2hrs 25min 05sec – the clock read as I crossed the line of the 2018 Berlin Marathon. It was the second fastest time ever in Singapore history, 10 seconds of my personal best of 2:24:55 set almost two years ago in Chicago. I wasn’t completely sure what to feel. Obviously, it was slightly annoying to come 10 seconds short of your marathon best, but I had a lot to be proud of about my performance.
My training had been shaky coming into Berlin – a persistent posterior tib tendon injury, as well as having to juggle training with 9-hour workdays were both contributing factors. On top of all that, I did my entire Berlin Marathon buildup on the hard roads and heat and humidity of Singapore, making it hard in terms of racking up mileage, recovery and injury prevention because the risk of running high mileage on hard surfaces in the heat and humidity is amplified.
Understandably, Singaporean runners have always referred to our training environment as a major limiting factor in performance. I set out to train and work in Singapore with a big motivator – to prove to my fellow Singaporeans that we can do it. With a shift in mindset, by using certain unique aspects of our environment as a training advantage, we can have a lot of success in marathon running.
To date, I’ve had four smooth marathon buildups. The first ended up in a dream debut at the California International Marathon (2:26:01), two others with South-East Asian (SEA) Games gold medals in hot and humid races (2:34:56 in Singapore 2015, 2:29:27 in Kuala Lumpur 2017), and the fourth ended in a metatarsal stress reaction last May.
I’ve also had five less than ideal marathon buildups – two crippling experiences with plantar fasciitis (DNF in Fukuoka 2015, 2:37:47 in London 2016), an extremely short 1-month “buildup” to the 2017 Singapore Marathon (a last minute decision – 2:35:55 for the win), and two short (~10 weeks) buildups in coming back from injury lay-offs that have now produced Singapore’s top two fastest times (on IAAF/AIMS certified courses) ever – my national record of 2:24:55 in Chicago 2016, and now 2:25:05 in Berlin 2018.
I’ve always associated the word “Berlin” with magic. Part of it is perhaps because it rhymes with “Merlin” – the legendary wizard in King Arthur tales, but more so because ever since Paul Tergat ran the world’s first sub-2:05 marathon (2:04:55 in 2003), every single men’s marathon world record has been set in Berlin. A pantheon of speedsters – Haile Gebrselassie (2:04:28 in 2007, 2:03:59 in 2008), Patrick Makau (2:03:38 in 2011), Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23 in 2013) and then Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57 in 2014) – have taken turns to come to Berlin and knock down the world record piece by piece.
For whatever reason, Berlin seemed to be the place to go to try and run fast. It’s always been on my wishlist of marathons to race, but the annual scheduling of Berlin in September always meant it was pretty much impossible to do in South-East Asian (SEA) Games years because it was too close to the SEA Games (the Games was held in June in 2015, August in 2017).
Hence, when a metatarsal stress reaction occurred eight days before May’s Ottawa Marathon and forced me to miss the race, I looked at the calendar and decided that perhaps it was fate that I would finally be doing the Berlin Marathon.
The first thing I did was to run the idea by my coach, Ben Rosario, to confirm that we had enough time to heal up my stress reaction and get some good training in before Berlin. He gave the green light.
The second thing I did was to Whatsapp call a friend of mine I’ve known since 2012 at a chance meeting in Bulgaria, a certain Eliud Kipchoge.
The phone rang…
“Hello Rui,” the familiar calm, philosophical voice answered.
“Hello Eliud! How are you doing? Congratulations on winning London.”
“Thank you very much, I am fine. And you?”
“Well, I’m injured right now but am looking to race Berlin Marathon in September. I wanted to check if you will be doing it! It’s been a while since we’ve met.”
“It is good to hear you are doing Berlin. As for me, I will let you know in two weeks.” (Translation: Yes, I’ll probably be doing it, but the official announcement has not been made yet. See you there!)
