2017 SEA Games Marathon - A Historic Double Against the Odds
Disclaimer: This blog post is Soh Rui Yong's personal account of the events that unfolded at the 2017 SEA Games Marathon. It does not, in any way, represent the views or beliefs of any sponsors, employers, or other people or entities associated with the athlete.
"He's making a mockery out of Singapore Athletics!"
"Singapore Athletics will never be successful with athletes like that!"
“Take him out of the race!”
These were the words raging out of a Singapore Athletics official’s mouth as I put on my race singlet and prepared for the biggest race of my life. He had taken issue with the holes I had cut in my racing vest to deal with the high heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Needless to say, I was annoyed – why was my own team official giving me problems over something as minor as this, when he should have been on my side? All the way back in April, I had already requested that Singapore Athletics work with our kit sponsors to get singlets with holes lasered in them, much like what Team USA did last year at the Rio Olympics. The tactic was straightforward – athletes perspire a lot in the heat and humidity. The more holes in your singlet, the better ventilation athletes would have and the less cloth I would have weighing me down in the late stages of the race.
Singapore Athletics failed to acquire the requested kits, with our kit sponsors citing a lack of technology to get the holes lasered in our kits. Not to be deterred, I took a pair of scissors and went to work. My stand to Singapore Athletics was “If you don’t fix my problem for me, I’ll do it myself.”
I pushed my annoyance aside and focused on the task at hand – defending my title as South-East Asia’s fastest marathoner.
19th August 2017 – The day South-East Asia’s best marathoners have all spent 2 years preparing for. The day of the South-East Asian (SEA) Games Marathon. I was quiet, relaxed, yet intense as I geared up mentally for what lay ahead – 42.195km in the high heat and humidity of Putrajaya, Malaysia, against the best of South-East Asia. Just completing the distance in the harsh conditions would be difficult, never mind beating everyone to the line.
I was the defending champion and had improved my personal best from 2hr 26min 01sec (2:26:01) to 2:24:55 in between the 2015 and 2017 SEA Games, but the sport had grown even faster – 3 runners on the start line now all had faster personal bests than I did: Bui The Anh of Vietnam (2:24:12), 2015 silver medalist, 5-time SEA Games champion and Thai record holder at 5,000m and 10,000m (14:15/29:29) Boonthung Srisung of Thailand (2:24:01), and the overwhelming favourite from Indonesia, Agus Prayogo (14:02/29:25/2:21:07).
I did a 5min warm-up jog, then made my way to the reporting tent at 5:30am. There we would be kept for 15-20min, with cameras flashing non-stop as I paced the 7m length of the tent like a caged animal. I was intense, yet zen. I was ready to go out there and take anything the rest of South-East Asia could throw at me.
This was the biggest race of my life thus far, and there were two plot-lines taking place:
Plotline 1: Mok vs Soh
Firstly, the entirety of the Singapore track and field / road running scene had been looking forward to my clash with fellow marathoner Mok Ying Ren, 29, ever since his blog post on 29 June 2016 discredited my then-personal best of 2hr 26min 01sec. Mok had stated that my 2:26:01 performance was not “legal” as it was run at the California International Marathon (CIM), a point-to-point course that rolls over a number of hills from Folsom to Sacramento, with a net downhill.
I was disappointed and pretty damn hurt by Mok’s actions. I had personally seen him as a friend and a senior I looked up to – ever since our days in Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College. Mok, 3 years by senior had always kind of been like an older brother. I was excited when he moved to the marathon and scored a personal best of 2:26:30 (Gold Coast 2013) and won the 2013 SEA Games Marathon. When Mok tried to break the Singapore record at 5000m in 2011, he called me up and enlisted my help with pacing that race. I ran the first 2km with him, then paced him every other lap – he eventually finished in 15:06. When he finally did break the 5000m record in Japan that year, running 14:51 in Tokyo, I congratulated him and he sent me a message, “Thanks! You were part of it.”
However, I felt that our friendship deteriorated when I began to challenge his status as Singapore’s fastest marathoner, a title he held firmly from his first marathon in 2009 to when I ran my first marathon in December 2014 in 2:26:01. I had heard that he was unhappy because CIM, though USATF certified, was a net downhill course. I knew that a net downhill didn’t necessarily mean that the course is easy – just look at the Boston Marathon. CIM didn’t even drop as much as Boston did, and contained enough hills to make the course an honest one, certified by USATF as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon and the USA Olympic Trials. But him writing a long blog post to put down my performance took this to a whole other level. Sources close to Mok also informed me that he had even encouraged his friends to go about sharing his blog post to make sure it reached as many eyeballs as possible.
