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June 13, 2017

Meet Soh Rui Yong, Flagstaff legend and Singaporean marathon star

If you spend enough time around Flagstaff–or really, if you follow enough athletes training out here on Instagram–you have probably seen Soh Rui Yong running with a who’s-who of American and American-based distance runners.

But unless you’ve actually met the guy (which is fairly likely as he’s incredibly friendly) or follow Southeast Asian track results closely (less likely), you probably don’t know much about him.

Well, fortunately for you, fellow Citius Boy Stephen Kersh and I got to chat with Rui for about an hour over a bowl of phở at a Flagstaff Vietnamese restaurant. Our conversation touched on his own running experiences, but also addressed the general running culture in his native Singapore, which feels quite a bit different than what our largely American audience is probably accustomed to.

On his early experiences running in Singapore

I’d say that running’s actually a pretty popular sport in Singapore–recreational running. The people don’t really understand the high level performance aspect of it, but in terms of going out there and running a road race every single weekend, there are tons of people running 60-70 minute 10ks, or 4 or 5 hour marathons. It’s a form of exercise, but it’s also a form of achievement. You may not understand this in your culture but Singaporeans love finisher t-shirts and finisher medals. Oh they, absolutely love it! Hanging their medals all in a line on their wall. It’s a pride thing, like “Oh, I braved the marathon…42 kilometers of running and I got the shirt.

If you were setting up a coaching business in Singapore, you’d make great money, you just have to put it out of your mind that you wouldn’t be coaching high performance athletes, you’d be coaching those 50, 60-minute 10k runners. But there’s a huge market for that. There are so many coaches and running clubs who will claim to get you down to such-and-such a time.

I wanted to be a soccer player when I was littler–I mean, soccer’s a huge sport outside of America, right? But when my secondary school didn’t have a soccer team, so I tried out for all the different sports, but the cross country coach was the one who lobbied the hardest for me to join, so I ended up joining it without knowing what it was.

First practice we went to what’s called “Turf City,” where horses used to race, but that’s where we went for practice. I remember, I didn’t finish my first run! I went maybe a mile or two and then I started walking.

Obviously you make big improvements as long as you keep showing up to practice, and so I started to get better at it. But I still didn’t really take it seriously until I was maybe, 16, 17. I was still running cross country but I was playing a lot of soccer too at the expense of cross country practice, which my coach didn’t really appreciate it. But you’re a kid. You do what’s fun. You don’t necessarily take your sport very seriously. I never once thought I would be running as part of my income or part of my career; so if I could write a letter to my younger self I’d probably ask him to still enjoy whatever he’s doing–but running’s taught and given me so much, that I’d tell him to work a little harder.

But anyway, the closer I started getting to making national teams I started to take it more and more seriously, especially the high-performance aspect. Overtime I saw it as a chance to do something significant for my country, and for myself as well.

On winding up in Eugene, Oregon, training under the tutelage of Ian Dobson

After I finished my A-level examinations, I was 18 and went into the military for two years of mandatory service in the army. I wasn’t really able to train at a high level when I was in the army, but when I came out I whipped myself back into shape and I went to college at the National University of Singapore where I studied business. And it was quite comfortable for me; academics-wise it was tough but I was doing okay. Sports-wise as a freshman I won the 5,000m, 10,000m, and cross country titles. I just knew that my times weren’t very good. I was running 15:30s, I was running 32:20s. Cross country was more like a road race really because in Singapore we don’t have any real cross country courses. For example, in the 10k, I won by two or three laps. The guy who won silver was running like 35 minutes. It was a “championship record” then a few laps later, the next finisher.

I just looked around and I saw that even the neighboring countries–Malaysia, Thailand, the Phillipines, Indonesia–they were all producing far better athletes than Singapore and I was like ‘it can’t be a genetic thing’ because all of Southeast Asia, we have similar genetics. It has to be a training thing. What are we doing wrong? Or what aren’t we doing that other countries are.

The more I researched the more factors I found: in Singapore we don’t have professional track and field but in Indonesia the Federation supports them and lets them train at altitude; in Malaysia they give you jobs in the police or something… same for Thailand. And in the lead up to the Southeast Asian Games you don’t work you just train and you get paid to do that.

The reason why Singapore can’t do that is, number one: our lack of manpower and number two: cost of living is so much more expensive in Singapore. If we have a list of priorities, survival is first, finance is two, defense is three and then sports and entertainment is at the bottom.

But we’re trying to push sports as entertainment now because we’re realizing it builds character and a nation’s identity. The Sports Singapore CEO–his name is Lim Teck Yin–he use to be an army general, and he’s really big on using sports as a political movement to get Singaporeans active and healthy and like, more resilient. It will take a number of years; the goal is to have that buy 2030–it’s called ‘Vision 2030.’ But meanwhile I still have to get my own thing done now.

So my number one goal was to qualify for the Southeast Asian Games and I wanted to medal, just to prove to Singapore that it can be done. Because there is this perception that Singapore just sucks as distance runners–and that there’s no way we can compete with Malaysia, Indonesia, they’re more rugged, they’re more Third World, they’re tougher than us, we’re just a bunch of city boys who are only good at sports that require money.

It was a dream of mine to get my country on that regional stage for starters, so I decided to apply for the exchange program at the University of Oregon, because they have a good sports business program and I wanted to learn more about that side of athletics, and I wanted to train in a high-performance environment. (I didn’t know about Flagstaff back then! Things could have different honestly had I known.) But I went to Eugene because it markets itself as Track Town, USA. And I had a great 2 ½ years there.

