Despite being the defending champion, Soh Rui Yong had not been the fastest runner, heading into the 2017 South East Asian (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur (KL) earlier this year.
This is because his personal best timing for the marathon currently stands at 2h 24mins 55sec. The fastest runner was Agus Prayogo from Indonesia with his timing of 2h 21mins 09sec and the second fastest was Boonthung Srisung, with a marathon personal best of 2h 24min 01sec.
Never goes into a race expecting to win it
And neither did Soh expect to win the gold medal too. Said Soh, “I never go into a race expecting to win it. If you underestimate your opposition, that is the best way to lose a race. This is because if there are challenges in your way and you cannot deal with them, it will set you even further back.”
This had been despite the fact that many Singaporeans had expected Soh to bring back the gold medal because he was the defending champion. Said Soh, “Going into the 2017 Games was different to the 2015 Games because people expected me to win. But because I was the fourth fastest runner, I was not the outright favourite. Still though, I believed in myself, that I could do it.”
Soh on his SEA Games experience
Soh shared his recent SEA Games experience with runners and also giving out some running tips at a Q&A session that had been organised for the CSC Run by the Bay, which takes place on 1 October.
Anything can happen on race day
Said Soh, “I knew that anything could happen on race day. For a long race like the marathon, it really depends on how well you run on the day. The SEA Games course was hot and humid and loopy and there were only 15 runners competing against each other. So we were running against ourselves; there were no top European and Kenyan runners to chase.”
He continued, “So I knew that this would be a slow and technical race and would depend on how each runner chooses to run his or her race.”
Studied his opponents’ tactics prior to the race
Prior to the race though, Soh admitted that he had studied his opponents’ tactics at past races. He said “For instance I knew that Agus loves to push. He goes to the front and tries to break us all very early on.”
Indeed this is what Agus had tried to do at the 2017 SEA Games Marathon too. According to Soh, in the searing KL heat, Agus had run a blistering 2h 28min per kilometre pace and then he dropped down to a 2h 25min per kilometre pace, in order to continue to drop his opponents.
This had been despite the fact that the weather was particularly warm and humid that day. Said Soh “After just 3km, I was drenched. In Singapore I don’t usually feel like that when I am running.”
At that point, trying to keep pace with Agus had been Soh himself and two Malaysian runners.
Said Soh, “I hoped that my ASICS shoes would continue to work, at that point. They were good, but it was because they were normal shoes and not spring-loaded ones.”
Soh never let the pressure get to him
Nevertheless, Soh did not let the pressure get to him as he ran.
He said, “For the first 32km, I stayed relaxed and I tried to enjoy the moment; I must as well, as I am this fit once in every two years, so I wanted to enjoy the pace that I could run at. If I take a break from running, I would not be at peak shape again.”
Continued Soh, “I knew that I could lose the race at any time, as there were three guys whose personal best timings were faster than mine. If any of them were having a super day, I would not be able to keep up. But it was good for me that I was able to stay with them and I paced myself better than they did; that is very important. In fact even managed to smile at my family and stick my tongue out at them when I was running past them! It was good that I had been able to enjoy the moment.”
Soh Vs. Agus
But at the 33km mark though, it had been only Soh and Agus who had been pushing each other to the limit, for the kill.
Said Soh, “I had felt good about myself at that point because when it comes to racing one-on-one with someone, I can focus on my pace and then accelerate at the end. I knew that I had never beaten Agus at a race before, but I also knew that my strength lay in the marathon so I hung in there and hoped that I could overtake him at the final lap. I had to believe in myself.”
He continued “Then with 3km left to go, I could feel Agus slowing down. I figured that he could be tired, so I pushed away to win the race. Agus was running at 2mins 28sec per kilometre pace, then it became 2mins 24sec and then 2min 30sec. That was when I pushed.”
Racing at the SEA Games is different to running for timing
Soh added too, that devising a race strategy to run a race at the SEA Games is quite different to running a race for a personal best timing as it is important to keep close to the pack at races like the SEA Games.
