National Record Number 2 - 67:21
Updated: May 18, 2018
A marathoner is, in many ways, like a boxer. Both athletes spend months after months training endlessly, for that one day of battle where everything is on the line for 2 hours.
Both athletes take time to recover from said battles thereafter – the boxer struggling to see through swollen eyes for days, while the marathoner would struggle to keep up with his grandmother going up the staircase for the next week or so. Both athletes finish their battles swearing never to go through that madness ever again, yet not a month passes before they are up on their feet, preparing for their next challenge.
Through the months of hard training and putting their bodies through a living hell, there is no guarantee that these athletes will see the fruits of their labor. Injuries happen, illness hits, bad days fall upon even the most gifted athletes, and an athlete might show up on his big days just slightly off his best form – often invisible to the public eye, but which makes the difference between victory and defeat.
But, here’s the magic of it - Stick in the sport long enough, and you’ll one day wake up on a big day when everything clicks. You know it getting out of bed. You feel it on the warmup jog, when your stride feels light, your feet kiss the ground with every step, rather than collapsing on it, your body feels like a coiled spring, ready to explode with all its potential energy.
And once that gun goes off, your body surges forward with energy you have never experienced, and the splits on your watch show numbers you have never thought possible, you know that as a runner, those are the days you live and train for.
Rock N’ Roll (RNR) San Jose Half Marathon
On September 27, 2015, I lined up my first road race since the 2015 South-East Asian (SEA) Games Marathon. Having taken a long break to recover from the fierce battle I had at the SEA Games, I identified RNR San Jose as a chance for me to get excited about racing again, and a stepping-stone to December’s Fukuoka Marathon in Japan. The course was flat and fast, the weather was nice (22 degrees Celcius - perhaps warm for most, but manageable for my Singapore body), and perhaps most importantly, the race regularly attracted deep fields of competition from all over the United States. I knew that if I got there in good shape and found a good pack, I would be dragged along to a fast time.
The numbers today will show that RNR San Jose is a milestone race in Singapore distance running history. Mok Ying Ren, now training with the Boulder Track Club in Colorado, made a strong return to competition after 15 months out with injury, clocking 68:22 (just 53sec off his PB of 67:29 set last June, when he set the national record of 67:29 in Christchurch, New Zealand). Meanwhile, my 67min 21sec clocking was the fastest half marathon ever run by a Singaporean. A mark that makes me the first Singaporean to hold the 10,000m and half marathon marks simultaneously.
What the numbers will never show is the nightmare of an injury that I had to endure in the week leading up to the race – an injury that had me questioning a day before the race whether it was a good idea to even start, and the miracle on race day that lifted me to not only finish the race, but have one of the best runs of my life.
5 weeks in the mountains
Deciding to follow a method that was tried and tested, I left Eugene, Oregon for Flagstaff, Arizona after my summer term examinations in August to train at altitude in the buildup to San Jose. In training at altitude for the 2015 SEA Games, I discovered that I was an adapter – a runner that embraced the thin mountain air and built up a strong aerobic engine by training in the mountains. To whip myself back into shape again, I would return to the familiar faces and beautiful mountain trails of Flagstaff. Without much money to spend on accommodation, I would spend 5 weeks sleeping on the couch of a friend, but I was determined to make it work.
Despite facing a rough adjustment to altitude in my first stint this March, getting acclimatized to altitude during my second stint proved to be much less of a problem. Within days, I could ignore the thin air when going on runs.
Within a week, I was busting out workouts like 6 x 1mile on the track.
Within 2 weeks, I had bumped up my mileage to over 90 miles (145km), the furthest I had run since the SEA Games.
By the end of the trip, I was banging out an 8 x 1km workout starting at 3:14 and finishing in 2:58 into a headwind. From that workout, I knew that I had made a big leap in fitness during over my 5 weeks at altitude. Having seen my workouts, Jordan suggested that I was in sub-67min shape going into San Jose, but I wasn’t about to get too ambitious in my first race back.
Unfortunately, an extended period of time with hard training and without regular sports massage therapy resulted in the resurfacing of an old hip/groin strain that most recently, forced me out of action this February. 9 days out from RNR San Jose, I couldn’t go anything faster than an easy pace without feeling a sharp pain in my groin. I would end up spending lots of time on the foam roller and a baseball over the next couple of days in an effort to loosen up my muscles in time for race day.
Monday: AM – Easy Run (10 miles / 16km) PM: - Recovery Run (5.5 miles / 9km)
Tuesday: 5 days out, I did a light fartlek on a dirt road. 3 times I tired to start the workout, and 3 times I had to call it off due to a sharp pain in the strained area.