That’s where I met Ian Dobson and did some training with Team Run Eugene while I was there. For a while I was a part of the [University of Oregon] Running Club.

On his impact on how elite running is perceived in Singapore

When I was in high school and I ran 16:09 in the year 2008, I was ranked number one in Singapore, both Junior and Open. The next fastest guy was 16:13 and he was in university. He’s gone on to be a pretty good runner as well. But essentially, now, this year, somebody ran 15:22 and he’s neither of us–just someone else. The bar has been raised. 16:30 used to be a hell of a good time, but you’re running that and nobody really looks at you. It’s definitely changing.

Especially when I ran 31:15 in Portland three years ago – that broke a 41 year old national record in the 10,000m. It just stood there for 41 years and I broke it by three seconds. So I think people realize that it’s possible. It’s not that we were soft, it’s just that we weren’t training the right way.

In Singapore, I’m self-coached. But here in Flagstaff, I kind of tie in with Ben Rosario’s group. It’s not an official coaching situation or anything, he’s just helping me through the Southeast Asian Games and once I go back home I’ll be self-coached again.

But just being in Flagstaff helps because I get to run with so many people; I get to run with NAZ Elite guys. I get to do strength with Team Run Flagstaff guys. I run with all these different people. So it’s just a great place to be, in that there’s always a coach or an athlete you can tie in with and do a workout with. But right now, Ben has been mentoring me, but back home I’m on my own.

I work for Sport Singapore. It’s the governing body for all matters related to sport in Singapore. My position is in coaching development–working with different federations to develop coaches, because we identified that as one of our key weaknesses. Not just running coaches either–it’s all sports so that makes it tough! But there are some aspects of coaching that are the same across all sports, like pedagogy, communication, simple basic stuff like that, that you’d think every coach would know but you’d be surprised. A lot of coaches just get into coaching because they are passionate about their sport or they used to be good at the sport. But I think being good at a sport doesn’t necessarily make you a good coach. [My job is] to build systems that are universal across all sports and create coaching courses specific to that sport too.

On his competition at the Southeast Asian Games marathon

Honestly, when I won two years ago it was a pretty big surprise. I believed I was capable of doing it, but I had to run a good race. Some of the other guys didn’t have great days, so yeah. This year, my strongest competition is going to come from Indonesia. There is a sergeant in the army who has run 14:02 (for 5,000-meters), 29:25 (for 10,000-meters), and 2:21 (for the marathon). On paper he is the fastest, but when you throw everyone into a hot, humid marathon anything can happen. It should be an interesting battle.

On his incredible network of relationships with fellow runners locally and globally

I think being from a smaller country and having to do everything yourself forces you to branch out. Last year’s World Championships were a good example. I went there all by myself – no team manager, no coach. I was filling in the financial documents all by myself. Thank God I went to school! When you’re by yourself, it’s kind of a survival thing. You have to get to know people. When I come to Flagstaff alone, I get to know people and I think I get comfortable going somewhere and, at first not knowing anyone and then a week later I have seven new friends.

One of my most adventurous trips was going to Kenya last year. Among many others, I reconnected with Eliud Kipchoge – who I met five years ago at the World Championships. He borrowed my laptop to access his email. He took forever to log on to his Facebook because he forgot his password.

I never had the privilege of being on a college team. I think it’s great to be on a college team because you have your support system, your friends, your coach. You do everything together. But because I didn’t have that system, I had to make my own circles. I never had that comfort zone to settle down into. Which is why I think I know more people. College teams sometimes stick to themselves and never really talk to anyone else. It can be intimidating to go up and introduce yourself to a group of people all wearing the same color. I never had the benefit of a group, but I think it definitely helped my growth. I’ve got to meet so many great people in track and field. This sport has given me so much.

On his Asics sponsorship

On a global stage, my times would never get a contact but, in our Southeast Asian region, I am a relatively prominent face in this sport. It helps Asics to have someone like me wearing their shoes. Also, Southeast Asia is an emerging market so I caught a wave. They are really trying to push the brand in Asia, and if you’re going to push the brand in Asia you will need Asian athletes. They are supporting me until the 2020 Olympics.

On his training environment in Singapore

It’s pretty much like summer in Houston year around. I try my best not to think about the humidity as a hindrance, and more as a training aid. If I can run, say, 5:20s per mile in this weather, then I can definitely hold a faster pace when I race in more ideal conditions.

I’d much rather train at altitude simply because after you run, you can rest in a cool house. But the humidity just kind of sticks around. You sweat after you shower you know? Not ideal.

We have a nature reserve to run some trails. It’s a single-track trail the whole way which can get really annoying on the weekends when it’s super crowded. The tracks also get super crowded. Singapore has the highest number of stadiums per surface area in the whole world. I swear. (We did not fact check this, we are taking Rui’s word). We have six-million people packed into 26 square miles. You’re just packing a whole lot of people in a small space. I do my workouts in the morning because if I go in the evening, I’m running in lane two or three the entire time. They hog lane one!

Singapore doesn’t have the kindest working hours in the world. I think we were ranked in the top-five in terms of longest-working-hours-in-the-world sort of thing. We knock off at six, or even later. People may get on my case for not caring as much about work, but I don’t really mind. I have to go home and get ready for my run. If it costs me a promotion or two years down the road, so be it. But when I’m done with running is when I will work. Right now, I want to have a balance.

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