Rui Yong Soh — Carrying a Nation’s Dream
Words by Andrew Tsubasa Field Photos by Kaylee Domzalski
The 2016 IAAF World Marathon Championships in Cardiff, Wales, was every marathon runner’s worst nightmare. Freezing torrential downpour and 40 miles-per-hour wind beat at the 86 competing athletes.
Rain shot along the course and stung into the eyes of 2015 University of Oregon alumnus and Singapore long distance runner, Rui Yong Soh. He watched runners topple over left, right, and center, snapping past him hazardously, yet he paced behind competitors to alleviate the force of the thumping winds. Soh passed the first mile mark and glanced at his watch — he crossed it in 5:01. Soh felt his spirits rise. Never had a five minute mile felt so effortless.
“If this was anything to go by, the race was going to be something special,” Soh recounted in his blog after the race.
The 24-year-old is striding into unbeaten paths in Singapore athletic history. While still a UO student, he became the fastest active marathon runner in the city-state, after clocking in at 2:26:01. And on the cusp of graduating, he won Singapore a gold medal in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games. Soh then woke up the next morning with a vision to become the first male Singaporean marathoner to qualify for the Olympic Games — and Rio 2016 would be his stage. Since hitting the tartan as a full-time runner, he was ready to grasp his full potential.
However, Soh has been injured with plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the large band of tissue that connects the heel bone and the toes — leading to a spell of disappointing races, and causing him to fall short of meeting the 2:19:00 Olympic qualification time. But on July 3rd, he’ll have one last chance to make ends meet at the Gold Coast Marathon in Queensland, Australia. Many of Soh’s countrymen are still confident that he can be successful Down Under; his face is emblazoned on bus stop posters and monorails around the Republic, with local media keeping tabs on his journey.
Soh’s hunger to achieve an Olympic qualifying time drew him to the running mecca of Iten, Kenya to undergo spartan training with those who have achieved the Olympic triumph that he has dreamed of. On a diet of the traditional African dish Ugali, he ran long distances of 17 miles, which gradually peaked into 22 ½ mile runs by the end of the trip, whipping him into top-class fitness.
Back in Cardiff, Soh was reaching the third mile mark. He took another glance at his watch, 5:07 — a comfortable lead for someone shooting to complete 13.1 miles within 67 minutes — Singapore’s current half-marathon record. He paced among the second pack alongside the comforting presence of Iolo Nikolov of Bulgaria, a good friend he had met while training in Kenya. A steep hill was fast approaching. Soh adjusted his pace to embrace the decline.
But destiny took a turn for the worst. A stabbing sensation shot out from under Soh’s left heel and continued to pierce with every step. Tears filled his eyes in the pouring rain. His plantar was giving out and the soreness he had managed for four months had erupted into excruciating pain.
Soh landed his feet one after the other on the slippery roads, gently on the left foot, hard on the right, gently on the left, hard on the right.
“I was running on basically one foot,” Soh says. He pressed forward, hoping that the stinging pain would subside as his foot turned numb.
At around six miles, Soh felt a snap in the left arch of his foot, causing him to bite his lip. A flock of runners, including Nikolov, flashed by him and disappeared, still on the chase to set records. Soh was now running alone, his greatest opponent being the giant swelling marble he carried in his left shoe, which by the eighth mile he had pounded into numbness.
He sped on; the top of his soaked number tag flew off, leaving it whipping arrhythmically in time with his feet, and flickering over the crescent moon and stars of Singapore’s flag on his chest. He passed runners from South Africa, France, China — athletes from nations of running prestige and personal records which far crowned his own.
“The thought of a Singaporean mixing it up with these guys allowed me to fight on,” he reflected in his blog, “This is about more than myself.”
Soh crossed the finish in 64th place at 1:07:56 — 48 seconds from breaking Singapore’s record of 1:07:08. However, his ranking was the highest that a Singaporean had ever placed at the World Half-Marathon Championships.
Two days after the race, Soh anxiously waited for X-rays of his foot inside a hospital in North Devon, England. His left heel was bruised and puffed out larger than his right; he was on crutches and was unable to walk. Soh was certain that it was broken, which meant that he would need two months to recover and miss the London Marathon, extinguishing his chance to pass the 2:19:00 qualifying time.
