Lester Tan gives us an exclusive first-hand account of his race winning run!
Date: 6th Oct 2018 (Sat)
Distance: 50km / 84km / 100km
Finishing Time: 9hrs 53mins (100km)
A (not so) long time ago in Singapore …
2018 marked my debut in the ultramarathon racing scene. Completing an ultra has been a goal of mine since 2013. Due to national service and school commitments, however, the conditions simply weren’t favourable for a dedicated ultra-training program.
During that period, most of my races consisted in university-level competitions that stretched no further than 5.8km. It wasn’t until I completed my third year of undergraduate studies that I finally had time to prepare for an ultra.
Having successfully completed the Force of Nature Ultra (64km) and Twilight Ultra Challenge (100km) in July, I knew I was hooked. As such, I didn’t think twice about registering for the 2XU SG-Ultramarathon.
“How do I even get there?”
The starting point of the ultramarathon was situated at Gardens by The Bay East. I arrived there around 4:30 pm, just 30 minutes before the official flag-off for the 84km / 100km ultrarunners. Despite its relatively small size, the event venue wasn’t as crowded as I expected. Fortunately, getting there was a breeze thanks to the shuttle service provided from Stadium MRT.
It took approximately 10 minutes for the shuttle to arrive at the race venue. I was happy to note that the baggage deposit service was quick and efficient – it took a mere 30 seconds for my personal belongings to be stashed. Numerous portaloos were provided for participants who needed to relieve their pre-race jitters.
“10 minutes to flag-off …”
Final checks were in order: hydration vest consisting of two soft flasks (500ml each), cap (in case it rains), fig bars (not a fan of energy gels), GPS watch (if a run isn’t recorded on Strava, it never happened), handphone (for emergencies), a packet of tissues (for a different sort of emergency), spare cash (needed a ride home). Awesome, all systems go! I looked around and observed fellow ultrarunners completing their final preparations.
For some reason, everyone’s faces looked rather … stoic. You know how Nike models all have that same determined, gritty expression? That’s the expression on the faces of everyone I saw. I guess this is what ‘getting in the zone’ looked like.
5 minutes to go. I munched on a fig bar and shuffled sheepishly to the start pen.
Oh boy, it’s going to be a long night.
“One minute to go!”
I met my friend Michael, who is an exchange student from the United States and accomplished distance runner, at the start pen and we exchanged words of encouragement. Sporting a muscular physique, Michael appeared to me as the kind of guy that would chase down lions instead of it being the other way around. On the other hand, I have been described as a “stickman”, “zero-fat” and “almost disappearing”.
Surprisingly, Michael simply carried an empty bottle and nothing else.
“What about food?” I asked.
“I’ll figure something out along the way!” He happily chirped back.
“Anyway, I’m going to start at the front – gotta get my picture taken!”
I waved goodbye as Michael weaved through to crowd ahead. Moments later, the announcer started his countdown.
3! 2! 1! An air horn was sounded and off we go!
“5 minutes per kilometre!” (15km)
After 5km, the ultrarunners found themselves entering East Coast Park – a staple of numerous road races in Singapore. This scenic 10km stretch of road was packed with recreational runners, families, cyclists and couples taking their evening strolls.
Some energy exuded from the park must’ve transferred over to me as I found it easy to keep within my targeted race pace of 5mins/km. The aid station at ECP provided us with water and Herbalife isotonic drinks. For those of you who never tried Herbalife, I can validate that it tastes mildly sweet in comparison to 100 Plus or Pocari. This, I feel, is easier on your gut during longer races where G.I distress is common.
“Speaking of G.I distress …” (15km – 28km)
At this point, Michael was far ahead of me (I guesstimated that he went at approximately 4:50min/km) as I held on to my race pace. After exiting ECP, I began my journey through Coastal Road.