Limping back to the car, I stepped off the dirt road onto tarmac and tried jogging. The solid ground allowed for me to run with less stabilizing effort coming from my hips, and hence there was less pain. I tried doing a light stride, and the pain was still there, but nowhere near as sharp. I proceeded to do a light workout, and made it through safe, but deep inside knew that I was going to be in trouble if the problem didn’t clear up by San Jose.
Wednesday: AM – Easy Run (9 miles / 14.5km)
Thursday: 3 days out, I did a light 3 mile threshold run on the dirt trails of Buffalo Park, after a 20min warm-up run with miler Rachel Schneider, I eased into the workout, running 5:42, 5:40, then 5:38 for each mile (~2:28 marathon pace) – splits that I was happy with given that my groin was killing me on the uphill sections. Despite having two light runs scheduled for the next day, I decided to take the next day completely off to allow some time for the injury to dissipate before race day. Not the ideal buildup I was looking for, but injuries are part of sport, and sometimes, they strike at the worst possible moments.
Friday: Travel, day off from training. Spent the night catch up with former hurdle ace Hakeem Halim over dinner and drinks.
Saturday: 3 miles (4.8km) easy run. Nagging pain in groin was still there, tried to do light strides but called it off after a couple because the pain was getting worse with each one. Got back to my room to a text from none other than Mok himself – he had made the decision to race at RNR San Jose as well! Having not raced each other since the World Half Marathon Championships in March 2014, and with Mok forced out of the 2015 SEA Games Marathon due to injury, “Mok vs Soh” was a matchup that the Singapore distance running community had been anticipating for a long time now. News of our impending clash soon spread on social media, and made the plot even more interesting.
I grabbed lunch, napped, then worked on my body using the foam roller and ball, focusing on loosening up my glutes and back, which I felt could be the problems leading to the pain in my groin. Went to bed by 10:30pm, with a 6am wakeup call, still unsure if I was going to be able to finish a half marathon given my condition.
Sunday: Race Day. Woke up feeling pumped and ready to race. I was determined to stay positive and not think about my injury, and give it a good go until my groin told me to stop.
After a quick breakfast, I dropped off my bag, and started my warm-up jog. I bumped into Mok on my warm-up, and proceeded to spend a couple of minutes catching up, laughing about old times, and congratulating him on his recent engagement before we peeled off and resumed out individual routines.
Some warmup strides told me that my groin was still felt far from 100% healthy, but I told myself to stay positive, and hoped that the adrenaline would drown out the pain once the race took off. The American anthem, the introduction of American running superstar Meb Keflezghi, and we set on our way with the blaring of the horn. Moment of truth – my first road race since the SEA Games Marathon, and I was looking for a comeback.
I spent the early stages of the race being very patient – both to allow my groin some time to warm up into faster running and to conserve energy for the late stages of the races. There were at least 50 people ahead of me just 1km in, including quite a number of the top women.
“Run your own race,” I repeated to myself, “find a group”.
I looked around to assess the field and find a group that I estimated was running at a pace I could handle – I didn't want to have to be thinking about time this early in the race, I just wanted to be racing against other people. Spotting a group of 5 men that ran past me at what seemed like a sustainable tempo, I stepped up my pace slightly to keep up with them.
My Garmin beeped to indicate the first mile soon after – 5:06. 5:09 was Singapore record pace, so this was a little quick, but I wasn’t worried – I figured the pace would soon settle down into something more reasonable.
Mile 2 – 5:11. Right on. If we held this all the way to the end, I would be happy.
Just as we crossed mile 2, however, I saw a black vest streak right past me. It was Mok making a strong surge. If it was anybody else, I would probably have deemed the move too aggressive to go with. But the fact that it was my local rival was making the move fired up that competition drive within me, and I instantly broke ranks from the pack I was with to join Mok. Together, we chased down at least 5 American men in the 3rd mile. Two Singaporeans chasing down the Americans together. This was fun.
Mile 3 – 4:59. “Woah!” I thought to myself. This was faster than the pace I would run in a 10km! Was Mok in such good shape? “Damn, this guy is good.” I wasn’t backing off though. At this point, I was feeling pretty good, my groin was miraculously not giving many problems, and I felt that I had a decent chance of running a big personal best.
Mile 4 – 5:11. We had slowed back down, and the pack I was running with previously caught up to us. We now formed a pack of 7, and were rolling along at a healthy tempo, passing many guys in front of us. Mok and I settled into the middle of the pack and let the rest of the guys do the work. There was still a long way to go in this race, and as long as I stayed relaxed, I knew I could close hard. At the Eugene Half Marathon in May, I spent large portions of the course forcing the pace by myself, and struggled from mile 10 (16km) to the finish. I didn’t plan on making the same mistake here.
Mile 5 – 5:10. Our pack stuck together like glue, picking off guys one by one. We got so competitive in our pack that elbows were being thrown as a few of us tried to draft directly behind the leader to minimize wind resistance.
