The Raffles Dominance - My Experience
Just watched the above video, courtesy of Sport Singapore. Seeing my alma mater, Raffles Institution, dominate the 2014 cross country season, winning 4 out of a possible 4 titles, led me to reflect on my days at the Singapore National Schools Cross Country Championships. What makes Raffles such a good team, many have asked. Do you guys train more? Harder? Secret techniques? My answer will come as disappointing to some:
There is no secret.
When it comes to competitive running, people usually only get to see what athletes produce on race day. When Mo Farah stormed to double Olympic gold in London two years ago, and then to double world championship gold in Moscow a year later, what people saw was a jubilant Farah sprinting away from the field, and celebrating his feat with his wife and kids. What most people do not realise is the sacrifices this guy has had to make. Leaving home to train in Kenya for months at a time has always been part of his yearly regime, which needless to say, was an inevitable strain on the family. Leaving home in 2013 for a training expedition when his twins were just 1 year old, then not being recognised by them upon his return, are just some of the tales of struggle that one of the best runners in history has had to face.
But, I digress, back to National Schools. While I never had to undergo anywhere near the same sacrifices that Mr Farah had to in his Olympic preparations, I faced my fair share of hard choices during my days in Raffles Institution Junior College, back then known simply as Raffles Junior College (RJC), as part of the school's cross country and track and field teams.
Before enrolling to Raffles Junior College in 2008, at just 16 years of age, running was little more than a pastime for me. I'd go to school, go for team practice after school, hang out with friends after, perhaps even have a game of soccer after training, before getting back home, spending some more time on homework or the internet, before finally going to bed, often past midnight, then getting up again at 6am to go to school the next morning. Training took place 3 times a week, I did a recovery run once a week by myself, and spent the other days hanging out at malls, hitting up some arcades, or playing computer games. Running was nothing more than a small part of my everyday life. I knew I was somewhat good at it, but made no special effort to fulfill the promise I showed in stops and starts.
Frequent procrastination and distractions, combined with the heavy school workload most Singaporeans can identify with, left me with little sleep and I was constantly sleep deprived, dozing off in class. This, combined with the fact that I hardly watched my diet and ate pretty much anything I wanted (KFC at Junction 8 was one of my favourite hideouts), resulted in frequent bouts of illness that broke up my training momentum. I'd train well, get fit then fall sick. It was a vicious cycle, but it wasn't something I thought I was in control of. I thought I was just unlucky to have a poor immune system.
It was not until I met Mr Steven Quek, coach of the RJC cross country team, that I learned that running was not simply a sport, but a lifestyle. Mr Quek and I knew each other since 2005, and rumours that were flying around were that should I join the RJC cross country team, we would not get along well. My playful, outspoken and somewhat rebellious nature seemed destined to clash with the disciplined, strict coaching style he is renown for. However, I knew otherwise. Seeing the vast improvement that Mr Quek had inspired among certain athletes, most notably my friend and senior Mok Ying Ren, who transformed from a runner who was sneaking into the top 20 or top 10 at cross country races into a nation beater in his first year with Mr Quek, told me that if I wanted to become a good runner, I had to give it a go working with this coach. He might be strict, things might get tough for me, but he certainly knew what he was doing.
So began our first meeting... which quickly turned into more of a seminar for me on nutrition, recovery, and time management. Mr Quek's ideals were simple. He wanted me to be a good runner, and he wanted me to do well in school and be one of the 30% of Singaporeans who make it to university. I had to plan my study time well in order to have time for training, sleep and recovery.
Basically, it was time to restructure my life.
And so I did. Realising that I had all to gain and nothing to lose, I decided to give this almost monkish existence a shot. Farewell to hanging out late, my beloved KFC and hours of Defense of the Ancients (DOTA - an addictive computer game), and hello to 10pm bedtimes, lots of fruits and veggies, and lots of time spent on the books.
It wasn't long before I realised the difference. More sleep and better nutrition allowed me to recover fast and feel fresher between workouts. I was no longer falling asleep in class, and as a result did better on tests, while illnesses and injuries were few and far between.
I ended the 2008 cross country season undefeated in all races, winning the nationals by outkicking friend and rival Allan Teng of Anglo-Chinese Junior College in a thrilling final 100m by 0.17sec. It was a dream season. I had never before placed in the top 3, and now had leapfrogged straight to the top.
Track season came, and I lived up to my new tag as the 5000m favourite by running away from the field in the last lap to win by 16 seconds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZEZnm8Wsek
In the space of 7 months, I had gone from a guy who had never placed in the top 3 at nationals in his life to the most dominant schoolboy distance runner on the scene. With a training program of four runs a week, much fewer than most of my rivals were doing. No secrets, just what many preach but few apply: The recovery process - Sleep & nutrition. Much underrated in today's increasingly hectic and sleep-deprived world.
"Running ain't a sport. It's a lifestyle," was my quote on the cross country team page in the 2009 Raffles Institution yearbook, released upon our graduation, with two consecutive team championships under our belts. A tribute to the teachings of our coach, Mr Steven Quek. Teachings that I have held close to me till this day, as I train in Oregon for the 2015 SEA Games.
If you're serious on becoming a better runner, try it, I assure you, it's something you won't regret.