Even though Serena Teoh took up sports as an extracurricular for most of her school life, she never fully identified as an athlete.

Ironic, considering that the 31-year-old recorded Singapore’s second-fastest half marathon time of 1 hour 22 minutes 7 seconds at the Gran Canaria Half Marathon in January.

(Earlier reports listed Teoh as the unofficial half marathon record holder when she surpassed Mok Ying Rong’s record of 1:23:14. Missing from the association’s record books is Yvonne Danson Tan’s result of 1:16:29 at the 1996 Sendai Half Marathon, a year after she gained Singapore citizenship. Tan also owns the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon national records.)

Teoh may be denied boasting rights as the half marathon record holder, but that doesn’t detract her from her ever-shifting goals. In her debut marathon, which she finished in almost five hours, she just wanted to complete the distance.

Now, the burgeoning talent aims to represent Singapore at the upcoming SEA Games in the marathon.

Serena Teoh’s NUS aquathlon team. She was previously in the Tanjong Katong Girls’ School symphonic band; then the Temasek Junior College swim team. Now, she’s into road racing. (Courtesy of Serena Teoh)

Disliked swimming as a child, then picked up multisport in university

Teoh credits her father, who currently swims and runs for fitness, for the family’s active lifestyle. Her chronic childhood asthma affected her attendance as she was hospitalized during term exams.

Her father then sent Teoh and her elder sister for swimming classes. Though it was an effective solution, she didn’t enjoy the sport. Teoh purposely took longer in the changing room to spend less time in the pool.

Teoh’s light brushes with running came about when she trained for the annual fitness 2.4km test in secondary school and junior college. Her runs were limited to the 30min time limit on the public treadmills. Even when Teoh joined the NUS aquathlon team, sports were still not her interest, resulting in sporadic attendance.

Her attitude towards sports changed when Teoh moved to the scenic Basel, Switzerland for career purposes in 2015.

Serena Teoh (right) with some of her teammates of the Basel Running Club. The group predominantly converses in German or Swiss, but her coach and teammates make sure to translate the instructions for her. (Courtesy of Serena Teoh)

Marathon pursuits started because of a friend’s challenge

“What about joining a marathon together?” asked Teoh’s new Swiss colleague.

If anything, Teoh’s first marathon experience would have put her off taking up the invitation. At the 2013 Sundown Marathon, Teoh was passed by over 200 people in the closing kilometres. She struggled across the line almost five hours later and emptied her guts. One bucket list item, check.

Her move to Basel changed the way she looked at running forever.

“Perhaps the combination of all these – the knowledge of my potential capability, my colleague’s challenge, the scenery and climate – motivated me to try the marathon again, properly this time,” said Teoh.

After seeing a girl zoom past her in a half marathon in Basel, Teoh sought out the club depicted on her racing attire – the Basel Running Club.

Jumping in the deep end is not a new concept for Teoh. She applied for her job in Basel without even knowing where the city was. She sometimes feels lost during practice when instructions are given in the German or Swiss tongue, though her coach and teammates make sure to translate for her.

A structured training program later, Teoh cut her PB by over an hour to 3:19 at the 2015 Nice Marathon.

“The first marathon made me swear never to run another one again, the second one made me strive for more,” she said.

The qualifying mark for the SEA Games is 2:58:17. Teoh’s PB is 3:01:00 from the 2017 Frankfurt Marathon.

Serena Teoh running with her Basel Running Club coach Rainer Hauch at the 2017 Frankfurt Marathon, where she set her PB of 3:01:00. (Courtesy of Serena Teoh)

Tokyo Marathon a stepping stone to perhaps her SEA Games debut

Sunday morning’s Tokyo Marathon could be an important milestone in Teoh’s running career, which has her feeling “excited and nervous.” Since getting tantalizingly close to the 3-hour barrier at Frankfurt, the SEA Games has been on her mind for the past year.

An adrenaline surge at the Gran Canaria put her on a daring sub-4min pace that catapulted her to the top ranks of Singapore’s all-time list in the half marathon. Her half marathon ranks ahead of Singapore’s SEA Games representatives in the last two editions.

Should her half marathon improvement translate to the marathon, Teoh will be in contention for the coveted two berths. Jasmine Goh came within the nomination standard of 3:01:51 with her result of 3:00:55 at last month’s Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.

And to think that one of the top results in Singapore’s road racing history all started from a colleague’s challenge to do a marathon.

Update: Serena Teoh set a PB of 3:00:23 at the Tokyo Marathon while dealing with an inflamed biceps femoris and battling a rainy, windy climate. That is the fastest women’s marathon time this season as of March 3, 2019.

Singapore’s all-time women’s half marathon times:

  1. Yvonne Danson Tan – 1:16:29 (1996 Sendai Half Marathon)
  2. Serena Teoh Dong Xiang – 1:22:07 (2019 Gran Canaria Half Marathon)
  3. Mok Ying Rong – 1:23:14 (2016 Gyeongju Half Marathon
  4. Anne Qi Hui – 1:23:16 (2012 IAAF World Half Marathon Championship)