In the early morning dark of tomorrow, a doctor of chiropractic will slowly begin the chase of his fastest self. He will rise at 2am, slather on lubricant, slip on shoes and visualise in the silence. Bread and peanut butter will be eaten. Dynamic warm-up will be done. Prayer will be quietly uttered.
He ran 15km on Monday, 10 on Tuesday, 15 on Wednesday, 11 on Thursday. Some days he’s sore, tired, but always he runs because he knows with a devoted man’s clarity why he runs: “To fulfil all the potential I’ve been blessed with.”
That’s his goal, this is his long-term target: 2:19, which might get him to the Olympics; 2:19, which is 13 minutes faster than he’s ever been; 2:19, which he probably won’t get tomorrow at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon but he’ll chase it every week and month and year like a holy cause.
The runner is Ashley Liew, second at the 2015 New Orleans Rock’n’Roll Marathon, who will not be taking selfies en route or posting pictures of himself grinning in a Finisher T-shirt. He’s not here for fun but to be fast and as close as possible to first. He’s also a member of a tiny, barely-known Singapore sporting society: the elite runner.
Singapore is a city on the soleful move – 12,500 runners in the marathon alone tomorrow – but only few glide at a rapid pace. The city has parks, roads and weekly runs but recreation is the primary pursuit, not records: The goodie bag for some is more attractive than a proper gallop in the sun. But as Soh Rui Yong, two-time SEA Games marathon champion says: “High-performance runners don’t care about all that, we just want to race.”
Mass participation is a sign of a healthy awakening and inspiring proof of sneakered interest, but it has not yet translated into a wider, competitive ambition. Liew looks at his fingers and counts: Maybe eight elite male runners in Singapore, he guesses, and five women.
That makes 13, which is probably the number of long-distance world-class medals won by a single Kenyan village. We don’t have those genes, long limbs or hills to build our lungs. Instead we have a sticky heat, says Mok Ying Ren, the 2013 SEA Games marathon champ and 2007 triathlon winner, “that isn’t conducive to outdoor sports”. Parents, he adds, see swimming as a “gentler sport” and a fine skill to own on an island. Running, everyone knows. Yes, but running fast is something else.
Running, for all its flourishing new balance 574 running numbers here, isn’t yet as acutely competitive as in Japan and South Korea, whose men and women have together won 11 Olympic marathon medals and where admiring crowds stand deep along the route. In Singapore, when Liew’s girlfriend came to support him for the start of the Army half-marathon in August, she earned “funny looks” for she was the only one on Esplanade Bridge.