Originally from Belgium, 27-year-old Vanja Cnops has set the running scene in Singapore alight, since she moved here in 2012. Prior to coming to Singapore, she was working in Norway. So when her supervisor came to Singapore, Vanja decided to come too – to experience a different way of life.
So far, Vanja has already chalked up several impressive race wins in Singapore, which include the 25Km race at The North Face 100 in 2013 and the Saloman X-Trail Run also in 2013. More recently, she also won the Straits Times Run (Women’s 21Km Category) last month. But despite her sterling successes, this PhD student in Neuroscience, at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), is still hungry for more.
She was also a national runner representing Belgium when she was living there, and has done her country proud on many occasions, including winning the 5,000m National Championships in Belgium.
I caught up with Vanja about why she loves running and what makes her tick. I also got a few tips from her about running – in an interview I had with her. Here are the highlights of what Vanja shared, in a Question & Answer session.
How did you develop your love and interest in running?
My parents were running with the neighbours when I was 12 years old and I joined them. I eventually got hooked myself and I found myself improving, so then I started doing races. I began to really enjoy running and racing.
What makes you continue to enjoy running?
I think it feels good to run and it makes you feel healthy. You also feel great after every run and I think that’s why I love it. At the same time, I also feel free when I’m running. I like running in nature especially because of the freedom and scenery.
When you started out at the sport, did you ever expect to be winning so many prizes?
No I didn’t. I really had no idea!
My first race was actually a cross-country race in Belgium, and I finished it in seventh position. When I found out that I had done so well, I realised that I was actually quite good at running too. So I decided to improve myself and get better at the sport.
How much training do you do per week and what is your average mileage?
It actually changes every week. Some weeks I do around 100km and other weeks, are only 50km. Usually we have three weeks of higher mileage followed by one low week and it always alternates in this pattern.
I would do a maximum of 12 to 15 kilometres on a typical long run when I am by myself. I usually only do runs of more than 20km at races. But sometimes, maybe about once a month, my buddies and I would run together for up to 25km.
You have taken part in races in Belgium, in Singapore and many other countries. Can you share some interesting experiences in your running career?
Generally, I find it very interesting to see how the other competitors are preparing for the race and what they do the day before the race. It is interesting when you run overseas. You can learn from the others. I like to watch them and adopt their techniques into my next race.
I always try to be my best at every race and try to do new things, for example, trying new types of food or drinks that I believe may improve my running performance. Of course it’s no good to do it the night before a race though! So I would definitely always try it out during training, a few weeks before a race.
What is your favourite type of running?
I like trail running the most. That’s because I like running in nature. Also, trail running differs in terms of pacing, such as when you go downhill you move faster and go slower when you are going uphill. I like the variation compared to road running when you are going at the same pace throughout. I also like the changes in the terrain. The nature and scenery also definitely appeals to me.
What are some of your most memorable race wins?
In Belgium, the very first time I was the national champion for 5,000m was definitely memorable for me. That was in 2005 and it was memorable because it was my first time improving on my personal best and winning such a major prize at the same time. That made it feel really special and I wanted more.
In Singapore, the recent Straits Times run last month was memorable for me because it got me a lot of media attention in the newspaper! Also, the Tampines Run, also in September, brought back good memories for me as well. I won that race too and it was memorable because I actually managed to beat a couple of girls from Kenya – which was so unexpected! I really didn’t think I would be faster than them, but I was.
I understand that you run with the F1 Runners Team. How did you come across them?
I saw them running at races and I was looking for a group to join. So I talked to Coach Lexxus Tan and he invited me to go for training. I liked the way they train so I decided to join up with them.
I had seen the F1 Runners a few times before hand, but I first talked to them at the NTUC Run 350 this year. And I have been part of them since the middle of this year. My times have definitely improved since joining the F1 Runners – and I am very happy about it! It is good to have a training group because it helps me to stay motivated and stimulated.
Is it easier to run in Singapore or Belgium?
Definitely Belgium – because it is not so hot and humid! I feel that the temperature in Singapore is a bit too hot – but maybe when I go back to Belgium to run someday, I will be even better!
Besides the heat, it is also difficult to run here. Due to the heat, you have to run either early in the morning or late in the evening and it is quite hard for me to wake up so early. So that also makes it a little difficult.
You have also started to do triathlons. Tell us more about how you got into this area.
Yes, I did a few triathlons last year. I joined the NTU Aquathlon Team and they are training for swimming and running and they decided to do triathlon so I just decided to join them.
I think that it is nice to do triathlons in South East Asia, because it is nice to swim here. Jumping into the water for the swimming leg isn’t so cold – but I don’t think I will do triathlons in Europe because it is so cold!
Do you generally prefer running or triathlon races?
I definitely prefer doing pure running races. That’s because running has always been my strongest sport, so I have a higher chance to win. When I take part in triathlons, I feel that my swimming especially, lets me down. I am not so good at swimming actually. For biking, I am ok as I do it regularly. In fact, I bike to work almost everyday so that really helps with my biking training.
I have won some prizes in triathlon too, though. I won the Singapore National Triathlon (Standard Category) last year as well as a few other smaller triathlons in Malaysia.
What tips do you have for first-timers who are taking up running?
Start slowly and build up slowly. Do not start with running too long distance and try to enjoy yourself while you are running. That is how you improve and continue running, if you enjoy what you are doing. Start with, for example, a 5km race and work your way up the distances when you are more confident.