'When Singapore's best gives advice, you listen': The SEA Games marathon rookie being coached by the two-time champion unable to compete
In the third feature in a series of profiles for this year's SEA Games, CNA's Matthew Mohan speaks to a marathoner who has three goals - to finish the race, to clock a personal best and to not finish last.
SINGAPORE: About 30 kilometres into his first marathon, Gordon Lim was being chased.
Hot on his heels, breathing heavy, closing the gap.
Adrenaline pumping, heartbeat thumping, strides extending, Lim opened a lead.
On his four-legged foe.
“There was a refreshment station and they were giving out bananas,” Lim told CNA. “So I thought: 'Free bananas? Just take la.' I ate one and threw it into an industrial area at East Coast Park.
“I heard a woof ... A dog wanted to chase me and I had to run even faster!
Six years on from that race, Lim will go from chased by a dog to possibly chasing a pack at the SEA Games.
He’ll have an added advantage - two-time Games gold medalist Soh Rui Yong is Lim’s coach.
'I WANTED THE FINISHER T-SHIRT'
Lim's interest in athletics started while he was a secondary school student. But it was not on the track, but the treadmill at the gym.
"That was the time that I just wanted to keep fit and went to those Active SG gyms," he recalled.
"When I went to the gym, the treadmill was something I found fun ... I would run about 5 km and that's when I knew that I could run quite fast."
Lim went on to join his junior college's runners club, before making the transition to long distance running when he was in the army.
"I started running long distance in the army because there was the army half-marathon. I was also quite free because I booked out every day, so I trained for Standard Chartered (Singapore) marathon," he explained.
Running between 10-15 km daily as preparation, Lim went in to his first marathon in 2013 as a complete greenhorn.
"I was wearing my army singlet, army shorts, army socks, and the shoes which I bought from Queensway (Shopping Centre)," he recalled. "I signed up because I wanted the finisher t-shirt.
"The actual marathon was quite fun, but I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't have any hydration plan, but I was following this group of people.
"I didn't really know who they were, I only know there was this guy - Mok Ying Ren - in the pack and I thought: 'Okay, I'll just follow them.'"
After his brief encounter with a hungry canine, Lim managed a fourth-placed finish in the local category. Mok finished in first.
Not that Lim stuck around for the prize presentation - he had unknowingly packed up and left for home.
"A couple of hours later, they called me and told me I was fourth in the Singaporean category," he explained. "I was a bit shocked - but fourth is not podium so whatever. It wasn't a big deal."
After a month of rest from his exertions, and driven by boredom, Lim wanted to get back to running.
But without a proper coaching structure and guidance, he stagnated.
"I just rushed back into things and I got injured," Lim said. "I didn't race well for the next couple of years. There was a lack of knowledge, and I didn't know that things like resting, pacing, hydration and nutrition were important.
Lim completed in three more Standard Chartered Singapore marathons - finishing outside the top ten twice, failing to compete the race once.
The turning point came when he met his girlfriend, said Lim. With her encouragement, he signed up for a half-marathon in Gold Coast, Australia last year.
"She wanted to go to Gold Coast to run and I said: 'Okay fine, I'll go with you ... She signed up for it already, so I thought since I was already chasing her, I might as well chase her all the way to Gold Coast!"
After he clocked a personal best in Australia, Lim and his girlfriend signed up for another marathon in August this year - the Sunshine Coast marathon, also held in Australia.
Little did Lim know that his participation in the Sunshine Coast marathon would open the door to the SEA Games.
"I just wanted to get a personal best and qualify for the Boston Marathon (with a timing under 3 hours)," he explained.
Prior to this race, Lim had help - from none other than Soh, who had rewritten the national record for the men’s marathon after clocking 2:23:42 at the Seoul Marathon in March.
"We kept bumping into each other (at Bedok Reservoir). I knew who he is, because I am Facebook friends with him.
"We just ran together and talked about life ... When Singapore's best gives advice, you listen.
"He was very open for me to join his training. Usually I would think that when you're an elite, you won’t really want to let people know what your training is like. But he is different."
"Earlier in the year, as early as May, we were running together quite regularly," Soh told CNA. "I talked to him, tried to figure out a bit more about what he was doing with his life, what he was doing with his running and realised that he was just kind of floating around without a real plan."
But having seen Lim compete in the past, Soh knew the 26-year-old had potential.
Given Lim's plan to run the Sunshine Coast, Soh told him that it would be worth having a training schedule ahead of the race.
"By himself, he had worked himself into quite decent shape - going for runs regularly ... But what he was lacking was specific speed work, marathon pace work," said Soh. "I told him that I train on these days and how about you come and join me on these days?"
So Lim took up the offer. He eventually clocked 2:37:18 at the Sunshine Coast marathon - a personal best.
When he returned to Singapore, Lim submitted his timing to Singapore Athletics (SA) with the intention for the NSA to have it recorded in their system.
The plan was for Lim's next race to be the 2019 Standard Chartered Marathon and Soh would coach him for that.
But with Soh - the only marathoner to have met the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) qualifying standard, yet having his nomination rejected by the council - the SA submitted Lim's name along with fellow runner Alvin Loh to the SNOC to appeal for their inclusion in the SEA Games.
Both Lim and Loh were accepted.
Lim was initially undecided on whether to take up the nomination - there was after all the Standard Chartered marathon which he had his eye on, as well as his own personal commitments.
"I told him (Soh) after I got the news," said Lim. "He told me to just go for it because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and timings are just going to get faster and faster. Unless you keep training harder and harder, you might not get another chance.
"He said: 'I can train you for it,' I said: 'Ok, on, done!'," recalled Lim. "I knew this guy was fit and good and there’s really nothing for me to worry about.
"He knows what to do, I’m just going to follow whatever his plan is and see where it brings me."
"It gives me a chance, as a mentor to Gordon, to push him onto this level," added Soh. "I told him that we are not going there for as a holiday, if we go there, we compete properly."
'HE IS SO CONFIDENT AND IT RUBS OFF ON ME'
Training under the tutelage of Soh has given Lim a huge confidence boost.
"Its beneficial not just in the physical aspect of things - not just in terms of getting fitter and faster, I think what I needed most at this current point of time is confidence," Lim explained.
"I think that guy is super confident ... and it rubs off on me. It makes me more confident in my own abilities, having him say things like I’m in a better shape, it gives me a lot of confidence."
"This is a stage which is exciting to train for, when you have a goal in mind, especially one as grand as this, you're motivated to go out and do workouts," added Soh, who crafts Lim's workouts and also joins him on runs. "We're seeing him improve week by the week, so the challenge now would now just be to get him fit in time for the Games and hopefully injury-free."
While he is pleased to have the guidance of Soh, Lim is under no illusions where he stands among his fellow Southeast Asian competitors.
At the Games, which will be held from Nov 30 to Dec 11, Lim has three main goals - to finish the race, to clock a personal best and not finish last.
Soh's target for Lim? A finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.
"There’s no pressure – I don’t perform well under pressure, and he doesn’t pressure me. Having a coach that sets me a target like that, which is quite cheeky and quite fun at the same time, I just look forward to it," said Lim.
Added Lim: "I'm very thankful – he could easily charge people crazy amounts of training fees but he’s doing it for free with me.
"Honestly, on top of a coach, he’s also a friend, I don’t even call him coach – that sounds so weird. I call him bro.
"We hang out together on top of running, its more than just (him being) a coach – it’s a friendship."