The Sunshine Coast Marathon was just supposed to be a Boston qualifier (BQ) race for Gordon Lim. Sub-3 hours? That seemed achievable for someone who first transcended that barrier as a wide-eyed 20-year-old in his maiden marathon.

But after four years of running himself into the ground because of lack of proper training and recovery, Lim was ready to right his relationship with running once again. 35 kilometres into the race at Sunshine Coast, his legs still felt fresh and the BQ was in the bag.

Lim crossed the line in 2:37:16, a massive 13-minute PB. A few weeks later, he was offered a spot on the SEA Games team.

“I don’t know why they chose me.”

Only one man met the association’s qualifying standard of 2:31:52 for the Games. National record holder Soh Rui Yong, who ran a national record of 2:23:42 at the Seoul Marathon earlier in March.

But a furore broke out in August when the national Olympic council rejected the association’s nomination of Soh, a two-time champion in the Games. The council instead gave the nod to the association’s second nomination, Caleb Hia, whose PB is 2:38:26.

After Lim’s breakthrough, the association picked him and Alvin Loh (who ran a 2:37:10 PB at the same race) to represent Singapore at the SEA Games during the secondary round of nominations. The council approved the latest appeal, displacing Hia from the national squad. A country can only send two representatives in the individual events.

“Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t be chosen,” said Lim, 27. “I don’t know why they chose me.”

Feeling lost without any plan, Lim came to Soh with the dilemma of whether to accept the slot.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you wanna go, I’ll coach you for it,” said Soh in a text.

Four days later, Lim accepted the Games slot. For the first time ever, he was going to wear national colours and have someone to call ‘coach’.

Proper coaching for the first time in his life

Soh Rui Yong (left) pacing Gordon Lim during a track workout. Soh will be coaching Lim for the upcoming SEA Games in the Philippines this year. (Alvin Ho)

When Lim picked up running in his late teens, he only knew how to sustain a hard effort. Tempo runs were his bread and butter. Without a coach, on top of not reading any running literature, rest and recovery were nonexistent in his schedule.

“I was addicted to the feeling of pushing myself,” said Lim, who admitted he was a bit “crazy” at the time. “I guess I had a lot of energy because I was doing mostly office work and I needed to redirect it somewhere.”

2013 was a stellar year for Lim. Intrigued by the marathon finisher shirts, he signed up for the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon. Besides a sub-3 hour time, he also landed a top-five finish in the local category with minimum preparation.

Lim was on his way home, finisher shirt in hand when organisers called him to come back for the prize presentation.

“Oh, shit!” was his first reaction as the words echoed through the phone. It was one of the few times Lim had won prize money from racing.

From then on, things only went downhill. Injuries visited frequently. Finishing marathons became a struggle.

“I wanted to be good, but I just could never run to my potential,” said Lim.

After a few years, he came to a consensus with himself that marathon wasn’t going to work out and took a step back from constantly pushing so hard. Slowing down has since rewarded him with handsome PBs in the half marathon (1:14:27) and now, the full marathon.

Now, under Soh’s tutelage, Lim is aware of what track intervals he’s doing for the first time in a decade. At best, he would jump in on friends’ track workouts, but all he remembers is if they ran, he ran. If they stopped, he stopped.

Ask Lim now, and he can tell you he has 12 sets of 76-second 400m reps lined up. He’s come a long way from mindlessly pounding the gravel at Bedok Reservoir and the East Coast Park tarmac with the sole purpose of testing his pain threshold. “I don’t want to bang the wall and die again,” is Lim’s mantra as he enters a new, structured, more chill phase of his running story.

The SEA Games is just another marathon

Before Lim accepted the SEA Games offer, he wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be an additional stress factor. He’d had enough of that from the seemingly endless process of studying during his school days. Running had been an outlet that lasted from his school days to the working life. Running was to retain its sacred status; an escapade he needed after a long day at work; a bonding activity with friends and his girlfriend.

Said Lim, “I wanted my relationship with running to be positive, not something that gives pressure to perform. That was very important to establish with myself.”

Soh admitted that while Lim may not be in medal contention form by December, the focus was on the process of moulding Lim into a better runner with the excitement of a SEA Games as a catalyst. The region’s top ten times this year are all faster than Lim’s PB, with Thailand’s Tony Payne leading the way at 2:20:54. A few days ago, however, Payne dropped out of the IAAF World Championships marathon at the 17km mark due to a foot injury.

Is Soh disappointed that he won’t get a chance to defend his SEA Games title?

“It’s actually funny, but at the same time it gives a younger runner like Gordon to experience the regional stage and get a stab at representing Singapore,” said Soh. “At least some good came out of this fiasco!”

Singapore Men’s Marathon 2019 Rankings:

1. Soh Rui Yong – 2:23:42, NR

2. Alvin Loh Yuting – 2:37:10

3. Gordon Lim – 2:37:18

4. Melvin Wong – 2:37:28

5. Caleb Hia – 2:38:26

6. Evan Chee – 2:38:58