“The nurse looked at it and said, ‘Yes, something is probably ruptured or broken,” Soh said. “I was just hanging out, hoping that the swelling would go down.”
The X-ray scans popped up on a computer monitor. Much to Soh’s relief, the bones were remarkably intact within the swollen highlights of his foot. No broken bones. Also, his heel bone was cleanly rounded to display no signs of a heel spur — a hooked bone outgrowth often coming hand-in-hand with plantar fasciitis, as the body attempts to buttress the fascia to the heel bone. Meanwhile, the MRI scan showed no signs of ruptured tendons, but heavy bruising and teared muscle.
After posting an April Fool’s joke by posing in Nikolov’s marathon uniform and claiming to have joined the Bulgarian national team — much to the bewilderment of many of his fans and sponsors — he was out and jogging again to prepare for the 2016 London Marathon.
But Soh’s fitness still hung in the air. He had less than a month to both recover and prepare for London, which would be double the distance of Cardiff, at 26.2 miles. One week passed, and Soh could do little more than jog or stride. With two weeks left, Soh completed a long run of 12 miles; training which paled in comparison to the 23 miles he ran to prepare for his first full marathon. Soh only ran 13 times in the four weeks leading up to the contest, compared to the 35 and 47 times he ran in preparation for his previous two marathons.
Although light workouts brought reassurance to his aerobic fitness for the big race, further symptoms of dealing with Plantar Fasciitis began to creep in. He felt the soreness of his left heel spread to his knee — his body’s way of compensating for the weak link in his plantar by working the knee muscles harder.
“On some days, I’d try to go for a run, then limp back to the house because my left knee was so sore,” Soh reflected in his blog. “It was frustrating, and I was running out of time.”
In the final days leading up to the big race, Soh decided not to back down from a contest that he had spent three months training for. Although Soh flew into Kenya to discover what training lifestyle makes Kenya such a renowned powerhouse in long distance running, it was the spirit of the local athletes he met who lifted him in his time of injury. His time in Kenya made him realize that running a disappointing race and getting injured were minor problems once you put things in perspective.
“When you have no money to eat, when you are struggling to get an opportunity to race outside of Africa, you are struggling to get a roof over your head — that is a real problem,” Soh said, referring to the daily battles of Kenyan athletes he ran with.
“I am not going to get down on myself. I am just going to suck it up. If I want to run and I set my mind on running London, I am going to run London and will do my best. Whatever comes from it, comes from it,” he said.
And so, with his left heel taped, he laced on his arch supportive ASICS DS Racer 11s and answered the call for an attempt to be Singapore’s marathon bid at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Soh ran at national record pace for the majority of the race, averaging around 5:30 a mile. He felt the roar of the crowds as he crossed over the River Thames on Tower Bridge.
But with 6.2 miles left to go, Soh hit the dreaded “Marathon Wall” as he fell into glycogen depletion. His quadriceps were overcome with pain, and he fell into a state of near passing out, as his body shut off energy storages around his body in favor of his thighs.
“I stopped hearing people cheering, the world turned white … I ran myself to the point of blinding,” Soh said, “It was a scary experience.”
The fight for a record began to slip away as Soh passed the 23 mile mark in 6:54, the 25th in 8:53.
The Singaporean long distance runner staggered over the finish line, placed 211th, and clocked 2:37:33. Soh failed to qualify for the Olympics.
At least for now.
For Soh, it seems like yesterday that he graduated from the University of Oregon in the summer of 2015, and departed from Eugene, Oregon to become Singapore’s first professional marathon runner. In May, 2016, Soh returned to Track Town USA. He stepped onto the tracks of South Eugene High School and embraced his coach, 2008 Olympic athlete, Ian Dobson.
Shortly before receiving his sports business degree at the UO with Magna Cum Laude honors, Soh’s celebrity status in Singapore skyrocketed when he won first place at the 2015 South East Asia Games on home soil. Before he stood on the podium with a gold medal draped around his neck to Majulah Singapura, Singapore had never won a SEA Games gold medal in any athletics event.
“I have done what I wanted to achieve since I was a kid, which is win a gold medal on home soil and hear the national anthem — something my people can celebrate — and that is never going to leave me,” Soh said.
