On the 20th of April, 2013, I rose from bed at 3.50am, in order get to the airport in time to catch a 6.05am flight to Hong Kong. I had been invited by the Singapore Athletics Association (SAA) to represent Singapore in the prestigious Hong Kong International Diamond Mile, to be held on 21st April. My training partner, Look Xinqi, had been selected to represent Singapore in the Women’s International category, and we were slated to make the trip together with our coach since our days in Raffles Junior College, Mr Steven Quek. The Diamond Mile (previously known as the Hong Kong Golden Mile) has traditionally been contested by the best athletes from the Asia-Pacific region, including many of the South-East Asian (SEA) Games medalists. As an athlete who dreams of bringing glory to Singapore at the SEA Games one day, I was naturally looking forward to the chance of testing myself against some of the best in the region.
After the conclusion of the ASEAN University Games in December 2012, where I ran my 10,000m personal best of 32min 26.00sec, my coach and I made the decision to go into off-season, and focus on speed training for a while, before I shifted my focus back to the 5,000m and 10,000m distances again. I joined the Raffles Institution cross country team for hill intervals on the hills around Singapore Sports School earlier in the year, and did upslope sprints on a grassy slope at the Bukit Timah Co-Curricular Activities Branch(CCAB), aiming to form a strong foundation on which we could plan the rest of the year’s training on. This was soon followed by short and intense intervals on the track, as we aimed to improve my speed. This was done in the belief as my body learnt to move at a faster pace, I would find pace of the 5,000m and 10,000m vents much more manageable when I eventually transited back to the longer distances.
Soh Rui Yong at the Mile timetrial at Series 3
When SAA announced that they would be organising a mile (1,609m) time trial, in order to select the best male and best female runner at the event to represent Singapore at the Hong Kong International Diamond Mile, my coach and I identified it as a meet we could work towards in our quest to improve my ability at the shorter distances. Competing at the time trial, I finished as the top Singaporean in 4 minutes, 27.94 seconds, and to be delight, was thus selected for the Hong Kong Mile. My joy was doubled when training partner Xinqi won the Women’s time trial in 5 minutes, 36 seconds, and was selected to go with me on the trip.
The flight to Hong Kong took about 4 hours, most of which we spent catching up on lost sleep as a result of rising early in the morning to catch our flight. Upon reaching our destination, we proceeded straight to the press conference cum welcome lunch of the Diamond Mile, held at a posh country club. There, international competitors were gathered and welcomed to the event, and we proceeded to take group photographs and mingle with each other.
I was delighted to see some familiar faces, including Mohd Jironi Riduan of Malaysia (2009 SEA Games 800m/1500m double silver medalist and 2010 ASEAN University Games 800m/1500m double gold medalist), who I had previously met at the 2012 Negeri Sembilan Open and 2012 ASEAN University Games (AUG) in Laos. Other familiar faces included Ridwan of Indonesia (2011 SEA Games 1500m gold medalist), whom I had got acquainted with at the 2012 AUG and Nathan Down of Australia, who happened to be on holiday in Singapore and handily beat me in a our selection trials – 4min 22sec to 4min 27sec – just 3 weeks prior to the Diamond Mile. We chatted like old friends, exchanging views from everything and anything, from our training schedules to our personal best times to our personal lives back home. Everyone seemed up for the race the next day, with a live television camera even being station to film the ceremony.
Nathan introduced Xinqi and me to his Australian teammates, James Hansen and Melissa Duncan, both incredible runners with personal bests of 3min 46sec and 4min 13sec for the 1500m respectively. I proposed that we all go for a pre-race jog together when we got back to the hotel, and they warmly agreed to the idea. Xinqi was initially skeptical, concerned that she would be left behind by us, but I convinced her to come along, promising that I would always run one step behind her so she would not be left behind.
As it turned out, the five of us had an enjoyable jog together on the streets of Hong Kong, avoiding slopes wherever possible so as to prevent accumulating any unnecessary fatigue. Nathan and James stopped after 20 minutes of jogging, while Melissa, Xinqi and myself continued for 10 more minutes, before we all proceeded with stretching exercises and a few fast strides, just to loosen up after the flight.
After the jog, the Australians proceeded to visit the hotel swimming pool, while Xinqi and I opted to return to our rooms as she wanted to take a nap, and I had to study for my upcoming final exams, beginning on 29th April. I washed up, packed my bag for race day, then spent a good 45 minutes studying. Thereafter, Xinqi and I met up for dinner at a nearby food court, where we were joined by the two Chinese women representatives, Zhang Xiao Jun and Wu Li Min. They are professional athletes native to the nearby Guangzhou province, and speaking to them allowed us a much deeper insight into the lives of professional athletes, who train twice a day, almost every day.