Having one more reason to race in Berlin now, I emailed the Berlin Marathon requesting for a spot in their elite/sub-elite field and was fortunate enough to have my request granted. All that was left now was to get my foot healed, get back in shape, and take a crack at “The Fastest Course in the World.”
I’m not going to lie – as much as I was motivated to juggle a full-time job with marathon training and race well to show it was possible, the process was one hell of a grind. There were many days I struggled to get out of bed at 6am to get my 16km run in before getting to my work desk, and there were many times I would much rather have gone straight home and sat in front of the TV with my dinner than going out for my second run of the day (~7km).
On the days I had hard sessions, it was even tougher. Doing a 30min run in the morning, going to work from 9am – 6pm then circling the track on a 15 x 1km (3:15 pace, recovery: 200m jog in ~60s) interval session by myself often left me crawling back home and contemplating spending the rest of the week in bed. Training at this level and working 9-6 made it difficult to spend any quality time at all with my family or my girlfriend Charmaine. Even when I could squeeze out an hour or two, my energy levels were just too low to do anything fun! When I wasn’t at working or training, all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed.
That was a major challenge of the grind – with an intense focus on one goal and limited time and energy, how much is one willing to divert from other aspects of life in pursuit of his focus? That’s why it’s called a work-life balance, I guess. It’s tough, but we should never stop trying to find the ideal balance.
Don’t beat the heat, use it
Now a major challenge I had to deal with training for a marathon in Singapore was the tropical heat and humidity. Doing most of my training runs in 27-32 degrees Celsius, in 80% humidity, is no joke.
Rather than seeing it as a limiting factor though, I thought about it this way: The heat and humidity are simply additional stressors on the body. Greater physiological stress in the form of elevated heart rate, increased sweat rate, etc. really means I was getting more bang for my buck for every kilometer I covered in training, as long as I recovered sufficiently in between hard training sessions.
To do so, I did everything I could think of – going easy on easy runs (sometimes slower than 5min/km), sleeping as much as I could, hydrating well (H-TWO-O was my sports drink of choice), and eating right. Doing the big workouts in the heat and humidity was definitely tough, and sometimes I’d be running 10 seconds per km slower than marathon pace in a marathon pace workout, which isn’t great for confidence obviously.
But I knew that as long as I kept putting in the work, my increased blood plasma volume from heat training would be there. The well-tuned thermoregulatory system would be fully functional. The legs would be calloused. And in the cool Berlin weather, I’d have more blood going into my muscles, rather spent in a cooling function on the surface of my skin.
The workout splits weren’t always pretty, and even if they were, the effort I had to use to get those splits could be at times, worryingly hard. But I had to believe that the heat and humidity, sometimes called the “poor man’s altitude,” was going to help me get ready for Berlin.
Week by week, I made progress. The long runs got longer, and the workouts harder. Throughout the process though, my left foot proved to be a constant cause for concern. Symptoms of post tib tendinosis were detected, and the increasingly weekly load was certainly not going to do any favours. It was sore on more than a few occasions, such as during the Army Half Marathon 3 weeks out from Berlin, and on the 33.5km workout/long run I did two weeks out.
Through a string of measures, ranging from icing to massage to dry needling, the condition was kept under control. Big thank you to the Singapore Sports Institute physiotherapy team and Movement Mechanics Physiotherapy for helping me on this!
A red-eye flight got me to Berlin on Wednesday morning, four days before the race. Wednesday was spent doing an hour of running and then getting settled in, I had a light workout on Thursday (2 x 3 miles) and didn’t hit a single mile at the target pace written for the workout, but wrote it down to being still tired and stiff from the flight. I did a 30min jog on Friday and went touring Berlin a fair bit – the Berlin Wall and the Memorial of the Jews were highlights, before picking up my bib at the InterContinental hotel (base of operations for the Berlin Marathon).