Oh, Coastal Road. Permit me to briefly describe what a legend this strip of pavement is. Beginning at the end of ECP, the Tanah Marah Coast Road connects Changi Coast Park with East Coast Park, stretching approximately 12.6km. Situated beside the runway of Changi Airbase, the only scenery that runners and cyclists could enjoy are the occasional airplanes overhead.
I am not kidding. There’s literally nothing else that’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye at Coastal Road, unless you enjoy looking at endless pavement. Even encountering fellow human beings is a luxury when trudging along this stretch of road.
6km into Coastal Road, problems arose. A few hundred meters after the aid station, my stomach decided that there was no better place to wreak havoc than in the middle of nowhere. And so, my gut churned, and my heart rate spiked (at one point it went up to 178 beats despite me keeping to a pace of 5:20min/km). It was agony, to say the least. It wasn’t long until I slowed to a walk-shuffle-jog combination.
26km into the race and I’m already in a dark place. Definitely not how I envisioned my 100km journey would turn out. I even considered the idea of dropping out; take a cab home and console myself that there’s always another race to participate in. After all, we all have bad days, right?
“Oh, yes! A portaloo!” (28km – 34km)
Fortunately, my stubbornness got the better of me. Also, the fact that there weren’t available taxis at Coastal Road. After 7km of agony, I finally made it to Changi Coast Park and was relieved to find portaloos situated at the entrance. It took 10 minutes in the loo for me to feel normal again.
At this point, numerous other 100km ultrarunners have entered Changi Coast Park.
“100km right?” a European runner asked me as I caught up to him a few metres past the portaloos.
“You’re looking strong!”
“Thanks! You too; keep going!” I replied as I quickened my pace to make up lost time.
Like East Coast Park, Changi Coast Park was abuzz with families. Numerous groups had set up tents and were enjoying barbeques. The scent of freshly-grilled chicken wings and assorted seafood filled the air. I wouldn’t be surprised if my fellow ultrarunners felt hungry at this point.
I, however, lost much of my appetite after my earlier stomach issues. I took several sips from my soft flasks and discovered that I was at risk of emptying both bottles. Not good; I didn’t ration my water earlier (because of my problematic gut) and now I’m about to pay the price. Thankfully, just as I was about to empty my flask, an aid station was found at the entrance of Changi Village.
*Shoves food into mouth* (34km – 42km)
The aid station at Changi Village provided runners with bananas, jam sandwiches, water and Herbalife. I refilled my flasks with water, took a cup of Herbalife and a jam sandwich. Unlike marathons, ultramarathons typically require runners to consume solid food over the course of the race.
Not only does it aid digestion (I think), it breaks the monotony of gooey gels and energy chews. From personal experience, solid food also provides energy for a longer duration compared to its liquified counterpart. Needless to say, having a jam sandwich was an absolute delight. Massive shout-out to the volunteers who painstakingly prepared sandwiches for the runners!
After Changi Village, runners continued their pavement journey along Changi and Pasir Ris roads. To my surprise, I caught up with Michael and two other runners at around 36km.
“Hey man! How’s it going?” I asked.
“Lester! Argh, I’m feeling really tired. My legs are seizing up.”
“Do you want some food? Water?” “Nah, I’m good. You go on ahead!”
Michael, who went hiking in Java a few days before, was clearly uncomfortable. At that point, I could only hope that he’ll eventually catch a second wind. Breathing in vehicular exhaust, however, limited that possibility.
“Where’s Michael?” (42km – 60km)
3 hours and 40 minutes after the flag-off, I completed the first marathon of the ultra. Punggol Waterway lay ahead. As I refilled my supplies at the aid station (water, Pepsi, bananas, chips) near the Lorong Halus Bridge, two friends from school greeted me on their bicycles.
Javier, my roommate, met me first: “Yo! How’s everything?” “Dead. I’m so gonna DNF.” I jokingly replied.
Yu Rong, my fellow Cross-Country athlete, then asked: “Where’s Michael?”
“Somewhere behind. He’ll catch up!” I replied as I made my turn towards Serangoon Park Connector.