Wishing the two ladies all the best for the race, Xinqi and I proceeded to purchase fruits, bread and water from the nearby supermarket, before turning in for the night early, in order to caught enough rest for our big day.
Despite waking up twice, at 1am and 4am, to use the bathroom, I fell asleep relatively easily and felt sufficiently well rested as I woke up at 7.30am on race day. A quick shower and a final check of my race backpack later, I joined Xinqi for an international buffet breakfast on the first floor of our hotel. The selection variety was immense, though I eventually settled for a relatively safe choice of cereal, oatmeal, toast and fruits. We had to catch the bus to the race venue at 9am even though the international race categories was only due to be flagged off from 12.10pm onwards, and I was thus careful to ensure that I had enough to eat so I would not feel too hungry again prior to the race.
Breakfast was satisfying, and an hour later, Mr Quek, Xinqi and I boarded the bus together with the rest of the other athletes. Or most of them, at least. Some comic relief commenced on the bus when a final head count revealed that there were two missing people. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that James and Nathan were the two who were missing. They were last seen at breakfast. Jimmy, the friendly Hong Kong Amateur Athletics Association (HKAAA) official delegated to take care of the invited foreign athletes, was visibly worrying and just about to panic, when two runners were spotted rushing out of the lobby and onto the bus. They were greeted by joking applause from the Macau athletes, while Nathan explained, “Lift took us up, lift took us down, lift took us up, lift took us down.”
We proceeded to take a few photos together on the bus and engaged in some small talk, before eventually settling into our seats and resting up for the impending race. The journey to Hong Kong City Central took approximately half an hour, and we alighted at a crowded Central Business District area, which in many ways reminded me of Singapore’s Orchard Road. The crowded streets served to amp up the atmosphere, and I my excitement grew with every passing minute. Despite the crowded, I had the fortune to meet my parents, who had flew in from Singapore to support me in the race. They had wandered over to the international athletes’ tent, stationed near the starting line, to wish me luck.
Xinqi and I proceeded to take a walk around the race route to find out what we were against, at the same time enjoying the many other junior and local race categories that were ongoing. The race course comprised of a half-mile loop to be run twice, with sharp, narrow right angle turns and a long, gradual upslope climb and an ensuing descent at the halfway mark of the course. The technical nature of the race course made it unique and exciting, but it also meant that running a mile on the course would equate to a much slower time than if the same effort was expended on a running track.
I hence made up my mind that the objective of the day was to go for a good finishing position, and time was secondary. With 7 (1 Kenyan, 2 Australians, 1 Malaysian, 1 Thai, 1 Filipino, 1 Indonesian) runners in the field having personal bests for the 1500m of faster than four minutes, I knew than finishing close to them or even beating them would tell me that I was capable of breaking the 4-minute barrier for 1500m as well.
We began our warmup routine at 11am, choosing an area between two buildings for our jog so as to shield us from the cold winds as much as possible. Shortly after warmup, we were ushered to the reporting area. On the way to the reporting area, we passed by a huge crowd of Hong Kong-employed Filipino domestic helped, all of whom enjoy Sundays off from their employers. Mervin Guarte, Filipino 1500m record holder (3 minutes, 47.65 seconds), was the celebrity of the moment, with everybody we walked past roaring him on.
“Hey Mervin, you’ve got a lot of supporters!” Mohd Jironi Riduan of Malaysia joyfully pointed out.
Eventually, we reached a tent where we were to be housed until the start of our race. Here, there was a long wait of about half an hour before the race was to start. Officials were concerned about starting the race on time and were taking no chances whatsoever.
Making use of the time, I sat down and closed my eyes, taking to myself and visualizing how I planned to run the race ahead.
“Start slow. The first bend onto Ice House Street is less than 50m from the starting line, and approaching the turn too fast will make it more difficult. The Kenyan is likely to push the pace, so it will be fast, and most of the field will be dragged along. Relax as much as possible and follow. It’s ok if you find yourself last. They will come back to you. When you finish the first lap and hear the bell, go for it!”
Opening my eyes, I felt composed and prepared. I had a plan, and was going to stick to it.
“Men’s International category, let’s go,” the race official instructed.
Still wearing tracksuits to protect ourselves from the chilling winds, we walked in single file towards the start line. Along the way, I spotted Xinqi in the last 150m of her race, racing four other girls in an exciting battle to the finish. She executed a speedy last 100m to outsprint the pack for ninth place, a good result for her, considering she was ranked only 12th out of the 13 registered participants in terms of personal best times.
