I believe in the ability of running to make a difference: whether personally in one’s own health and fitness or inspiring change in someone else’s life, in the ways that fun runs and marathons have been able to raise funds for charities and awareness for causes.
Running can be a platform to make a statement, and at the New York City Marathon last November, someone did exactly that.
Meet Shakira Sison, a multi-awarded essayist, fictionist, and poet. Her name might be familiar from her weekly Rappler column on gender issues, culture, politics, and immigration. Based in New York since 2002, she currently works in the financial industry. She also works as a volunteer ESL (English as a second language) teacher at an immigrant center in Brooklyn.
Extrajudicial killings are at the fore of the national consciousness in the last two years as a result of (and encouraged by) this administration’s war on drugs. Instead of arresting suspects and putting them through due process, such suspects as well as innocent bystanders are instead gunned down by masked men. Or, they are arrested but in detention are supposedly “nanlaban” and are shot — never mind if their hands were cuffed behind them. “Baka ma-tokhang ka” is the new bogeyman threat.
What makes these killings even more sickening is that people have become hardened to them. Some even justify this bloodshed as a necessary cleansing of society. No wonder Pol Pot is a personal idol of Duterte.
Read on for why Shakira chose to fly that flag at the New York City Marathon.
Q: How did you get into long-distance running and multisport?
A: In 2010 I joined an online fitness community called Peertrainer where I met someone who told me about the Couch To 5K running program. I already swam and biked but running was just never something I thought I could do. I gave the program a shot and realized that I could actually run. I ran a few short races and then realized that triathlons were no longer out of reach. I’ve seen been doing a number of running races and at least one sprint triathlon per year. This year I ran four half marathons, did my annual Central Park Triathlon, and the NYC Marathon.
Q: Was this your first NYC Marathon? And did you gain entry via lottery or charity slot?
A: This was my first NYC Marathon and my entry was obtained from the lottery draw. As you know it’s very difficult to get into this marathon because of the high demand for the 50,000 slots to run the biggest and most exciting marathon in the world. When I learned that I got in, I decided it was fate and I had to do it. So I did! I wasn’t fast but I trained and ran right. My reward came three days later when I was fully recovered, walking normally, and eager to start running again.
Q: What is your training schedule like?
A: When I first started running, I was naturally tempted to test my limits in terms of speed and endurance, which landed me a number of injuries that concluded in a bad first half marathon where I swore that I’d give up on running for good. After I calmed down, I decided to do research on my injury and tested a number of minimalist footwear. A change in form and stride and great attention to stretching alleviated all my symptoms. Because my current objective is to continue being active and to avoid injury, I focus on training schedules and race goals with those objectives in mind. This means settling for reasonable finish times and training programs that fit into my work, writing, home schedules and current stress levels. Not to mention my creeping age!
For the NYC Marathon I downloaded a generic novice training program that gradually increased weekly mileage, long runs on weekends and 3-4 shorter runs on weekdays, peaking at 20 miles 3 weeks before the race. NYC Marathon training happens in the summer so in order to beat the heat I had be done with by 7 a.m. To me that meant heading out before 5:30 am, and being back in time for stretching and a shower before heading out the door for my full-time trading desk job.
I tried my best to follow the training program but I paid a lot of attention to how I was feeling and how my body was adapting, cutting down on mileage when I felt I was overdoing it. It’s been a great journey and to me it’s already an achievement to have a long process and consistent effort pay off.
Q: What led to the decision to use your marathon as a platform to express your position on extrajudicial killings?
A: During my last long race, there were a number of runners who carried the Puerto Rican flag on their backs to show support and protest for the inhumane conditions in that US territory after hurricane Maria. I thought, why not run with the Philippine flag too? It always made me happy to see Filipino runners wearing flags on their jerseys. There’s even a group called Balut Patrol I always love seeing in races.
Then the more I thought about it, I knew it would not be enough to just represent the country without making a statement on what is going on in the Philippines right now. While I am proud to run as a Filipino runner, I am filled with horror daily at the extrajudicial executions going on in the country now.
“While I am proud to run as a Filipino runner, I am filled with horror daily at the extrajudicial executions going on in the country now.”
I was at first apprehensive as I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my flag and statement that wore for all 42 kilometers of the marathon. But I was surprised by the number of Filipino runners who actually approached me to shake my hand and say they agreed, and that they supported my message. A number of non-Filipino runners also asked what flag I was wearing, presumably to look up what I was protesting about.
Q: How important is it for prominent personalities to take a stand on issues, especially in the current climate?
A: Silence is the sound of complicity. Throughout world history, all dictatorships, authoritarian governments, and state-sanctioned mass murder such as the Holocaust and the illegal detention, torture, and execution during Philippine Martial Law relied on the silence of the majority.
“Throughout world history, all dictatorships, authoritarian governments, and state-sanctioned mass murder… relied on the silence of the majority.”
We are currently in a sad but teachable moment in Philippine history where we are all being reminded of the dangers of unchecked authority, widespread propaganda and fake news, and how these are contributing to the worst corruption we’ve known in recent years. Coupled with the mismanaged and misguided war on drugs, we are seeing unprecedented murder in our slums and the terrorizing of our citizens. As we are silenced, these offenses are being buried as the violence against our most vulnerable citizens goes on.
I have been disturbed by what’s been going on in the Philippines for the past year and a half and have felt so helpless being so far away. At the very least, I hope that my speaking up and being a presence in favor of truth and the end of extrajudicial executions helps in some way. While I will not make a dent in leadership and legislation, I can use my online presence and youth influence to emphasize the importance of truthful journalism and how wrong it is to kill any Filipino. I believe that the only way to help this situation is for more people to take a stand in this direction.
Because the folks reading this are probably not directly affected by the current state of the country, it is easy to go back to regular programming and focus on our personal successes and forget what else is happening to those who don’t enjoy our privilege. I hope that we remember that violence against the most oppressed among us is violence against us too, and that with impunity, anyone can be a target.
“…violence against the most oppressed among us is violence against us too, and that with impunity, anyone can be a target.”
In carrying the the Philippine flag with the statement “Stop the killings,” I wanted to be a reminder, even for a few hours at the back of the pack in an international event, that nearly 20,000 Filipinos have been killed in the guise of a drug war in my my homeland. It has become so common and normalized that we have stopped counting the deaths. In my own small way, I would like to be part of the force that makes sure we don’t stop talking about them too.
Q: What’s your next race?
A: I have the Jingle Bell Jog 5K in my neighborhood, which is a Christmas race I usually do because it’s fun. This year is extra special because I have inspired a number of friends to start doing 5Ks with me and this will be the first one I won’t be doing alone. You are given bells to tie to your shoes so the entire race feels like a batallion of Santa’s reindeer.
After that race, I will be running the NYC Half, which is the largest half marathon in the world. This will be my fifth time running this race and it is my favorite one because it goes right into the heart of New York City. It will be even more special when I run it in March 2018 as my sister from Manila won a lottery entry and it will be her first ever race.
Shakira Sison at the New York City Marathon 2017