I felt betrayed that a friend would go out of his way to publicly discredit my best time in the marathon, when he had never once brought it up to me personally. I knew from that day that I would never be able to trust him the same way again.
Nonetheless, I knew the best way to silence critics would be to prove that I was even faster on a "legal" course. So in August, upon recovering from a nasty case of a torn plantar fascia, I registered and started training for the 2016 Chicago Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label race, a loop course with a net drop of 0m. With just 2 months of training under my belt, I raced a new personal best in the Chicago Marathon – 2:24:55. It qualified me for the 2017 SEA Games Marathon, and I stopped hearing any talk from Mok, or other critics, after.
When Mok attacked his SEA Games qualifier in the Seoul Marathon in March, I was quietly rooting for him to run well as I wanted him in the SEA Games. We had never raced a marathon head to head before, and after all his talk, I wanted him in the same race, so we could put aside all the talk about course legality, about discrediting performances, and settle once and for all, who the better runner was.
Mok ran 2:26:08 in Seoul, crushing his old personal best of 2:26:30. He was happy. I was happy. I was looking forward to our duel in Kuala Lumpur in August.
Plotline 2: Taking on the Legend - Agus Prayogo
The second plotline was that of me taking on my childhood idol Agus Prayogo. Agus has been a good friend of mine ever since we met at the 2012 ASEAN University Games in Laos. I followed the 2009 SEA Games as he won the 10,000m there, I watched him win both 5,000m and 10,000m golds in dominant fashion on his home ground in Indonesia in 2011, then saw him make a big comeback from a poor SEA Games in Myanmar in 2013 to winning the 10,000m again in Singapore in 2015.
Apart from being an amazing athlete, Agus was an amazing person as well. He was always happy to chat with me over lunch whenever we met, despite the fact that I was a nobody compared to what he had achieved. He shared with me what he did for training, that he had good days and bad days, and despite the fact that he looked invincible on the track, he was human too.
It kind of sucked that I had to race my friend for the gold – for one to win the gold, the other had to lose. But toeing the line against an athlete I had idolized for years was an experience I was relishing. It was me, the defending champion, against a distance running legend of South-East Asia. A clash that running fans across the entire region had been looking forward to the whole year.
As we stood on the start line, and we were introduced one-by-one, I felt a rush of emotions despite my steely demeanor. I was introduced by the announcer by my name and country, and heard the Singapore crowd roar. Despite all our disagreements we had over the past year in and out of the public spotlight, I felt my resentment at Mok fade in seconds. I looked at him, then tapped him on the elbow, offering a fist bump.
No words were spoken, but the message was clear: “Good luck. This is for Singapore.”
As the gun went off at 6am sharp, I got the quickest off the line, then slowed and settled into 6th place. “Patience is the name of the game," I told myself.
Physically, I was fit, but others were better. Winning would not just take a good physical performance, but a careful strategy as well.
As I anticipated, Agus moved into the lead early, and began running at 2:28 marathon pace (3:31/km). Not a particularly quick pace, but one that not many in South-East Asia were capable of holding in race weather conditions – 26 degrees Celcius at the start, with 89% humidity. I felt the effects of the high humidity 3km into the race – I was already sweating a ton. I decided that the best chance I had was to hydrate as much as possible, knowing that cramps would surely hit in the late stages of the race for those who did not adequately replenish their lost electrolytes.
As we passed my first water station, I grabbed my first H-TWO-O bottle, sipped on it over the course of 400 metres, and consumed all 500ml of fluid I had prepared. I had 8 water stations in total (approximately one every 5km), and while I can usually get by with less hydration, I told myself that I had to drink as much as I could given the ridiculously high humidity.
Every time I grabbed a H-TWO-O bottle, I would lose ground on the leaders because they would sip quickly on their drinks and toss them aside within seconds, while I would hold on to mine for almost a minute and a half, consuming the entire contents of the bottle before throwing them aside. Each water station was like a bank investment – putting in the money, banking on the possibility that it would pay off in the long run (pardon the pun).
