2015 SEA Games Marathon - In My Words
Teammate Ashley Liew and I woke up to the sound of an alarm clock at 3am, 7 June, Sunday morning. The day we had been preparing for was finally here. After months of training, everything was going to be on the line for 2 and a half hours. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I had prepared the best I could. I was confident. Not necessarily confident of coming in first, but confident that I had done my best to prepare for this race, and was psychologically ready to give it my best shot. Whatever the result, I would have no regrets.
We had breakfast (3 slices of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an SIS sports drink and a banana for me), strapped on the ice vests we had borrowed from the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI), and made our way to Kallang Practice Track, where the race would begin. We started warming up about 45 minutes before gun time. With Singapore’s hot and humid climate, my coach Ian Dobson had advised me to jog no more than 5 minutes as a warmup, compared to the 25min I do for a workout or 10 min I do for a marathon.
20 minutes before the race, Ash and I stripped off our jackets to reveal the blue and white striped ice vests that lay beneath. This drew curious glances from our opponents, and I couldn’t help but smile as I continued my warmup routine. I knew that they were wondering what we had that they didn’t, and this was already a psychological advantage.
5 minutes before the race, the ice vests came off, my racing shoes – the orange Nike Lunarspider LT4+ - came on, and all 12 men and 10 women lined up on the starting line. It was time.
The gun went off, and I bolted off the starting line into the lead, instantly grabbing a small gap on the field. Though pushing a hard pace was never my intention in Singapore’s brutal climate, I wanted to be out of the pack and out of trouble early on. Once I was out of trouble, I slowed down, allowing everyone else to catch up.We had a lap and a half to run on the track before heading to East Coast Park, and it felt nothing more than a warmup at the pace we were going at. We covered the first lap in 90 seconds. Being athletes who were trained to run marathons at about 84 seconds per lap pace or faster, this was jogging for us.
It soon became clear that the race would be a tactical one. No one wanted to risk pushing early and dying out in the stifling heat.
My watched beeped: Mile 1 (1mile = 1.61km) – 5:56. About 20 seconds slower than what I had run in my first mile in California last December.
I felt comfortable and relaxed. Having run 14:58 for 5000m back in April, I knew that if the race came down to a sprint at the end, I had the wheels to take on almost anyone in the field.
Kuniaki Takizaki of Cambodia and heavy favourite Eduardo “Vertek” Buenavista (2:18:43 PB, 2:24:12 SB) gradually assumed control of the race, edging the pace faster and faster, but only slightly. Mile 2 was covered in 5:55, and mile 3 in 5:49. The field was still tightly bunched as we got to our first water station at the 5km mark. Having missed 4 out of my 6 bottles in my first marathon, I knew I could afford no mistakes here. Singapore’s heat and humidity in June would knock me out of the race if I didn’t hydrate sufficiently. I grabbed my bottle and let the refreshing taste of SIS’s blackcurrant flavoured electrolytes quench my thirst. I settled into third spot, behind Takizaki and Vertek, watching their every move. I was in the perfect position…
Wrong Turn Then, the unexpected happened. Coming up to what I had expected to be a U-turn point, I looked out for signs, arrows, something to indicated that we had to turn. All we saw was a bunch of marshals gathered together, but not aware that we were fast approaching. We went straight by them, and were only stopped by their yells and screams, “WRONG WAY! COME BACK!!” We all turned, and the balance of power shifted. The leaders, who were further ahead on the wrong route than everyone else, were now at the back of the pack, and the chase pack now found themselves up ahead. Teammate Ashley who had been in last place up to this point, ended up in front as we all did an about turn.
Takizaki and Vertek quickly moved up and passed Ashley within minutes, but I took a more patient approach, trying to make up the ground gradually rather than all at once. I looked up, saw guys like Thailand’s Boonthung Srisung and Myanmar’s Aye Thaung now 10 seconds ahead of me, and was angry at the situation. Srisung was a 10 time SEA Games medalist at 5000m and 10000m, including 5 SEA Games golds, and held personal bests of 14:15 (5000m) and 29:29 (10000m). Thaung was the reigning silver medalist in the marathon. I didn’t need to be giving guys like that any advantage over me whatsoever, and my efforts at staying in contact with the leaders had now left me at the back of the pack, through no fault of mine.