On the way, I bumped into Eliud, who had just got back from a full day of media obligations and was ready to go to bed. We fixed an appointment to meet the next day, and so Saturday morning became one of the coolest parts of my trip when I got to introduce my sister to the greatest marathoner in history. Peter Nduhiu, Eliud’s physiotherapist for the last 15 years, even helped me out by working on me to get me loosened up for race day! The kindness and approachable nature that is widely seen among the best Kenyans still continue to amaze and move me.
Toeing the start line of the Berlin Marathon on Sunday, I just felt happy to be there. All that was left to do was to execute a smart race.
The gun went off and I got off to a pretty quick start to avoid trouble, but actively tried to settle down as soon as possible. Muhaizar Muhammad, Malaysia’s 2017 SEA Games bronze medalist, found me less than a minute into the race, and we worked together while trying to find an appropriate group to settle in to.
I eventually found a group that consisted of two Japanese women in pink racing kits surrounded by men, and we ran with them for a bit. The bike in front of them displayed their projected pace in the mid 2:22 range. While 2:22 is very much a time that I believe is within my abilities, it was too early to be running that pace given my level of fitness, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t wise for Muhaizar to be going with that pace either. I backed off, beckoning to Muhaizar to do the same, and we waited for the next group to catch up to us.
That turned out to be a smart decision. We latched on to a group of European men that caught up to us and had a pack that worked together for a long time. We crossed the half in 1:12:07, and every time I detected a hint of fatigue or additional effort set in, I reminded myself to smile and enjoy the flat roads, the cool weather and the cheering crowds. There were worse ways to spend a Sunday morning.
I was quite enjoying the pace we were going at, but as we approached 24km, two of the more ambitious members of our pack had a conversation and decided to make a break for it and wind the pace up, with goals of running in the 2:23 range. One of them motioned for the rest of us to go with them, but nobody really did. I was left with the choice of either going with them or staying back with the rest of the pack, who was beginning to struggle. Deciding that sometimes in the marathon, you have to take chances, I went with the two breakaway guys, despite the fact that if it were up to me, I’d probably have waited for at least 8 more km to make a move like that.
27-28km is an uphill stretch, and one of the two breakaway guys started to fade off, leaving me with one other. He motioned for me to help with pushing the pace, and again, I felt that I would have preferably waited a little longer before making a move. But sometimes when you’re running in a pack and benefiting from it, it’s only right that you do your part when required. I took my turn up the hill, and we continued to push and encourage each other kilometre by kilometre.
30km to 35 was my quickest section of the race, covered in 16:50, and that’s where I ended up passing everyone in the earlier group I was running with before choosing to drop back, proving that it was the correct decision made earlier on. At that point, my projected finish time was still a cool 2:23:56, and the fastest I’ve ever been at the 35km mark of a marathon, which really would have been a dream result after everything I had to go through in this training cycle.
Alas, as the marathon usually does, it bit. My legs started to lose their pop, and while I had passed numerous competitors from 25km – 35km, the gaps between me and the people in front of me took longer and longer to close. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, I was slowing. There was nothing left to do now but dig it, stem the decline and hold it together to the finish. I went from running 3:22mins/km from 30-35km to 3:34mins/km from 35km-40km. That sucked, obviously, but I just focused on the process of racing the people around me and beating as many people as possible.
I passed my French friend Nicholas Dalmasso at the 37km mark, and he was really struggling after going out hard at 1:11 through the half, but as I yelled at him as I went past, that seemed to wake him up. We started trading the lead and racing each other all the way to the line. He eventually got me in the final 2km as he managed to find another gear while I was still running in quicksand, but I managed to rally a little and find a gear in the final 200m after going through the Brandenburg Gate to finish respectably. 2:25:05.
“No human is limited.”
It’s not my best time, but I do believe that having trained entirely in Singapore while working a full-time job for this, it could be my best performance to date. I hope this can serve as a source of motivation that we can successfully pursue our passions in life with a positive mindset and a balanced lifestyle.
As the newly crowned world record holder says,
“No human is limited.” – Eliud Kipchoge.