ABU DHABI: As their fellow half-marathoners stood on the podium with gleaming smiles and glittering medals, Singapore’s Ahmad Sutrisno Suratman and Low Boon Chin stood on the sidelines, their expressions blank.
They ran fast, fought hard, and finished strong. But a wrong turn along the route robbed them of a medalled finish.
Competing in the M1 division of the Special Olympics half-marathon on Saturday (Mar 16), the duo were on track for personal bests and a place among the medallists in Abu Dhabi.
The winds were brisk, the weather was cool and they looked strong after their first lap.
“Based on their first lap, they were on course to finish well. Given the same amount of effort, they were due to finish in 2h 20min,” said head coach Norman Koh.
But a wrong turn to join the 2.5km running route meant that Ahmad and Low finished an hour before they would probably have. Spotters along the route had noticed the duo making the turn, but failed to alert them, said Koh.
“I was waiting at the finishing line and they came in about an hour earlier,” said Koh. “I couldn’t comprehend how and just wanted to celebrate their finish. But it started to sink in that it was not possible for them to finish so early.
“My heart sank, given the amount of training that has gone into preparation for this event. This was one of the biggest events of their lives.”
But for Ahmad and Low, medals were always a bonus and never the goal, said Koh.
"What we do is always try our best. If it reaps good results, it's a bonus," said Koh, who has been their head coach for five years. "It is the journey that matters more than the results."
The duo have been through their own battles of endurance in their daily lives.
Both Ahmad and Low have intellectual disability, and have had to grapple with the struggles of losing their parents and the unfamiliarity of a new phase of life after.
Participating in a sport like running gave the duo a chance to expand their horizons and learn life lessons, added Koh.
"Over the years, we've tried to improve not just their performance ... They find it a challenge to understand what societal norms are, and we started to change the approach of just focusing on training but be a life coach to them.
"It's not easy to change behaviour, because it comes with their conditions ... But we are always there to mentor them."
READ: 'I need to represent Singapore even though my father couldn’t': The para-athlete who chases her dreams and the dreams of others
The Special Olympics World Games, held from Mar 14-21, is a meet for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and this year marks Singapore’s 10th occasion participating.
At least 7,500 athletes from more than 190 nations will feature in this edition, the largest number of participants in the event’s history.
At the Special Olympics, athletes are separated into different divisions based on factors such as their age, gender as well as level of ability.
After an hour of being cloistered in a room waiting on the confirmation of their results and a protest Team Singapore lodged, Koh finally broke the news to his two athletes.
There are no tears, no complaints, no tantrums. The duo donned their Team Singapore jackets and patiently waited for their turn to receive participation ribbons.
"(What happened) may not necessarily have reached them yet," said Koh. "They might think that as long as somebody put the ribbon over their heads, they have finished it. They are just as straightforward as that. Regardless of results, they are still happy with receiving that ribbon."
They stood one rung below the podium, but with the ribbons hanging from their necks, both Ahmad and Low had something to show for their efforts.
"I feel good after today's race," said Low. "I am excited for our next race (the duo will compete in the 5km race on Monday)."
After all, for Ahmad and Low, life has been a marathon rather than a sprint - and they are just getting started.