The date was 7 December 2014. Soh Rui Yong, now the 2015 SEA Games marathon gold medallist – had been at his first-ever marathon in California, at the starting line. But like many elite runners, his thoughts were very focused. Said Soh, 23, “My thoughts were focused on the race and trying to achieve the timing of 2.28 to 2.30 hours that I had targeted.”
While Soh, a Business Student at the University of Oregon, in the United States, admitted that while he may have been slightly nervous, he had refused to let these nervous thoughts get to his mind and overwhelm him. He said, “I was nervous as my longest run till that point had been 37km in two and a half hours – I had never run 42km. But I had to complete 42km in two and a half hours in that race. So I had to run faster than ever before. But then again, I reminded myself that I had signed myself up for this – nobody had forced me to be there. I had done all my training though, and there had been nothing more I could have done. So I was ready, and I just thought about the goal that I had in mind at that point.”
Focus on being relaxed and at ease when the starting horn blows
And once the starting horn blew, Soh had then focused on being very relaxed and at ease with himself. He explained, “A marathon is a very long way. So do not stress yourself out by thinking too much of your pace. My best races are usually run when I am very relaxed and I ease into it. I run the first couple of kilometres based on feel and settle into a pace that I feel is as comfortable as possible.”
Soh added, “Generally in a marathon I would say to run the first 32km with your brains and the last 10km with your heart. Do not let the emotions take charge and take off too early.”
Do not be overwhelmed by adrenaline and emotions
In fact, Soh also pointed out that letting emotions overwhelm you – is one of the most common mistakes that both elites as well as recreational runners, tend to make, in a marathon.
Explained the gold medallist, “The start of the marathon is always very exciting – especially at such races as the StanChart Marathon Singapore, when you are flagging off in Orchard Road surrounded by people and having the Christmas lights above you. And everyone is going very fast – so you let your adrenaline and emotions get the better of you – and run fast for the first 5km. But you will pay for it in the last 10km if you go out too hard at the beginning.”
Better to start a marathon too slow than too fast
He also added that while many people have complained about running a marathon too fast, nobody has ever said anything about running a marathon too slowly. Said Soh, “Think about it. You always hear of people saying that they went out too fast. But I have never heard of anyone saying that they have started too slowly. And when you are feeling relaxed, you should hold back even more – you are not going to regret it later. And if you conserve your energy – and then go all out in the last 10km, giving it all that you have got, then you are going to feel so good when you keep on passing people.”
But if you have already ruined your race by running too hard at the beginning, Soh added that there isn’t really much you can do, in terms of salvaging the race. He said, “Well… you are probably screwed already, as you cannot go back and run the race again. But if you have already done that, keep going, and just push on to the end, reminding yourself again of why you signed up for this marathon in the first place.”
Do not second-guess your abilities in the weeks before the race
Another common mistake made by runners, according to Soh, is second-guessing your own abilities – which may result in you training too hard in the last four weeks before the race – and he added that elite runners also fall into this trap too. Said Soh, “Three weeks before the race, you are supposed to be resting and recovering and doing workouts that are light to keep yourself in shape. But many runners tend to second-guess themselves. Mentally, they think they are not prepared. And when they look around at their friends and competitors, they think, oh, this person is doing something that I am not, so I had better do it too. So they end up pushing themselves very hard, because of their own doubts about their own abilities.”
Soh added, “I had a friend who was running in the SEA Games and two days before his race, he did a workout that was way too hard. I asked him, why did you do that? He said, I don’t know – I saw others who were doing it so I decided to copy them too. But no matter how much you start to doubt and feel unsure of yourself in the days leading up to the race, there is no point in doing a hard workout. It will only damage your chances on race day. You want to save your best effort for the race – and not during the training session before the race.”
Both physical and mental training is important
While being strong mentally and not doubting yourself is important when it comes to endurance sports such as the marathon, Soh also explained that it is also important to be prepared physically for the race. He said, “They go hand in hand and cannot be separated. The mental part is all about the discipline to push through when you are feeling fatigued.”
