In Memory of Rafael Poliquit
It is with a heavy heart that I write this post. My friend and rival from the Philippines, Rafael Poliquit, passed away earlier today.
From what I understand, Rafael came down with meningitis (infection of the central nervous system) earlier this week after returning from a training stint in the USA, and slipped into a coma. After fighting for days, he succumbed to the illness today.
I first met Rafael more than 6 years ago, at the 2012 ASEAN University Games 10,000m final in Laos, when we were both in our early 20s and racing events much shorter than the 42.195km marathon distance we’re more associated with today. I don’t think either of us really knew who the other was during that point of time, but by the end of a savage duel over 25 gruelling laps of the track, we both knew that the other was going to be face to remember for many years to come. Both of us clocked massive personal bests, Nguyen Van Lai of Vietnam took the gold, Agus Prayogo the silver, and Rafael outsprinting me in the final 100m for the final spot on the medal podium after I had lead from the start of the race:
I tasted first hand Rafael’s indomitable grit and fighting spirit that day, and I foresaw that he would be the new face of Filipino distance running in the future.
By the 2015 SEA Games, Rafael and I had both moved to the marathon. He won the 2014 Milo Marathon National Championships to be crowned Filipino champion, while I had run 2hr 26min 01sec at the 2014 California International Marathon in my first ever 42.195km race for the fastest debut performance in Singapore history. We were looking forward to squaring off against each other again. However, at the 5km of the 2015 SEA Games Marathon, we were directed the wrong way by marshals and missed a crucial u-turn. Everyone who missed the u-turn flipped around and that put Rafael, who had been slightly behind me at this point, now slightly in front of me. What happened next, I will remember for the rest of my life.
Despite being rivals who had never communicated much or trained together, Rafael and I ended up working together in the same pack to catch up with new race leader, Ashley Liew, who had been behind the main pack but made the correct turn while everyone else went off course, giving him a newfound 50m advantage. Rafael and I eventually clawed our way up towards the top few positions of the field, but he faded quickly soon after. Some time later, as we made a u-turn on the course again and headed in the opposite direction, I saw that Rafael had collapsed onto the ground. He eventually had to be wheeled away in an ambulance.
According to what I understand, Rafael bounced back well to be crowned national champion again in 2015, but in 2016, was eventually taken off the Filipino national team for poor performance, and was left without a team or coach for the next few years. He lost his national title in 2016, didn’t make the 2017 SEA Games team for this country, didn’t win the 2017 national championship, and quite honestly, I had seen so little of him I wasn’t sure if he was still training competitively. He eventually wrote to me in September 2018, asking if I could help him regain his magic and make it to the 2019 SEA Games.
In his own words:
Congrats to your excellent perfomance in berlin, I admire your determination you prove that despite many distractive factors in your training you still deliver a good performance!
By the way Bro, I am preparing my Milo Finals This coming Dec, I am planing to qualify in Sea games since our country is the host next year and I knew i still have a guts to do it again and with you in starting line next year, for now I'm asking for your help to win the Milo finals if you dont mind Bro, can you share with me your training program during your preparation in berlin Marathon? I am very eager to train again and back to the field, i don't have a coach right now that is why I am humbly asking if you could help me with that, maybe I could break my PR 2.32 last 2014 4years ago, thanks Bro. Godbless.”
Now, many have questions why one might render assistance to a rival competitor, especially one that serves to lower my own chances of winning at the SEA Games. However, to me, I saw it as an honour that a rival and competitor of mine would seek advice from me, and seeing as he was struggling, I wanted to help him regain his potential.
I guided Rafael week by week, having to learn and mentally form an image of his physiology, psychology, personality, etc. despite not knowing pretty much anything about the guy at all, apart from the fact that he was one of the fiercest fighters I’ve ever known on the track. I had to encourage him to let go of what he thought he knew about running, and trust me with the reins of his training for the national championships. I had to push back when he wanted to do more, or tell him off when he ran 68s-72s seconds for his 400m x 20 intervals rather than the 74s I had assigned.
“Don’t run faster just because you can, the target pace is there for a reason, to teach your body this rhythm!” - Me to Rafael after one workout he ran way too fast
Through our 12 weeks of working together, I saw him grow so much as an athlete. With one week to go, I was so confident that he was going to be crowned national champion again.
I helped him get to the start line fit. Rafael’s fighting spirit did the rest. I wasn’t in the Philippines to witness the race, but from what I heard, he executed our race plan to perfection - sitting with the leaders for 35km, then unleashing a devastating finish to win the race by almost 3 minutes, in a new personal best time of 2hrs 28min 27sec.
He had demolished both his old personal best of 2:32, as well as the 2:30 barrier.
After that race, I knew the national team would take Rafael back, and with both training and work piling up for me anyway, told Rafael that he would be well taken care of back with the Filipino squad. I handed him back to the national team, where he ended up in the best hands I could hope for - the best South-East Asian distance runner in history, Eduardo Buenavista, who had retired from running and started coaching.
I had looked forward to a reunion with Rafael at the 2019 SEA Games, so that our rivals, coach-athlete, rivals cycle could come full circle, but alas, that is not to be.
I’ll be the first to tell you that based on the progress he made in our 12 weeks of working together, Rafael was capable of so much more. Nonetheless, Rafael departs us as a champion. Certainly the best Filipino marathon runner right now and perhaps one of their all time greats in the marathon. Seeing the joy that he had on his face when breaking 2:30 and winning what is now his last ever national championship, I know how much it meant to him to chase down a goal that he’d been dreaming of for so long, and that will be the fondest memory I will remember Rafael by.
I’ll miss you, Rafael. Keep running in the heavens. Remember not to do those 20 x 400m intervals too fast! I look forward to racing you again when I see you.