"Patience, Rui. Stay relaxed, you look good!" Coach Ben Rosario instructed. I saw him twice per lap, a total of 10 times over the course of the race - that was one good thing about the 5-loop course! Ben's instructions to me were clear - we had trained very specifically at my marathon pace energy system. 15 x 1km. 3 mile tempo, 8 x 800m, 3 mile tempo. 16 mile steady state. 42.2km long run. These were just some of the big sessions I had done in preparation for the SEA Games, under the guidance and watchful eye of Coach Ben. We knew I had to be better than ever before to stand a chance. And we had prepared well. We were ready, or so we believed. We had to believe.
Agus continued to drive on relentlessly, and perhaps surprisingly, Mok was the first to be dropped off the pace. Initially, I suspected that it was by design, and that he was waiting for us to kill ourselves in the vicious battle up front before picking us off at the end. But I knew how good runners like Agus and Boonthung were. If you let them go, they grow in confidence, and they are able to relax and continue pouring on the pace. I knew by the 5km mark that Mok had lost the battle for gold. There was no way he was going to make up the sort of gap that he had allowed to form between the front pack and himself.
All bottled up
At the second hydration station, I reached out to grab my bottle, but the volunteer holding on the bottle had balanced it on his outstretched palm, rather than holding on to it. The bottle toppled as I ran in and tried to grab it at high speed.
“F**k!” I shouted. I was pissed. I knew that I was in danger of dehydration due to the weather, and missing hydration stations certainly did not help. But I refocused and told myself to get to the next bottle as efficiently as possible.
Misfortune struck again at the next station. As I was about to grab my drink from our Assistant Team Manager, Hoe Aik Teng, Bui of Vietnam, who was running in second place behind Agus and right in front of me, grabbed my bottle! As Aik Teng yelled ferociously first at him, then at the Vietnam team officials right next to her, Bui took a look at the bottle, realized it wasn't his, and threw it to the side of the road.
This time I was really mad. I increased my pace, pulled up alongside him, and confronted him while running side-by-side, “Hey! Why’d you take my drink!!”
Bui didn’t speak much English but he got the point, “Sorry, sorry…” he muttered.
I made sure I overtook Bui before the next hydration station so I could have a clean grab at my drink from Coach Kamarul who had volunteered to be at one station.
One by one, our opponents were burned off. By the start of the 3rd of 5 laps, it was down to Agus, Boonthung, and myself for the gold. It was shaping up to be an exciting 3-way fight for the title as we entired the final 10km, and both my competitors looked very relaxed.
I began to steel myself for a crazy final surge to the finish, when Boonthung suddenly pulled up with cramps! An ambulance had to be sent to come get him – dehydration had claimed its first victim of the race.
I continued my strategy, staying patient, hydrating well, and keeping calm. The further we got into the race, the more confident I felt that with my hydration plan, I would have the edge in the closing stage of the race when dehydration and exhaustion were at its worst for all marathoners.
As we entered the final 8.9km loop of the race, I grabbed my 7th H-TWO-O bottle. Agus ran past his, either missing it on accident or opting not to take a drink. By now, the sun was out and the temperature had climbed by a couple degrees. Agus was the only opponent left in my way, but also a good friend and a runner I had idolised for years. I took a swig, then pulled alongside to offer him a drink.
“It’s ok, bro,” he politely declined. He would later say to an Indonesian journalist who had witnessed the event, “Even if we are enemies on the field, we still maintain sportsmanship. He took his drink, I didn’t manage to take mine, and so he asked me if I wanted to take his.”
As we entered the final 3 kilometres of the race, the blistering pace that Agus had set from the gun had slowed. Though I had originally planned to launch my finishing kick only in the final 1 kilometre or perhaps only the last 200m, I knew that it was time to use my final gear.
As I launched my finishing drive, Agus succumbed to the humidity, and was unable to cover my move. I pulled away from Agus and with 1 kilometre to go, I had a minute’s gap over my friend and rival. The final kilometer was a victory lap – I celebrated with the Malaysian supporters. I waved at my cheering family. I raised my arms in triumph as I crossed the line in 2:29:27, the fastest time a Singaporean had ever run in the tropical heat and humidity of Singapore and Malaysia.
Then I turned and waited. Agus came in less than 2 minutes later, and I kneeled with my arms up – paying respect to one of the greatest SEA runners of all time. Then I stood, and caught him in a big bear hug.
It was special to be the first Singaporean to win back-to-back marathon crowns, but to share the moment with a runner who had inspired me so much – that was even more special.
This was an epic finale to an exciting buildup - some have told me perhaps the most exciting narrative in all of SEA Games History. But I know there will be a lot more in the years to come.