Added Soh, “For example, if you are suffering through a particularly difficult workout but you push through to the finish, you will get both physical and mental benefits out of it. Physically because you have just had a great workout session, and mentally because you know that you have the ability to push on when the going gets tough.”
Mentally strong people have achieved some amazing things in marathon running
However, Soh also explained that he has seen some people doing amazing things if they are very strong mentally – but lack the physical fitness. He said, “Well if you are very strong mentally but have zero physical fitness, you won’t be able to do much. But I have seen occasions when people are about 70 to 80 per cent fit – but they are able to produce a personal-best performance because they believe in themselves and their ability to do it – then they really go ahead and achieve it.”
He then highlighted the Japanese marathoner, Yuki Kawauchi, who was an unknown working-class 23-year-old holding down a day job – and without any sponsors or running coaches. But in 2011, he shot to fame when he placed third in the Tokyo Marathon with a timing of 2 hours 8 minutes and 37 seconds – beating many elites and professional marathon runners – in the process. He was also the fastest Japanese runner overall, in that race.
Since then, Kawauchi – who runs about 11 marathons per year – then went on to win several more marathons around the world, a few of which include the Sydney Marathon and Hokkaido Marathon in 2012, and the Gold Coast Marathon in 2013.
Said Soh, “I don’t think Kawauchi is fitter than all the people he beats on a regular basis. But he is so tough mentally. In fact, in his first six marathons, he collapsed and went to the hospital five times – because he had pushed himself so hard. He was suffering, but he just gritted his teeth and ran with everything that he had in his tank. I have not go to the point where I can push myself to the limit yet, but when I do that, I think I will run something special – possibly even making it to the Olympics.”
Confidence through lucky charms
Confidence in athletes can also be gained through the usage of lucky charms, Soh added. While he does not carry any lucky charms to races himself, he admits to having certain rituals before races – in fact, just before both of his marathons in California and at the SEA Games, Soh had a haircut that was designed by one of his best friends.
But he added that one of his team mates in the United States, Kimber Mattox, has a lucky charm – ladybug earrings – whenever she races, to give her that extra boost of confidence. Said Soh, “She’s a very accomplished runner both on and off the track. She’s made the finals of the American Championships at the Steeplechase and is the world champion at the mountain running championships. And she can run faster than anyone else.”
Soh added, “I believe that if there is anything an athlete can do to boost his or her mental game, they should do it. If the ladybug earrings helps Kimber, then it works. For me, I go into every race believing that something special will happen – and doing everything that is within my means, to make that happen.”
Important not to be overconfident
But while confidence is important, Soh pointed out that it is important not to be overconfident. He said, “There is a fine line between being confident and arrogant. You need to know what you can do, and do not claim that you can do something that is way outside your limits. I believe that with time, everyone can reach a certain standard in their performance, but you have to also be realistic at what you are capable of at any given time.”
Added Soh, “For example, if I were running a marathon tomorrow, I would not go and tell people I am going to try for a 2.10 hour marathon because there is no way that I am going to be capable of that. I will simply blow up. But if you are confident, then with training, effort and discipline, you will get there. I know that I will not break the national record tomorrow, but with another four months of training, this could be within my limits.”
Bouncing back successfully from crushing setbacks
Mental strength is also important when it comes to bouncing back from setbacks as a runner, Soh explained. And the marathoner too, has faced crushing setbacks in his own running career. For example, back in 2012, Soh was taking part in the 10,000m track event at the ASEAN University Games in Laos – and he missed out on the bronze medal by just a mere one second. Said Soh, “I had lost by the narrowest of margins – and i was totally crushed. I had given the race my all at that time – but that was not good enough. So instead of letting that get to my head and ruin my running career completely, I really turned things around in the next couple of years. I started working on my weaknesses. I knew that I was not strong at races at the end so I could not out-sprint my opponents. So I worked hard on my stamina, but I didn’t neglect my speed as well.”
Added Soh, “And I also just trusted myself that with enough time, I would able to achieve stuff that I could not have done, one or two years ago. And coming back from defeats like this, really helped me to win the SEA Games marathon – which had been against very similar opposition to the ASEAN University Games.”