He explained, “For races such as the SEA Games, you really have to care about what the others are doing if you are there to win a medal. It’s different to running at say, Chicago or the Gold Coast when you are going for timing; I can simply run my own race there.”
Hydration and Cramps
The race however, did not go completely smoothly for Soh himself though. Said the marathoner, “I did have doubts with 7km left to go because my left quad was cramping. This was because at one of the water stations early in the race, I had tried to grab my bottle but the volunteers were not experienced so the bottle fell to the ground. I actually shouted the F word out aloud right there and then, as I did not want to lose my bottle so early.”
Continued Soh, “Then at the next water station, I thought that I would get a drink but the Vietnamese runner was in front of me and when the official stretched out his hand to give me the bottle, the Vietnamese guy grabbed it, but when he realised it was not his water, he threw it away. I was quite pissed with him and I thought they were plotting against me! So the next time I stepped in front of him to get my bottle.”
As such, Soh had been hoping that Agus would not speed up again in the final kilometres. He said, “But I think Agus was also dehydrated and struggling towards the end.”
Soh thinks that he managed to clinch the gold medal because despite the hydration issues plaguing runners on race day, he was at least able to hydrate somewhat better than some of the others.
He explained, “I think that the weather affected us all, but I was able to hydrate better and i held my bottles longer than the rest. I still had my bottles 400m-500m after the drink stations whereas others were sipping and throwing their bottles away. So I could still run, but other runners were suffering cramps until they could not run anymore.”
Continued Soh, “Boon dropped out in the last two laps due to cramp. Mok (Ying Ren) was having cramps too, in the final two laps and he didn’t do well, eventually finishing in 2h 44mins. Rachel (See) also had to walk the last lap and Jasmine (Goh) was delirious when she finished; I think that she was disoriented from a lack of water.”
Soh had hydrated himself roughly every 5km, and he had alternated between isotonic drink or water mixed with energy gel.
Winning the gold medal for Singapore
When he had realised that the marathon gold medal was his, how did Soh feel?
He said, “I was tired and happy, but also sad because Agus is a good friend of mine and he has to settle for the silver. Sport is like that though. I know how hard I had trained for this, but then Agus had trained for this just as hard as me yet he ended up with a lesser medal in the marathon.”
Soh also feels that his clash with the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) had also indirectly helped in terms of his clinching the gold medal.
This clash had happened because Soh had shared publicly, his unhappiness with the SNOC sponsorship blackout rule whereby Team Singapore athletes were not allowed to mention their personal sponsors on social media before, during and after the KL Games, that is, from August 5 – September 5 this year.
Soh said, “That had been another factor against me initially; there were people who thought it would affect my mental state, and some wanted me to lose because I had pissed them off.”
He added, “They could jump on me for all they had wanted, but when I race, I shut everything else out and focus on the task at hand. But the episode with the SNOC had made me deal with pressure that I had never needed to do before, and taught me a lot of life lessons about myself and what I am capable of.”
To recover from his marathon, Soh also had daily massage sessions with the Team Singapore physio. He said, “The Team Singapore physio, Cindy, gave me lots of attention… but that was basically only because Singapore wanted me to be ready to run the 5,000m event which was taking place the week after.”
He added, “The physio massage sessions really helped with the post marathon recovery, though. Two days after the marathon, I could not even jog for 30 minutes to keep up with Michelle (Sng, the high jumper) and my left leg cramped up after that. Fortunately the following day was better, though. As well, I also had an ice bath immediately after the marathon and that had helped, too even though the cold was quite painful!”
Soh also stressed that after competing a long race like the marathon, it is important to do active recovery such as walking to cool down rather than simply sitting down, too.
He said, “Remember to do some light stretching or walking to cool down properly after the race in order to reduce the onset of cramp and delayed muscle soreness.”
However, many runners typically do not do this at races; instead, they would simply sit down immediately as they are feeling exhausted, and so would prefer not to walk around any more.
Next plan of action
And now that the SEA Games Marathon is over, what is Soh’s next plan of action?
He said, “I will be going to the Frankfurt Marathon but that is just to pace a friend. But I have not decided on what my next race will be yet.”