Some of the races I have done my best in have been ones I have entered without burdening myself with too much expectations.

One of those races was the Army Half Marathon (AHM) in 2009, which I ended up placing fourth amongst Singaporeans and Permanent Residents with a personal best time of 1 hour 18 minutes 45 seconds.

The 2009 AHM, however, is a story for another day, as I begin to recount yesterday’s 16.8km adidas King of the Road, one week out from the next edition of the AHM. 

The race-day morning had started with a little more excitement than usual. Waking up at about 4.30 a.m., I thought I heard the crackle of the television in the living room. Indeed, I learnt it was, as I made my way out into the living room. It was the announcement of the Presidential Election results after a counting process that had already been underway for about three hours when I had gone to sleep at about 11 p.m.

After some time squinting (I hadn’t put on my contact lenses yet) up close at the TV and learning that Dr. Tony Tan was the winner of the election, it was a race of another kind — one where “first past the post” holds a different, yet not so different meaning — that I had to turn my attention to.

After a breakfast of toast and coffee I consumed while my father ferried me to the Padang, and a quick toilet stop at nearby Raffles City, I found myself in the liminality between night and dawn, sleep and activity.

It was in that moment that I found myself in quiet communion with God.

Even as I saw the first groups of people trickling into the race venue in the knowledge that we were all just rousing from sleep, I was getting excited (although I wasn’t fully aware of it) about what God can do through me as I prayed while walking to the baggage deposit area.

I think the excitement comes from the hope that belief in God brings.

As Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, a songwriter I admire for his contemplative depth, writes about the original incarnation of what would later turn out to be the song — Dare You to Move — that has enjoyed widespread airplay over the years: “We have been given a new day. Our eyes open and our choices begin. Will we live half-asleep? Or will we change our world; will we be Christ’s hands and feet, the salt and the light of the world? I sing this song to myself and all others on a planet where complacency reigns supreme.”

So as I prepared for the start of the race, again, I prayed, as always, that I could experience His Presence while I run and to glorify Him through my act of running.

I think it’s a powerful act of faith when one prays to let God take over the reigns. It’s an act that also allows me to enter the race without the weight of expectations — whether self-imposed or otherwise — upon myself and allows me to run free (an idea I draw from top American marathoner Ryan Hall and one which you might get an inkling of in this article).

I stood relaxed at the start line after a good warm-up. The race started and I allowed the smattering of Kenyans, Gurkhas, and a few other foreigners to run away from me in the lead pack. South-East Asian (SEA) Games-bound local runner Mok Ying Ren was amongst the leaders.

Seeing few other local runners ahead of me, I looked over my shoulders to check where Chee Yong and Melvin were, knowing they were in the race and having seen them at the start line.

I have run with Chee Yong in many races including the 2009 AHM where he also did a 1:18 in finishing ahead of me in third. Having experience racing with him, I knew we would not be far off each other in a race.

As such, when I saw Chee Yong, bunched with Melvin, Leo, and Marcus just a few metres behind me in the early kilometres of the race, I wondered if I might be going out too fast and if I should slow down a little.

It’s a perennial struggle and balancing act in a race to decide if one should go at someone else’s pace (whether that might be slower or faster).

After a quick ‘listening’ to my body, I decided to keep to my pace and not slow down further to join their pack.

At the halfway mark and after a few U-turns where I could review the runners ahead of me, I was aware that I was the third Singaporean (after Mok and a guy dressed in triathlete attire, I was later to find out, named Lim Jian Peng).

I knew it would be hard defending the third position against the likes of Chee Yong and Melvin and the gap between me and their pack was not significant. Two strategies presented themselves to me and they were to either ease my foot off the accelerator so that I would be fresher and more ready to go with them if they catch me, or to keep up a good tempo and hold off their catching me (if they do) for as long as possible.

Though you probably realise I am using “if” in relation to them catching me, in my mind, it was less a question than a certainty as I prepared mentally for that ‘eventuality.’ However, another thought flashed through my mind simultaneously and that was the idea that I could also perhaps hold them off until the end.

All hopes of that latter thought were dispelled when after the 10km mark (as best as I can remember), before Nicoll Highway on the way back to the Padang, I heard someone cheer Chee Yong on. I looked over my shoulder yet again and, this time, he was catching up to me.

It was like so many races we had before all over again. The only relief I had at being caught was that there wasn’t more than one person, which was a surprise.

As he went past me, I had to turn up the gears that little bit just to keep up.

With about 5km left in the race, I was determined to hang onto him as long as possible.

Chee Yong was able to build a little gap on me. However, I kept hanging onto the belief that if I didn’t let the gap grow too big, I could still mount a comeback before the finish.

It became a very good test of my will those last kilometres as Chee Yong put in multiple short surges. A couple of times, I was close to giving up the chase and settling into fourth position.

But a simple question that someone once shared with me years ago, which he asked himself as a means of motivation popped into my mind: “How much do you want it?”

It is a question that I have found relevant even after all these years and something I have shared with others as my way of paying it forward. And, in that moment, it was a tool that helped me press on.

As I turned into the finishing straight, with Chee Yong in my sights, I was still clinging onto the belief that I could change things. I sprinted as hard as I could hoping to catch Chee Yong in time and by surprise as he drew nearer. Alas, just when my hope grew that bit more, he became alert to my effort to close him down, kicking away from me.

Two seconds was the difference in the end between third and fourth positions. Nonetheless, I think there aren’t many races in which I think I have drawn from my body, mind, and spirit, as well or even better. In other words, I don’t see my fourth position as a failure.

2:04:58 American marathoner Ryan Hall once answered in an interview: “In a world where it is all about the guy on the top step of the podium and we are defined and define ourselves by the time on our watch, at the end of the day I am trying to spread the word that it ultimately isn’t all about that. The sweetest part of life is that we can all have God. God is with those who are with him. It’s our choice and a free invitation to everyone.”

It is refreshing to hear of such a view on “success” from a person who himself enjoys much “success” in the secular and conventional senses of the word.

At the end of what had been a tiring day yesterday, I was glad in the face of mortal failures and easy choices during the race, by God’s Grace, I had been able to transcend all that and, as Pastor Eli Hernandez had said on a visit to my church a few weekends back, reach into the realm “above the sun.”

Dare you move?

adidas King of the Road 2011 Men’s Closed (Singaporeans only) Results
1. Mok Ying Ren, 57 minutes 56.01 seconds for 16.8km
2. Lim Jian Peng, 58:35.10
3. Ang Chee Yong, 59:14.95
4. Colin Tung, 59:16.68
5. Fang Jian Yong, 60:26.43
6. Marcus Ong Ming Wei, 60:33.73
7. Melvin Wong, 61:04.37
8. Joshua Goh Hui Mun, 63:41.18
9. Ivan Low, 64:13.03
10. Ning Wenlong, 64:46.60