So Soh says that it’s very important to learn from your failures and setbacks – and use them as stepping stones to further successes and to gain strength. Explained Soh, “There is really no end to your journey as a runner. After running a race, that race may be over, but there is always another race to look forward to – one where you can put into practise what you had done wrong previously, and learn from it. It sounds like basic advice, but that’s what keeps me going.”
There is no such thing as the perfect race
And even if a race has seemed perfect in everyone’s eyes – such as the recent SEA Games marathon for Soh, he added that there is never such a thing as the perfect race. He said, “I am never completely satisfied with everything that I do. Instead I always strive to come back to do something better. After I won the SEA Games marathon, it seemed like the perfect race to everyone. But I knew that there were improvements that I could still make – so now I am back out there doing my long runs in preparation for my next marathon.” Soh has not finalised what marathon he is running in next though, but he added that it could either be in the United States or in Japan.
Pushing through discomforts or body fatigue in the middle of a marathon also relies on plenty of mental strength, adds Soh. He said, “It is very easy to feel sorry for yourself midway during a marathon and just give up. But by giving up, you can go from running for example, a 3-hour to a 3.30-hour and then to a 4.15-hour pace and you can really lose a lot of ground that way. And if you hit the wall during a marathon, you must remember that everyone hits the wall – even the elites. They may be running fast but they could also be in pain.”
Added Soh, “But when it gets tough during the marathon, remind yourself of the reason why you started the marathon in the first place. I think that if you signed up for a marathon, it means that you have this underlying reason to do it – so remember that, when you are struggling – and don’t think about the pain.”
Unexpected circumstances during a race
Setbacks can also happen in the form of unexpected circumstances during a marathon – such as the weather. For example, heavy thunderstorms have affected marathons in Singapore before. In the Sundown Marathon in 2012 for instance, it poured in the middle of the race – and many had been affected by it. Also, in the recent SEA Games marathon, the elite runners taking part were subjected to a heavy thunderstorm and downpour.
Soh said that in such situations, it is important to keep a cool head. He explained, “Well I knew that everyone was going through the same thing, so the thunderstorm would not really affect the result. But I reminded myself to stay calm and not let it affect me. You can turn these disadvantages into advantages if you do not let them get to your head – so just keep a cool head and do not freaking out in spite of the circumstances. And at the same time, just stay positive and keep on going.”
Running teaches a lot of life lessons and values
In fact, such attitudes to running can also be applied to life, added Soh. He said, “Like in running, nobody has a perfect race, it is also true that nobody has a perfect day – so in a marathon, you will have setbacks and challenges but it is about how you choose to make the best out of every situation that you face – to make you into a better person. Running has taught me a lot about life in general.”
For example, Soh explained that running taught him how to shut his mind off any external distractions when there is something that he needs to get done. He said, “If I have 15 hours a day to get a piece of work done, then I will spend the entire 15 hours focusing fully on it and won’t think of anything else. It’s just like running – if I have two hours to run, I will spend that two hours putting all my energy into running and won’t think of anything else that I could be doing instead. That’s one way that running has helped me in terms of other aspects of my life.”
Think positively when it comes to running
in fact, Soh added that at the end of the day, running is very physiological. He said, “If you think positively, you can go very far in it. It’s not good to beat yourself up mentally because of a missed or a bad workout – as it will be very hard to come back from that.”
Continued Soh, “So at the end of the day, focus on getting better and learning from your mistakes – think about your long term gains in running, and do not just think about your short-term workouts and that bad run – as this would ensure you will become a better runner next year… and not tomorrow.”
Soh Rui Yong would like to thank his sponsors – Nike Singapore for their gear support since 2012, Opticalance (http://opticalance.com/) for sunglasses since 2013, and Garmin Singapore for helping him keep track of his training with their watches since Jan 2015.
In addition, Soh would also like to announce his new partnership with Flight Centre Active Travel (http://www.fcactivetravel.com/), which will help Singapore running enthusiasts get to races around the world, such as the London Marathon and the Gold Coast Marathon.
Other blog posts
- Soh Wins Marathon Gold
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- How Soh became Singapore’s second-fastest marathoner ever
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