But if you spoke to Soh about his achievements, he would tell you that none of this would have been accomplished if he hadn’t decided to convince the Singapore Sports Council to let him transfer from the National University of Singapore to the UO in 2013. Frustrated from placing 4th place in the SEA University Games 10,000 meter event, despite crossing at 32:26 — the second fastest time a Singaporean had accomplished at the time — he wanted to learn how not only to be the fastest in Singapore, or South East Asia, but be able to compete with the world.
“I would never have adopted a new training philosophy, had the training partners I did, had the coaching that I did, had the chance to train on the trails that I did, I may not have even tried the marathon, honestly,” Soh said. “If I had stayed in Singapore, I would not have won the SEA Games, let me just put it that way.”
Dobson recalls memories of training Soh for the first time, as Soh transitioned from Singapore’s training system, which emphasized intensity at the expense of frequency.
“It was clear when he came here that had not run a lot. He just didn’t have a lot of aerobic base behind him,” Dobson said. “So he was able to see some pretty good performance increases pretty quickly just by virtue of training a lot.”
Soh has since linked back up with his teammates at Team Run Eugene — a running community at the University of Oregon — and runs with them along the soft terrain of Amazon Park’s trails.
Fellow TRE Elite long distance runner, Rob McLauchlan, was the first runner he befriended while they were both part of the UO Running Club. McLauchlan describes Soh as initially being awestruck with the ability of the running community in Eugene.
“When he was meeting people, he was always like, ‘Look at this person, look at this person!’” says McLauchlan. “And, eventually, he got himself to the place in which he can be the person that people look up to.”
Soh speaks with his head held high, the pacing of his voice quick and with conviction. However, his humbleness shows through when he describes marathoners he has both befriended and competed against — his face lighting up as he lists each one’s accolades like a proud brother.
UO graduate student and Oregon Track Club’s long distance runner, Alexi Pappas, was Soh’s favorite training partner throughout his time at the UO. While Soh was a UO student, he would run 90 to 100 miles a week with Pappas by his side.
“Rui’s hard work and positivity rubs off on those around him,” she wrote in an email to Ethos. “He brings people together and lifts them up. I wish him all the best in his running career and beyond, and know we will be friends forever.”
In May, Pappas qualified for Rio 2016 with the Greek team, running 10,000 meters in 31:46:85 (the Olympic standard being 32:15:00).
But Soh hasn’t given up hope to join her in Brazil.
Singapore’s golden boy has one final chance to meet the 2:19:00 qualifying time for the 2016 Olympic Games in the upcoming Gold Coast Marathon on July 3rd. Soh and Dobson have set up a plan which balances concerns for his long-term health with the reality of a limited timeline.
“We set up a plan which is pretty aggressive. He has to get up to full volume and be able to do long workouts. There is no way around that,” Dobson said. “Maybe it is not going to be 100 percent. Maybe his plantar is going to hurt. But as long as he can do the training, maybe that’s okay. That’s really a decision for Rui to make.”
As for the Plantar Fasciitis, Soh has enlisted the help of former Bermuda competitive runner-turned massage therapist, Michael Donawa.
Donawa has kept the intensity of his healing touch to mildly aggressive, applying dry needle to break up some of the scar tissue, which has developed on Soh’s heel, to accommodate his training so that it is not too sore to run on. To complement this, Soh spends every waking moment tip-toe walking, doing calf raises, and rolling his foot on a trigger ball to improve blood circulation in his foot.
“He seems to be in a spirited place — excited and motivated. And that’s half the battle right there,” Donawa said.
The only case where an athlete has qualified for the Olympics with Plantar Fasciitis is former US long distance legend, Ryan Hall, who made the 2008 United States Olympic trials. However, Hall’s story ends in tragedy — while leading in the London Olympic Marathon, he dropped out on mile 11 due to a sore hamstring.
But Soh is confident that he can effectively heal and prepare for July.
“I wouldn’t say that I would have want to have plantar again, but I think that having this injury helps more people tune into my story. They know that I’m not super human, I get hurt too.” Soh said, “It is how you come back from an injuries that shows that you’re a better runner.”
Soh grew up inspired by Singapore’s rich running culture; every weekend, many of its citizens jog along beach, reservoir, and jungle throughout the “Garden City.” But today, he remains an icon in his homeland.
Awaiting them at the end of the race was a podium. Displayed on either side were two towering images of a posing Soh, his signature scrawled underneath; In-between, the word “Limitless” printed in bold white letters.