We proceeded to do some strides as our final warm up, before stripping off our tracksuits and being introduced to the crowd. TV cameras broadcasting the race were everywhere. The crowds lining the streets were unbelievable, and as excited as I was to get going, I reminded myself to keep a clear head and stick to my race plan.
“ON your mark!” came the familiar command. “On” was shouted so loudly by the enthusiastic race starter that Mervin was caught off guard and started running, only to realize the race had yet to begin. This generated some nervous laughter among the rest of the athletes, while the officials were nice enough not to disqualify Mervin, allowing him to retake his position on the starting line.
“ON your mark!” for the second time of asking, and we were flagged off by the race horn. This time, there was a clean start, as I started conservatively and took my position right at the back of the pack, safely negotiating the first two sharp turns. James of Australia had got off to a good start, but the Kenyan Solomon Kipyego Keter soon charged into the lead and set a punishing pace, dragging along the rest of the field. Having often practiced running 64sec per 400m in training, I settled into gear and ignored the rest of the field, allowing myself to drift slightly off the back of the field. Approximately 500m into the race and up the slight incline along Des Voux Road, runners had already began to be dropped, and I moved past two Hong Kong athletes into 12th place.
They reacted instantly, latching onto the back of me and following my move. Next, I drafted behind the two Macau representatives, who soon after began to slow. As we descended the downslope on Murray Road, I proceeded to glide past both of them into 10th place, and began to gain on another Hong Kong runner and the Thai representative, Wacharin Waikachi (3min 58sec 1500m runner). Sensing that they were slowing and losing contact with the lead pack of seven, I increased my effort as we made a right-angled turn onto the home straight, Charter Road, for the penultimate time, and pushed harder, overtaking both of them just before passing the half mile mark in 8th place, and hearing the bell. My plan was working.
Next to fall off the lead pack was Hsu Yu-Chih of Chinese Taipei, a formidable 10,000m runner with a personal best of 32min 11sec. I overtook him just before our second sharp turn onto Ice House Street, moving into 7th position out of 14 runners. There were only 6 runners in front of me now, consisting of the leader, Solomon of Kenya, with the two Australians James and Nathan hot on his heels, and three of the biggest 1500m names in South-East Asia, Mervin of the Philippines, Ridwan of Indonesia, and Jironi of Malaysia. Though there was a gap from me to them, catching people one by one had bolstered my confidence, and I told myself to go for broke and chase down the lead pack.
“Forget reputation, forget rankings, forget personal bests. In a race, anything can happen!” I told myself, and pushed hard as we went up the Des Voeux Central slope for the second time. Here, James made a bold move to snatch the lead, and the pace increased dramatically, causing me to lose some ground on the lead pack as everybody reacted to the injection in pace. Reaching the end of the Des Voux Central slope portion, we again made a sharp turn and descended Murray Road for the second, and last, time. Due to the accumulating fatigue and lactic acid, I turned poorly and lost some momentum, but reacted quickly to launch my finishing kick down the hill with about 250m to go. Turning sharply onto the home straight on Charter Road, I spotted Mervin dropping off the pace and looking tired. I made up ground on him quickly, but just as I got past him, he reacted with a defiant finishing kick of his own to pull ahead of me again. Finding an extra gear of my own, I fought even harder and stopped the gap from growing, but was unable to pass him again before the finishing line, finishing a stride behind. The Hong Kong trio had rallied strongly in the second lap, and crossed the line just seconds after I did.
My official finish time was 4min 33sec, earning me 7th place in a field of immensely talented middle distance athletes. I felt like I had won despite being far from a spot on the podium, as this was feedback that I was on the right track to achieving what I had set out to do at the start of the year – improve my ability at the shorter distances. The Hong Kong International Diamond Mile was a great experience, and the meet will always remain as a prestigious one, organised excellently by the officials of HKAAA. I am glad that I have had a chance to experience this unique street mile, and it has formed fond memories that I will look back and smile at for many years to come.
Watch Soh Rui Yong running the 2013 Hong Kong Diamond Mile below. His race starts around the video marker 3:50 minute.
7/14th place, 4:33 minutes, men’s International category – Soh Rui Yong
9/13th place, 5:37 minutes, women’s International category – Look Xinqi
Melissa Duncan 4:59 minutes Australian, winners
James Hansen 4:20 minutes Australian, winners
Results courtesy of HKAAA website.