Two Moks – The present and the ghost
Mile 6 - 5:08. We crossed the 10km mark in 32:06, just 7 seconds slower than what I clocked at the Portland 10km in July. The pace was hot. I took my place just behind the leader of the pack, with Mok on my shoulder. I still felt light-footed, sprightly and full of energy, now knowing that I had a very realistic chance of taking down the Singapore record of 67:29. However, to do so, I had to defeat two Moks – the Mok in the present day, shadowing my every move, and the ghost of Mok’s national record running at 67:29 pace. I had to time my move just right.
Mile 7 - 5:04. We passed a few more people, and were now in the top 40. I could feel the “ghost” of Mok running in our presence. We were on very similar pace to what he ran when he set the national record in 2014.
Mile 8 - 5:07. With the pack still on good pace, I was happy to just tag along for the ride. The breathing around me, however, started to get more and more labored, indicating that the pace was bound to slow sooner or later. People were getting tired.
Mile 9 - 5:14. This came a little earlier than I had hoped, but it was my cue to go. We had slipped behind record pace and were slowing fast. Wary of kicking too early and misjudging the reserves I had left, I accelerated gradually, aiming for a smooth transition into my finishing gear. Within the next 2 minutes, I had left my pack far behind, and had started to pass the guys in front of me. I took aim at the guys in front, and quickly swallowed up the huge gaps in minutes. I was in a different gear than anyone else around me right now, and the faster I went, the better I felt. By some miracle, the pain in my groin had completely disappeared, and was no longer holding me back.
Mile 10 - 5:04. Cruised through this mile effortlessly. Passed 4 guys. The slow mile had given Mok’s ghost some ground on me, and I had to make up that ground before I ran out of real estate to do so.
Mile 11 – 5:08. Passed another 4 guys, but made up little ground on the ghost. I continued to shift gears, and summoned another gear to roll through the last two miles.
Mile 12 – 4:59. Caught up to a friend of mine, 2:18 marathoner Curtis Begley. Passing a guy of his caliber gave me a supreme boost in confidence, and I still had more in the tank. I sensed that ghost was just in front of me now. With my finishing speed, I knew I just needed to hang on for one more mile, then throw everything I had into the finishing sprint.
Mile 13 - 5:02. I passed another 2 runners, and one of them, Benjamin Zywicki (PB: 65:57), rallied and fought back hard. I welcomed the challenge and responded by pushing the pace even higher. Rounding the final turn and with about 200m to go, could see the clock showing 66:52.
I hauled ass, unleashing a finish even faster than what I had managed at the end of the SEA Games marathon, determined not to let this opportunity slip through my fingers. Locked in a sprint battle with Zymicki all the way down the finishing stretch, I dipped across the line in 67:21 – a new national record by 8 seconds.
Last 200m? About 30 seconds.
My 5-week training stint together had come to a fairytale ending.
“It’s not about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” - Rocky
A big lesson that can be learned from my journey over the past couple of months is that as an athlete, one must be prepared to get hit, and keep moving forward. When I ran the Portland 10km in the High Performance section on August 8 and finished in a disappointing last place (31:59), it wasn’t exactly the kick start to my new marathon campaign that I was looking for. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near my best, and it would have been easier just to sit back and opt not to race. However, I knew that putting myself out there and racing, whatever shape I was in, would be a good investment for the months down the road, even if I got my butt kicked.
Fast forward 7 weeks later, and I went from running a 31:59 10km to running 32:06 for my first 10km and 31:44 for my last 10km (15:40 last 5km) in a race more than double the distance. Rocky puts it best when he says “It’s not about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
September 27 was still very, very early for me, and being 9 weeks away from my peak shape, I just wanted to have a positive experience – anything in the range of 68min 30sec would have been a positive affirmation that I was on the right track to run 2hr 24min or faster in December – Singapore record pace.
Having far exceeded my expectations going in, this performance is one that gives me great hope for the future. A 67:21 half marathon is a mark that is approximately equal to a 14:30 5k, 30:45 10km or a 2:21 marathon – much faster than the Singapore national records in any of those events (14:51, 31:15, 2:24:22 respectively). I know that as long as I keep my feet on the ground and keep working hard, I can go on to achieve some special things in the marathon in the years to come.
I am thankful for many things. I am thankful to have a rival like Mok, who’s high standards, talent, discipline and determination continue to push me to heights I never thought I could attain. I am thankful to have grown as a runner in hot and humid Singapore, which has forced my body to make adaptations that allow for easier transitions to altitude training. I’m thankful for the opportunity to travel to train and compete with the support of Flight Centre Active Travel Singapore and Singapore Athletics, as I seek to be the best I can be in my support. I’m thankful to have met so many awesome people through my pursuit of athletic excellence.
I’m thankful for many things, but most of all, I’m simply thankful to be a runner.