Preparing to push off for the start of the 3,000m steeplechase race at the Taiwan Open. (Photo courtesy of Landdis Su)

Preparing to push off for the start of the 3,000m steeplechase race at the Taiwan Open. (Photo courtesy of Landdis Su)

I had hoped to finally bring news of a sub-10 minutes in the 3,000m steeplechase at my final tune-up race at the Taiwan Open, before the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in a month’s time (the 3,000m steeplechase, to be specific, scheduled for Friday, 12 June, at 5.30pm).

Alas, I missed the mark by a mere three tenths of a second, such are the fine margins in sport by which athletes meet or fall short of their goals and stress over.

Nevertheless, it was a new personal best by slightly over two seconds, and I was relatively pleased with how I ran and felt in general during the race. 

The weather in Taipei, Taiwan, has felt relatively similar to that in Singapore, except the afternoon’s heat is perhaps much more muted. Scheduled for an 8pm start last evening, a rare chance to run in the night as races in Singapore are usually scheduled for the morning or afternoon, I needn’t worry about the sun’s heat anyway and I was glad for that.

I was also looking forward to running with 22 other runners (although only 18 eventually started) of a wide range of abilities (judging from their season’s best times) entered in the 3,000m steeplechase. Competition can help stimulate faster times although, in the steeplechase, it could get tricky when navigating barrier jumps because a fall in the pack can trigger a chain reaction.

Entering the race, my strategy (in adaptation from previous races) was to adopt a tap-and-go approach when clearing the barriers, as opposed to hurdling them (which foregoes a touch of the barriers).

Settling near the back of the pack in the initial 227.412m (each lap in the 3,000m steeplechase with the water jump inside the 400m track is 396.084m) before the first of seven more laps commenced, I glanced at my watch as we passed the finish line for the first time: 43 seconds, I registered in my mind. I was just inside the targeted 45sec pace. Maintaining a 1 minute 19 seconds pace for the next seven laps would get me a sub-10 finish.

The field was pretty strung out for the first two to three laps. There were clusters of two or three runners, then a solitary runner, and gaps between them.

Utilising my tap-and-go technique, I realised as I passed some runners that I was quicker over the barriers than them, which was a good thing as that meant I was being efficient. Taking on the water jumps over the first three or four laps also felt smooth. I managed to get good grips of the barrier (helped by its being covered with the same sort of material that the track is made of and which my spikes can dig into, as opposed to the barriers in Singapore used for races that are usually smooth wood that can cause the spike shoes of runners to slip against especially when wet) and propel myself a good distance towards the edge of the water pit.

I was picking off runners who had started too fast and found their strength fading midway through the race. Soon, the track ahead of me became clearer of bodies and I could focus on my own effort as the need to be cautious of running in the wake of others diminished.

In a race, I am always assessing my perceived effort because that lends me an indication to how hard or easy I am working, how much more I can push and therefore how to calibrate my effort and pace myself, and so on.

Four laps in and my legs were still feeling pretty springy and my clearance of the barriers rather efficient (with the occasional hurdling of the barriers thrown in when I felt my approach favoured a hurdling technique). Five laps in before my perceived effort felt rather more strained. But I knew five laps in was a pretty good threshold. In races that I’ve run good times in, this was the point where I would expect to cross into digging into my reserves and tapping upon the toughness I’ve honed in trainings.

The last two laps were going to be a fight and flashes of “How much do you want it?” and “This is what you’ve trained for and you knew to expect this fight” lit up in my mind. Those 1:15 laps (both flat and with barriers) I have done in training too.

I had to fight the resistance; I had to fight the stiffening of my limbs and body. I leapt off one water jump on my less familiar foot and thought, “Darn.” On another barrier, I took an instinctive decision to hurdle (instead of tapping-and-going) and wondered upon landing if I took more strength out of my legs than necessary.

But this is what happens in sport: there is no time to rue the what-has-beens and what-ifs but re-channel one’s focus on what lies ahead and pour one’s effort into it. And so I plugged on.

Entering the final lap with the bell ringing, I saw “8:44” on the digital clock next to the finish line. I had clocked in at 8:40 at the same point at the Singapore Open in April but that was after what I think was a more erratic effort and a mostly-solo run. How could I be slower at the same point in this race with more runners around me to pull and push me along amongst other factors?

Anyway, there wasn’t much time for thinking. And I had practised in training for this mental exercise of harnessing my energy for finishing strong despite the strain I was feeling. It was the part of the race where I like to associate the role of the brain to a computer ignoring all the warning messages it is served by its own system and pressing on with (even elevating) its functions.

Every barrier jump and its efficiency, I knew, was going to be crucial in obtaining my sub-10 goal and I willed my body over the remaining barriers as best I could.

One of my closing memories to the race is approaching that final barrier after the water jump and, after a less-than-satisfactory jump that had more vertical motion than horizontal, pumping my knees to a sprint towards the finish line amidst the shouts of encouragement from my fellow Singapore teammates (for which I am very thankful for).

As I crossed the line, I shot a sideward look to the clock on my left and saw the digits, “10:00”. Since that glance as I crossed the finish line probably took a few milliseconds, I thought I might have still recorded a sub-10 in the official electronic time. I waited for the results to be flashed on the screen as I caught my breath by the side of the track.

The official results, however, brought an end to that thought as it showed “10:00.29” next to my name, in sixth place. As I walked back to the stands, I was nonetheless still  quite thrilled at a personal best performance, appreciating in that moment that the joy (mixed with a tinge of disappointment) I was experiencing was a basic yet profound thing.

A couple of teammates said encouragingly I could still get the sub-10 at the SEA Games. Having gone to my physical limits this race, I know I have to push those limits and visit them again. This is what we, athletes, do in sport. We explore and, having explored and felt the plethora of emotions (loneliness, suffering, fear, et al), we do not stop there. We have to go to that edge again.

I am on the steep(le) learning curve and coming out of it as I enter the home-straight towards the SEA Games in less than a month.

PS: The 3,000m steeplechase race at the SEA Games is scheduled for Fri, 12 June 2015, at 5.30pm. Entry to athletics events at the National Stadium is free and non-ticketed on a first-come-first-served basis.

About to overtake a competitor after clearing a barrier on the home-straight. (Photo courtesy of Landdis Su)

About to overtake a competitor after clearing a barrier on the home-straight. (Photo courtesy of Landdis Su)