Champion vs Legend – Taking on my childhood idol
The day is finally here.
Ever since my personal best of 2hr 24min 55sec at the 2016 Chicago Marathon to qualify for the 2017 South-East Asian (SEA) Games last October, I developed a singular focus on preparing for an epic showdown in Kuala Lumpur on 19 August 2017. The marathon is the fastest growing event in South-East Asia, with bursting levels of mass participation leading to a fast increasing knowledge of marathon training, significant prize money and financial opportunities in the event, and consequently, more and more new faces emerging as blooming marathon talents in the SEA region.
I knew that even though I won two years ago, it meant nothing for 2017. Winning in 2015 on home soil was a historic moment and one that I will remember for life, but I constantly reminded myself that that’s what it was – history.
“Race like a champion, but train like you’re in second.”
That’s the motto I constantly kept in mind when preparing for the SEA Games showdown. I have developed a strong confidence in my abilities to race well – no matter how training is going, I can always pull out a strong performance on competition day, sometimes one that wouldn’t make sense given what I’ve been doing for training. Psychologically, something just clicks on race day that allows me to channel out-of-body performances, some of which make no physiological sense whatsoever from a training standpoint.
To get through the thousands of miles of training, however, I motivated myself by thinking of one man – my friend, Agus Prayogo of Indonesia.
Agus and I have been friends since we met at the 2012 ASEAN University Games in both the 5,000m and the 10,000m – he smoked me in both events. Since then, we’ve kept in touch through our journeys, though seldom being in the same place at the same time due to different training bases and racing schedules.
Agus is 6 years older than me. I grew up watching him dominate the SEA Games 5,000m and 10,000m while I was still attending Raffles Institution. The most memorable race I’ve seen him run was at the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, Indonesia, where he was so far ahead in the 10,000m that he got to 100m to go, turned around, ran the last 100m backwards while celebrating with the partisan home crowd, and still won by about 30 seconds. He made it look so easy. He became an idol of mine instantly.
Idol became friend as I got to know the man over several meals at the ASEAN University Games village in Laos in 2012. Despite his flamboyance on the track that many might misunderstand as arrogance, he was a humble, down to earth champion off it. He was never hesitant to share his training methods, offering me advice and even inviting me to Bandung, Indonesia to train at altitude with him and his team. And I was a nobody to him. He is easily one of the nicest people I know.
Inspired by Agus, and determined to one day be as good as him, I upped my training volume and intensity, and found my niche in the marathon. I couldn’t conquer the SEA region at 5,000m or 10,000m, but at 42.195km, I was crowned SEA king in 2015.
As fate would have it, friend became respected competitor as Agus lost the 5,000m in 2015 to speedster Nguyen Van Lai of Vietnam, but managed to come back to beat Nguyen, as well as the entire field, for his 5th SEA Games gold medal in the 10,000m. Agus was fast approaching 30 years of age at that point, had lost a step in the shorter events, but still possessed that undying ability to grind down opponents in the longer events. This only led to one possible outcome – a move to the marathon roads for SEA’s track legend. I knew that come 2017, I would be facing the man I once idolised.
In two days, champion will face legend as I take to the roads of Putrajaya, Malaysia to defend my gold medal from a strong field, in which Agus Prayogo stands head and shoulders above the rest as my main threat. Thanks to my 3 month stint in Flagstaff, Arizona – made possible with combined support from my sponsors and the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI), I am in the best shape of my life. I am ready for the biggest challenge of my life, but I won’t kid myself – Agus is still the best distance runner in South-East Asia.
It will take everything I have to go the distance with a legend. But anything is possible – I don’t think limits.