(Writer’s note: this story was originally published on Red Sports.)
I remember that AC Milan (an Italian football team) tee shirt he wore the night before my first Army Half Marathon in 2007, when I was an officer cadet at the Officer Cadet School (OCS) during the first year of my national service. We chatted for awhile before I returned to my bunk to rest for the night in preparation for the race that was to flag off only a few hours later in the wee hours of the morning — a hallmark of the AHM.
He was the late Captain (CPT) Ho Si Qiu, a platoon commander who helped manage the OCS AHM competitive team. CPT Ho also ran for the competitive team and started the race with us. He finished the race, but collapsed after the finish line. He did not give us a chance to say goodbye.
This was the first time that someone I knew personally had died so unexpectedly. I will always remember him for his generous smile, for that time on a run around SAFTI when I was unsure of the route and looked back in the hope that someone behind could point me in the right direction. There CPT Ho was, trailing a little, but still within eyeshot to direct me.
He was 25 when he died, the age I am now. And so, with a further seven AHMs under my belt that finally yielded a win last Sunday in the AHM Men’s category*, therein was a good reminder to press on in pursuit of personal athletic goals while I still can.
I hitched a ride to the race venue in the car of Devathas Satianathan with his sister, Renuka. Devathas is a friend, regular running partner, and teammate on the 2PDF AHM team whom I first met while training in that same OCS AHM team of 2007. I had planned to join Fang Jian Yong (eventual AHM Men’s runner-up) and Russell Ericksen (eventual AHM Men’s Open 10th-place finisher) to run the race at a pace of 3 minutes 40 seconds per kilometre. The targeted pace would bring us to a finish time of 1:17 and, with a personal best (PB) of 1:17:10 for the distance, I felt I was ready for an attempt to lower my PB.
If I could sustain the pace, I knew it would set me up to place well in the race; a podium finish was possible but little did I think I would be in a position to win. There were several runners who were in prime shape.
The runners representing the various army units in the inter-formation challenge were given priority starts nearest the starting line and, when we were flagged off, Jian Yong and I settled into a comfortable pace, confident, despite trailing a few runners in our category at that point, that we would be able to make up ground later on in what was a long race.
In the first four kilometres, it was about settling into the targeted pace, getting a feel for it and hence instilling it into our muscle memory. I did not feel the effort was laborious, which meant that the race was going well and there was not much to worry about the way we were running. I was careful, however, not to be complacent as lethargy and fatigue are like beasts that can unknowingly creep up on and cripple you before you realise they have done their work.
Therefore, shooting glances at my Global Positioning System-equipped watch from time to time, I was careful not to go any faster than the targeted 3:40 per kilometre pace. I was even prepared to be slower than the targeted pace by a few seconds because I knew, in a half marathon, it was possible to make up for those losses and run much faster in the second half if one did not rashly run oneself into difficulty in the early kilometres.
We had not seen Russell yet and his whereabouts Jian Yong pondered as he uttered rhetorically while shooting a glance back: “Where’s that Russell?”
As we reached Marina Barrage and were about to cross Marina Bridge towards Gardens by the Bay, I heard footsteps approaching behind and stole a glance, suspecting it was Russell finally catching up. And it was. He had started the race further back from us and had spent the first few kilometres working to close the gap. With him in the pack, we started running with two ahead alongside each other and one tucked behind. Jian Yong and me took turns alongside Russell.
Running on the fringes of Gardens by the Bay, along Marina Reservoir, we soon turned into Tanjong Rhu, which seasoned AHM runners know can be potentially treacherous having to run over grass in parts and navigate kerbs in the darkness of pre-dawn.
Careful to watch my footing, nevertheless, at the end of Tanjong Rhu, along Sungei Geylang, I almost found myself in an accident that could have altered the outcome of the race. As we navigated a right turn round a kerb, I was on the inside of Jian Yong and Russell and slipped on a spread of soil and mud that had accumulated at the base of the kerb, almost crashing into Jian Yong as he instinctively stretched out a hand to support me. I steadied myself and muttered some now-forgotten words of relief.
Before we made that turn, we had the opportunity to see who were ahead as they returned down the other direction. Banjamin Quek, Ivan Low and Su Yen Bing filled the top three positions in our category and they had been leading for almost half the race.
Russell, Jian Yong, and I overtook Banjamin, Ivan and Yen Bing in that order some time between the 8- and 12-kilometre marks. By the time we were U-turning on the northern side of the Singapore Sports Hub’s National Stadium, back towards Stadium Boulevard and Mountbatten Road, Jian Yong and me found ourselves as the leading two runners in our category. Both of us had a chance to win the race, and I mentally steeled myself to get the best result I could.
I was glad to pass the halfway mark, knowing that at this point, I could more reliably predict how I was going to finish. With the effort still feeling comfortable, I grew optimistic of a top-three finish and began to push on.
After Nicoll Highway (the start of which Russell started falling behind), we had to U-turn another time near Suntec City. Again, that afforded an opportunity to assess the gap between us and the runners ahead (Lim Kien Mau and Stuart Haynes) and those behind. There was only about five to six kilometres left to run and, by now, I was starting to run alone.
One of the most amazing feelings and days a runner can have is when, on a run, the legs are rolling over with little inertia and the breathing is controlled and easy. This was one of those days and I remember searching myself for any strain. Eventually, it did set in, but only in the last kilometre as I ran past the Singapore Flyer, down Raffles Avenue, making my final push to clock as fast a time as I could. I knew I was close to 1:17 but was not sure if I was under it.
St. Andrew’s Road is the usual site of big race finishes in Singapore such as the Singapore Marathon and the Army Half Marathon. Making that turn into St. Andrew’s Road from Esplanade Drive (via Fullerton Road) can be an exhilarating feeling at the end of a long race. And, as I did so, I checked back to see if anyone was closing on me. I felt safe enough to savour the last 500m and enjoy what had turned out to be arguably the most significant win so far in my running journey.
I will remember this race not for the bleak surroundings of the finish line — still dark and with only a smattering of people — but for a journey lit up by the many people who have shared in it. Besides, it was not really an end but a milestone in a journey that continues and made possible with the camaraderie and friendship of others like Devathas, Renuka, Jian Yong, Russell, and one CPT Ho.
*For Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) active servicemen and SAF NSmen, who consist of Operationally Ready National Servicemen, MINDEF Reserves & Ex-NSmen