Racing the clock at SAA Track Series 5

Racing the clock at SAA Track Series 5 (Photo © Jezreel Mok. Used with permission)

With about three weeks of increased intensity (up to three track intervals a week) and hurdling work under my belt, I entered my final race of the year, a 3,000m steeplechase, on Sunday at the SAA Track Series 5 with quiet confidence that I could finally go sub-10 minutes, thereby lowering my 2012 personal best (PB) of 10:03.40.

Arriving at Kallang Practice Track at about 7.15am, I was pleased to note that it was one of those slow-waking days, when the sun and heat were struggling to turn up for work as people are wont to do in festive December. That checked, my other concern was the wind at the competition venue that, unbuffered by spectator stands that are a feature at conventional tracks set within a stadium, could blow in all directions and commonly did so. Thankfully, though it was breezy, it was not overly concerning.

I warmed up, hoping that as I did so the caffeine (from a canned Nescafe Original and a kopi-o kosong from the neighbourhood coffeeshop) coursing through my veins would rise through my body like mercury in a thermometer, conveying its vigour to every length of my body.

Routine completed, I was raring to go before weather conditions took any potential turn for the worse. Alas, despite my event being only the second of the day (after the women’s 3,000m steeplechase consisting of two competitors), organisational kinks conspired to delay it by about half an hour. (With the women’s steeplechase race requiring the barriers to be of a lower height than the men’s steeplechase race, the officials did not lower those barriers’ height until the event was supposed to start thereby causing the first delay. Then, after the women’s race ended, they had to take more time to increase the height of those same barriers for the men’s race.)

Trying to focus only on factors that were within my control, I kept myself moving hoping I would not lose much of the warm-up effect but, simultaneously, half cautious not to get too tired. When the field of 11 competitors were finally called to the line, we toed it only to be told to step back when someone was deemed to have stepped on the line.

We started the race at the second time of asking. And I knew I had approximately 12 seconds to cover the additional stretch of 64.151m before the commencement of the first of seven laps with five barriers (one of them preceding a water pit) on each lap.

The target pace for each 419.407m lap subsequently was 1 minute 24 seconds if I wanted to break the 10-minute barrier. I was ready to do it. I had been working for several weeks to sustain a 74sec per lap pace for repetitions of up to 800m with a minute’s recovery in between. Additionally, I have worked to sustain slightly slower paces with hurdles incorporated into the workout. The pace should not surprise my body.

I had also altered my strategy of clearing the barriers entering the race. Instead of hurdling every barrier, I was going to hurdle only the two barriers situated at the start and end of the first curve, and use a tap-and-go technique for the three other barriers.

With this technique, the first lap passed pretty easily. 1:33 was the time shown on the clock situated at the end of the lap on the inside of the track. I was three seconds faster than target pace. The next three laps felt pretty smooth in terms of effort and clearing of the barriers. I was too focussed on my sub-10 mission that I did not want to distract myself by looking at my splits at the end of every lap but, with lap splits of 1:25, 1:24, and 1:23 respectively, I need not have worried as the mission was very much alive.

The fifth lap was when I started to more palpably feel fatigue, which made my clearing of barriers slightly more inconsistent. Nevertheless, that lap was still on target in 1:24. It was down to the last two laps and I thought I better not let it fall apart in the penultimate lap so I could have a real good go at going as far under 10 minutes in the final lap as possible.

I have always felt I have a half-decent kick with my background as a 800m/1500m runner. And I don’t think I have exploited the full potential of that yet in the steeplechase as I am still learning how to kick and sprint despite the distraction of the barriers.

Nevertheless, I opened up my strides and tried to remain as relaxed as possible, with tense muscles an impediment to clearing the obstacles swiftly. Getting up and over the last water jump, successfully landing at the edge of the pit with the same left foot again, I made my final push not sure how close I was to getting under 10. The clock was in the distance, but I was fixated on carrying speed over that final barrier after the water jump and, then, the finish line.

I made it – to the finish line, not the sub-10 club, however. 10:01 I clicked off on my watch and 10:02.38 officially. While I could not give myself the Christmas gift I desired, it was heartening nonetheless to run a PB. With the effort feeling relatively comfortable through the race, I am also excited at how much faster I can run the distance the next time, perhaps in better conditions with stronger competition.

When I ran my previous PB of 10:03.40 in September 2012, I transited into training for a marathon in December. This time, with my training focus channeled purely into the 3,000m steeplechase, some people (namely Jared Leto) might be 30 Seconds from Mars but I’m two seconds (and some chump change) from the 10-minute barrier upon which I can propel myself for lift off towards some unchartered — at least for some years by any Singaporean — territory.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.