(feature photo credit: Elizabeth Campbell)

Up till last year, Tony Ah Thit Payne was unsure whether his half Thai roots was enough to represent Thailand in international competition.

After all, the 29-year-old Kiwi had spent most of his life in New Zealand. 22 years in Dunedin, where he graduated with a law degree from Otago University. Another four years in Auckland where he landed his first job. Then to London where he worked as a sports lawyer.

Payne made his debut in Thai colours at the Asian Games last August in Jakarta. He placed eighth and claimed top Southeast Asian honours in 2 hours, 24 minutes 52 seconds, ahead of 2017 SEA Games silver medalist Agus Prayogo.

Just two months later, Payne shook up the record books with his 2:16:56 result at the Frankfurt Marathon. Not only was it a huge personal record (his previous best was 2:19:39 at the 2017 Berlin Marathon), Payne also set the Thailand national record (Jirattikam Boonma once held it at 2:19:33) and the Southeast Asia record (formerly Eduardo Buenavista’s 2:18:44).

I knew I was in very good shape for me going into Frankfurt based on my Asian Games run,” said Payne, who is self-coached and trains in London.

The preparation for Frankfurt differed greatly from his last PB run at Berlin because recovery was the priority after the Asian Games. Easy runs were sometimes swapped out for aquajog sessions.

That effectively only left him with four weeks to focus on nailing the shorter sessions such as mile repeats.

All-in for Asian Games, perhaps 2020 Olympics

The corporate lawyer’s job first brought him to Auckland for four years, then to London in 2016 where he still resides. After transferring his competition allegiance to Thailand, Payne left his job to focus on training full-time for the Asian Games and a run for an Olympic berth in 2020.

While the full-time stint has netted him top Thai and Southeast Asia honours thus far, Payne is still figuring out the finances to upkeep his athletic pursuits as well as what to do with his newfound down time. Currently, Payne is living off his savings from his working days and can depend on his long-time partner Julia, the Thai Federation and some of his sponsors for funds.

“I’ve traditionally worked long hours as a lawyer and like to be busy,” said Payne, who is backed by Nike, SOS Hydration and Stadium One. “I understand the importance of recovery, but I have a mortgage to pay, so if the big sponsors don’t roll in soon, I might need to go back to work.”

As for what to do during his down time, Payne’s boredom is currently occupied by the increased media attention ever since he took up Thai allegiance.

“The Thai running community has been fantastic. It really helps push you when you know that so many people in Thailand are supporting me,” said Payne, who aims to earn a berth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Realizing his Thai roots

Up till last year, Payne, son to a Kiwi father and Thai mother, was under the impression that Thailand did not allow dual citizenship. Upon discovering otherwise, he contacted the Athletics Association of Thailand, and he switched his competition allegiance in time for the Asian Games.

Payne’s case is similar to international mixed blood athletes such as Greek Olympian Alexi Pappas and Jamaican Olympian Aisha Praught. Both women initially competed for the USA, where they grew up and went to college. Before the Rio Olympics, they sought out their other native roots and switched their competition allegiance, which drew criticism from some members of the running community for taking the “easy way out.”

While this can potentially result in the nation’s born-and-bred athletes taking offence at “foreign athletes” appearing out of seemingly nowhere snatching competition berths, it is of little concern to Payne.

“I was nervous that this would be the case, but the Thai athletes have been very welcoming,” said Payne, who has discovered someone very much like him in the form of Kieran Tuntivate. Tuntivate, a Harvard senior who runs the 5,000m and 10,000m, resides in the USA but also has ties to Thailand.

Payne pointed out that the key difference between athletes such as himself, Pappas and Praught, and the Africans who switched allegiance to oil-rich nations, is that they have heritage ties to the countries they eventually chose to represent. The Bahrain athletics team, which ranked second at the 2018 Asian Games, claimed 12 gold medals. Nine contributors of those medals originated from Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. Before the first few African athletes started representing Bahrain at the international level in 2002, the nation of 1 million earned a total of two medals from athletics.

Scoping out the region’s competition

Payne’s PBs in the shorter distances (1500m: 4:04.51, 5,000m: 14:51.71, 10,000m: 31:15.21, Half marathon: 1:09:48) can seem outlier compared to his new marathon PB. Multiple SEA Games medalist Prayogo boasts far faster PBs in every distance below the marathon (1500m: 3:49.65, 5,000m: 14:02.12 10,000m 29:25.77, Half marathon: 1:07:17), but Prayogo succumbed to the Jakarta heat at the Asian Games while Payne powered through.

Now, Payne has established himself as the heavy favourite for the 2019 SEA Games among traditional SEA distance powerhouses Prayogo, Thai Olympian Boonthung Srisang and defending champion Soh Rui Yong.

“Running in the heat was a real challenge at the Asian Games, but I think my Thai genetics helped me out a lot,” said Payne, who emerged ahead of fellow Thai Sanchai Namkhet. “So as long as I acclimatize adequately, I back myself for a good performance at the SEA Games.”