a few moments before setting the cup down.
The fluorescent lighting of the interior accentuated the heaviness in his gaze. Their eyes met and a quiet smile pulled at the corner of Liang Cheng’s lips, the same smile he’d give whenever Han Min wished him good luck for a track and field meet.
“I think you should buy yourself a soft drink. Or the chocolate chip cookie. Both?”
Han Min really did.
Exercise was good. It kept you fit and healthy. Han Min was sure he never wanted to do this again.
The dark skies seemed lighter now, even if the little bit of rain wasn’t letting up. This area of the park seemed familiar which meant he was close to the starting point, which also meant he was close to the finishing point.
He pushed off the ground a little harder, hanging on to hope that there was an end to this. If he stopped now, fatigue would hit him all at once, and coming so far would have been a waste.
The tents came into view. A small number of people were gathered around the finishing line, volunteers to help keep the event running smoothly. Han Min was so glad once he crossed the checkpoint.
He gradually slowed to a stop, putting his hands on his knees. His legs were shaky and he stood back up, determined not to lose balance.
One of the organisers patted him on the back, said “good job” and gave him a finisher medal before directing him to a table where envelopes with additional prizes were laid out. Quite a few envelopes had already been taken but there was still a decent amount left.
He grabbed the envelope closest to him and stumbled over to the next station to collect the event shirt before being allowed to go free and search for what he needed.
Liang Cheng was tall, so it was easy to spot him. He had a pewter coloured medal around his neck and held up two sports drink cans when he saw Han Min.
The camping chairs were taken, so they sat on the grass under the tent. Han Min held the cold can to his forehead in between gulping down water from his water bottle. Liang Cheng had a short conversation with a woman he’d met from some other running event a long time ago.
‘18th place, 20—39’ the medal read. The pewter coloured medals were given to the top twenty of each age group before the usual finisher ones were handed out. There was even a small medal ceremony for the top three that Han Min clapped his way through, fighting to keep his eyes open.
“What a shame I turned 20 last month instead of 19,” Liang Cheng offered, turning his medal over.
“I thought you were going to say something really dumb, like how it’s not gold.”
“Now that you mention it, it’s not—”
Han Min groaned, resisting the urge to lie down flat on the ground. He was far from being completely spent but his legs ached in a way he would feel for days.
Liang Cheng discreetly peeled off the analgesic patches from under his shirt and Han Min pulled off his own bandages. Thankfully, the medication had done its job because there was no sign of any flare-up despite the chafing. They disposed of their respective things in a provided bin.
After looking around a bit, Liang Cheng found vacant chairs for them to sit on. The lumbar support sitting in a chair was way better than sitting on the ground.
“We need to do this again. Sometime at the end of this year or at least the beginning of next year.” It was the promise of new memories to add to the present ones.
“No.” Han Min almost wished he were lying on the ground so he could roll over. He might change his answer later but right now, he wouldn’t even have the strength to hold his arms up and press his hands to his ears. Liang Cheng didn’t say anything more but he busied himself with opening their prize envelopes, checking the vouchers given.
When he started laughing, Han Min peered over his shoulder. A food voucher and a local sports shop voucher each.
“If you agree to do another 5k with before the new year, I’ll buy new running gear with you if needed and I’ll also treat you to lunch,” Liang Cheng said, as if it was the most amazing deal anyone could ever receive.
For Han Min, it was.
Written by: Zhen Yi