SINGAPORE - One of the most significant milestones set in Singapore sports at the 2013 SEA Games was Mok Ying Ren becoming the first Singaporean man to win the marathon.
By conquering the undulating terrain in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, he gave hope to the local long-distance running scene that regional glory is within reach.
And a bunch of local marathoners have seemingly been inspired by Mok's feat, and are presenting the defending champion a tough task to keep his crown at June's Singapore SEA Games.
The likes of Soh Rui Yong, Ashley Liew, Derek Li and Fang Jianyong are hot on the heels of Mok. In fact, Soh, who clocked an impressive 2hr 26min 1 sec on his marathon debut last month and met the Games qualifying time, has overtaken the 26-year-old as Singapore's fastest active marathoner.
Mok, whose personal best is 2:26:30, told The Sunday Times: "There are definitely more competitive distance runners than before. I've noticed more people do sub-three-hour marathons, which is impressive.
"The number has risen over the last three years... It wasn't like that when I started running."
The figures back Mok's observations.
Four of Singapore's top 10 marathon timings were clocked from 2012 to last year. Before that, no one had cracked the top six since 1997.
Ghana Segaran, national head coach for middle- and long-distance running, said the rising number of mass runs in Singapore is a big factor.
According to online running magazine RunSociety, last year saw 76 running events held in Singapore, up from 60 in 2013 and 55 in 2012.
Said Segaran: "The mass runs have helped to raise the profile of the sport, and get more people hooked on running. First you take part for fun, but then you realise it's actually a good and easy form of workout and exercise.
"It also helps that we have people like Mok, who blazed a trail for Singaporeans by showing that if they train hard, it is possible to compete with the region's best."
Mok believes another factor is that marathon runners tend to peak late at around 30 years old, thus allowing more to pick up the sport and become competitive at a later age.