Telling myself that getting angry would only make things worse, I tried to see the funny side of it. Some of the guys who were up front seemed confused and were looking around for the rest of us. Everyone was wondering what was going on, and what might happen next.
Headwind Mile 4 was crossed in 5:52 as the 12 of us circled the 5.2km loop along East Coast Park. The headwind was blowing extremely hard in one direction, adding an extra element to the race. I finally caught up with Ashley around this point, and advised him to draft behind runners whenever we were running into the wind in order to save energy. I did the same, tucking in behind Hamdan of Indonesia.
Mile 5 – 5:54. Still very, very, tactical, but I was happy with it. The slower it was, the more I had left for my sprint finish.
Mile 6 – 5:58. I grabbed my first gel at the 10km drinks station and gulped it down with water. By the time I was done, I noticed that Srisung, Vertek, and Takizaki had started to separate themselves from us, and already had 20m on the field. While I understood the need to keep the dangermen within range, namely Vertek and Srisung, I saw no need to make a big move this early in the race, and hung back to see if anyone else wanted to give chase. Nobody did, and the gap between the front 3 and the chase pack began to grow.
Mile 7 -5:50. The race had sped up, and the gap was still growing. By my own estimates, I was about 10 seconds down on the lead group.
Mile 8 – 5:43. Lead by Hamdan of Indonesia, the chase group, consisting of teammate Ashley, myself, and Nguyen Thanh Hoang of Vietnam, turned up the pace, but we were still losing ground on the front 3, who seemed to be operating in the 5:30s for their mile splits. The gap was now 20 seconds.
Mile 9 – 5:50.
Mile 10 – 5:52.
As things turned tactical within our chase group, I saw that Vertek had started to pour it on up front. He was driving the pace on, dropped Takizaki, and now only had Srisung on his tail. According to the supporters yelling splits on the side, Vertek now had 40 seconds on me. I decided it was time to get up to the first two, but hesitated. Doing it alone would require a big effort on my part.
Just as that though came to mind, Nguyen of Vietnam flew past me and started to chase down the leaders. I immediately hopped onto the back of him, and we quickly pulled away from the chase group.
Mile 11 – 5:39. Warmup was over, it was now time to race. Mile 12 – 5:40. The lead was down to 35 seconds. Mile 13 – 5:41. We had closed to within 30 seconds. Mile 14 – 5:36. We passed Takizaki, and the gap to Vertek and Srisung was now just 20 seconds.
Mile 14 was run into a headwind, and right as Nguyen and I negotiated a sharp u-turn, I stepped on the gas, putting in a surge. Despite my pre-race strategy to not make any big moves before 20 miles, I felt that the priority now was to use the momentum we had and close the gap before they realized what they were doing. That, and the fact that I wanted to catch them before we u-turned into the wind again so I would have some shelter.
To my surprise, I noticed that I was catching them a lot faster than I expected. I passed Vertek, and he looked to be struggling, nowhere near the same guy he was just 5 minutes ago. I looked over and gave him a nod asking him to come with me. My respect for the guy is immense, and thought it didn’t look like he was going to have a great day, I wasn’t counting him out just yet. Then, it seemed like I was catching up to Srisung extremely quickly as well. My watch beeped: Mile 15 – 5:24. Now that was fast.
Srisung looked back a couple of times as I caught up to him, and once I did, I tucked into right behind as we turned into the wind again. Nguyen soon joined us, and tucked in behind me. I had timed my run perfectly. Now I had shelter from the wind.
In Singapore, when it rains, it pours
Just as things seemed like they were falling into place, Mother Nature decided to make things even more interesting by unleashing a tropical rainstorm. Torrential downpours and strong winds blew over roads of East Coast as we trudged along, eye squinting through the rain, drenched shoes squishing with every stride. Supporters lining the course yelled and screamed through the rain, as we negotiated our way around our final 2 loops by the beach.
Srisung seemed happy to control the pace, reeling off tactical mile splits of 5:55, 5:47, and 5:54 respectively for miles 16, 17 and 18.
