Next in our series previewing Singapore’s Rio 2016 contingent is a 31-year-old surprise package whose juggling act of work, life and long-distance running has now taken her to the world’s biggest sporting stage.
SINGAPORE: Athletes are typically obsessed and possessed by their sport, but those headed for the Olympics are among the most single-minded in their drive to compete on one of the world’s greatest sporting stages. Not Singaporean and Rio 2016-bound marathoner Neo Jie Shi, who takes pride in her carefully-cultivated work-life-run balance.
“My career; running; time spent with family and friends - these three are complements of each other,” said the assistant human resources and administration manager. “I feel like if I do well in running, I can do well in my career and likewise if I do well in my career, it helps me in my running.”
Added the 31-year-old, who is married to a fellow long-distance running enthusiast: “Life is not just about running. I cannot be running 24 hours a day - it’s not going to work that way. If I put my whole life into running and it doesn't work out somehow, then it’ll just consume me. So it's good I have some other priorities.”
Neo’s weekly routine - both before and after qualifying for the Olympics at the start of the year - is simple: One training session every day after work; one long run; one rest day. It adds up to mileage of about 70km to 80km per week, about half of what the full-timers clock - yet this formula has seen her go from self-described running hobbyist to Olympian on merit in the space of a mere five years.
“GO ALL OUT”
Evidence of Neo’s knack for distance running was clear from the very first race she signed up for back in 2006. Then, she completed a 21km half-marathon in a respectable sub-two hour timing, despite putting in just casual jogs around her university campus. Although she would go on to run a full marathon the next year, it was only in 2011 that she began training consistently with the Jurong SAFRA Running Club and competing on a regular basis.
Neo chasing training partner Adriel Tay.
A year later, she placed second in the local category at the 42.195km-long Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCMS), and would continue to rank amongst the fastest Singaporean females over the next editions - eventually winning the race in 2015. That performance also netted Neo a 10th place finish overall, earning her a direct ticket to Rio 2016.
This five-year stretch also saw her slash her marathon time by more than half an hour, from the 3hr 50min range to around 3hr 10min - a feat made more impressive by the absence of any coaching, nutrition or medical support often enjoyed by professional athletes.
Now, under the guidance of veteran trainer Steven Quek - appointed by the Singapore Athletics Association (SAA) in February - Neo has improved exponentially, recording personal bests in 10km and 21km distances as she builds towards the Olympics in August.
With coach Steven Quek.
But there will be no illusions of grandeur when she steps out onto the Sambadrome marathon venue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I think at Rio, maybe I’ll be the last one, so most of the time I’ll be running on my own,” she admitted, pointing to the gap between the Olympic qualifying time of 2:45 and her own high of 3:09.
“Still, I’m running for a team so I must also go all out.”
UNLEASHING SINGAPORE’S POTENTIAL
For Neo, the Olympics will simply represent yet another “80 per cent mental” battle that typically plays out over all her races. “A marathon is a long way, and staying focused throughout takes a lot. Of course, training is important but how you continue to push even when you’re suffering physically - that’s where mental strength comes in,” she explained.
She also insisted that she was never driven by the head-to-head aspect of running to begin with. “I like running; and I like running fast. It’s not really about beating people… I’m okay with not winning,” said Neo. “Winning is really like a bonus. As long as I see improvements in timing, or get a personal best - I get more satisfaction out of that.”
Revealing that she hopes to break the 3hr marathon mark “in the near future”, Neo added: “I want to keep improving, and stay in the competitive scene for as long as I can. The dream would be to continue running way into my golden years.”
There is hope, too, that her fairytale run to the Olympics can spur the hordes of ardent runners in Singapore on to bigger things.
“I’ve been very overwhelmed by all the media attention, but I know it’s good in a way that this will make people more aware of long-distance running,” said Neo. “In Singapore, there are a lot of running events, but when you really talk about competitive running, maybe not a lot of people will know how hard it is to train for a marathon.”
“When I first started I was a recreational runner, I didn’t choose to run competitively and later on I wasn’t one of the top runners too,” she reflected. “But you’ve just got to keep running; keep improving.”
“I feel like there are a lot of runners like me out there. They’re just waiting to unleash their potential.”
Photos: Justin Ong
View our entire Rio Olympics series here.