At this point, I was made aware by the race supporters that I was in second position. Ahead of me was a Vietnamese runner (I didn’t meet him till after the race). In all honesty, having the knowledge that I’m in a podium position boosted my morale significantly, allowing me to keep within 5min/km even after a marathon. Located deep within the almost-pitch-black Serangoon Park Connector was a turnaround point.
If there was a major flaw of this race, it’ll be this: due to the darkness, it was extremely easy for runners to miss the turnaround marker. Alas, making this mistake cost the Vietnamese runner not only his lead, but also an additional 7km.
Apart from the gripe concerning signages, Punggol Waterway was simply stunning at night. Though it’s a manmade canal, the waterway’s architecture blended well with its surrounding buildings, giving it an appearance of a starry oasis. For the first time in the race, I felt light and relaxed. It also helped that I had friends keeping me company throughout this entire section of the race. Upon exiting the waterway, I found myself in the lead with less than 50km to go.
Javier and Yu Rong left me at the 60km mark to look for Michael. They didn’t manage to locate him. I learnt from Michael later that he dropped out of the race at around 57km.
“Crap, where am I?” (60km – 75km)
The return journey was pleasant as I got to encounter and cheer incoming 84km and 100km runners.
“This could be mine! This could be my win if I could just hold it for another 40km!” I happily thought in my head.
In my excitement, however, I carelessly missed a turn towards Changi Village at Pasir Ris and found myself on a lonely stretch along Changi Prison.
Changi Prison!? I surely do not recall passing by the area! I stopped in panic and checked the map on my GPS watch. Apparently, I was supposed to make a left turn at a Shell Petrol Station but instead I kept going straight. This mistake cost me an additional 4km.
Morale plummeted as I realized I had likely lost my lead. I retraced my steps and turned on the gas – running at 4:15mins/km in a desperate bid to make up lost time (again). The gamble succeeded: I regained my lead at Changi Village. It surely hurt, though.
“Just … Hold … On …” (75km – 100km)
The first pass at Coastal Road made me realize that I needed more than just water if I ever to survive that painful stretch. At this point, I knew that fig bars were out of the question as they were simply too dry to be consumed without irritating my throat. The solution, then, was to carry a banana from the aid station at Changi Village all the way to the aid station at Coastal Road. That’s right, I hand-carried a banana for about 15km.
Knowing that returning runners are likely to slow down or walk at Coastal Road, I forced myself to move at no less than 5:20mins/km through the entire way. The idea was simple: since I knew the second runner wasn’t too far from me; my only option was to extend my lead as far as possible at the point of the race where I knew most runners would slow down. No stomach problems this time!
After the race, I realized that my strategy worked. It opened a substantial gap between me and the second runner.
But for now, with just over 10km to go upon re-entry into East Coast Park, I slowed to a walk-jog strategy as I felt my legs were starting to wobble. I was simply too tired to coherently form substantial thoughts, so I merely repeated a mantra in my head: “Nothing broken, nothing torn, you continue.”
I guess that creed pretty much summed up what ultramarathons are all about. Relentless forward progress. Having the willpower to push on through whatever physical or mental obstacles that may be forced upon you. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Carrying out a glorious fight to the end.
“One. Hundred. Kilometres.”
Crossing the finish line back at Rhu Cross was a relatively quiet affair, lacking all the glamour and splendour of other road races. But it was nevertheless special for me. Not only because I was first to complete the 100km ultramarathon, but that it wouldn’t have happened if I gave up on myself at Coastal Road.
There were about 20 volunteers at the race venue applauding as I collected my medal and Finisher’s Tee. At this point, I believe I can speak on behalf of all participants: The cheers and applause meant the world to us. Thank you to each and every one of the volunteers who stayed up all day and night to ensure us ultrarunners a ‘safe passage’ in our journey to push ourselves beyond our limits. The victory is yours as much as it is ours.
Words: Lester Tan