Having seen what Srisung has been capable of on the track, I knew exactly what he was trying to do – slow the pace down, and use his finishing speed to take us all out when it came to the final 400m on the track.On our final lap around the park, his intentions became even clearer, as he led us through splits of 6:13, 6:18, and 6:08. WAY slower than any of us have trained to run, and I snuck a few quick looks back just to make sure nobody was catching up to us. As we left East Coast for Gardens by the Bay, it was evident that the medals would be between Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam. But which colour would I get? I was thankful that the legendary Vertek seemed to be out of the way, but to get the gold, I needed to figure out a way to defeat Boonthung Srisung, a runner who I had watched and looked up to growing up. The numbers said that he, the better track runner, would beat me in a sprint finish. But to beat him, I had to forget all that and just give it the best I had.
I faced two options:
Go hard from far out and try to burn the sting out of his finishing kick
Sit tight and wait for the right moment to spring a finishing kick of my own – if I could spring a surprise attack, I might be able to get a few metres on him before he used his kick as well.
The rain and wind unfortunately made option 1 harder than it already would have been. The stronger the wind is, the more of a disadvantage the leader is at, especially when running at a fast pace. The leader ends up breaking the wind for everybody else, and has less left for the finishing sprint. Though Boonthung still looked relaxed and seemed to know what he was doing, I kept the faith that if I stayed relaxed too, I could upset him at his own game.
And then there were two Mile 22 – 6:12 Mile 23 – 6:14. If not for all the supporters lining the course and cheering, I would have felt like I was just out for a run, not a race. Mile 24 – 5:50. Finally, Srisung picked up the pace, and immediately Nguyen was dropped. It was one on one for the gold medal now. Singapore against Thailand, debutant against multiple champion, youth against experience, me against one of my childhood idols.
Mile 25 – 5:52. Everything from here to the stadium was a mere formality now. All we were waiting for was to get into that stadium, and duel it out over the final lap for the title of “King of the Marathon”.
Mile 26 – 5:58. We entered the stadium to the roar of hundreds of supporters who had gathered at the track to witness the finish of the race. As Srisung and I ran down the home stretch for the penultimate time, I heard my teammates cheering for me from the Singapore tent, and a quick glance left me surprised at the number of people who had got up early in the morning and shown up. I was filled with emotion as the stadium rocked with chants of “GO SINGAPORE”, and “GO RUI YONG”, and the last 10 years of my running career that had all lead to this moment flashed before my eyes. I had to do my best to hold everything in.
“Wake up! You still have to figure out a way to win this race!” I told myself.
Srisung made a bit of a move with 450m to go, and gapped me slightly, but I closed it down quickly. I was determined to not let him get any room whatsoever on me. My plan to sit on him as he kicked, hang on for dear life, and if I had anything left, surprise him with 100m to go so he had no time to respond at all.
Coming up to 300m to go, however, I started to get curious. Srisung still hadn’t moved yet. If he was leaving it till that late to go, he probably wasn’t feeling good. I decided to change my plans, and with 230m to go, put my head down and kicked as hard as I could. I shot past Srisung like a bullet and sent the crowd into raptures, but with no idea if he was giving chase or not, ran scared for the entire final bend. With 100m to go, I sensed that there was no one behind me. Sneaking a look back, I saw that he was almost 40m behind. Not believing my eyes, I looked back again. It was real. This was actually happening. I was seconds away from fulfilling my childhood dream of being crowned SEA Games champion!
With the victory sealed up, I turned to my right and acknowledged the crowd. I saw Dipna Lim-Prasad smiling and clapping, surrounded by many other coaches and teammates who had woken up early and braved the rain to come down for the marathon. I almost chuckled when I saw triple jumper Stefan Tseng, who I believe almost never gets up before 9am, there at 8:30am in the morning for this race! I saluted my friends from the Indonesian distance team, including Agus Prayogo and Triyangisih, who were cheering for me. I cupped my right ear, encouraging the crowd to shout even louder, and soaked it all in.
Then, I crossed the finish line, let out a roar of delight, relief, and satisfaction, before being engulfed in a big bear hug by Tang Weng Fei, President of Singapore Athletics. I left Singapore 2 years ago to do some soul searching, and to become the best athlete I could be in preparation for the 2015 SEA Games. All I wanted back then to make the team, and perhaps snag a medal on a good day.
I never expected a fairy tale ending like this. Neither did many of my doubters who said that I didn't have a chance against superior opposition at the SEA Games.
So you who are reading this, yes, you: NEVER let someone else tell you you’re not good enough. NEVER let them set limits for you, or stop you from dreaming big.
For once you believe, dream big, and work hard for your goals, then anything is possible. -Rui