Proving ordinary people can do the extraordinary

Proving ordinary people can do the extraordinary
Ultramarathoners Yong Yuen Cheng (right) and Lim Nghee Huat (second from right) marking Day 49 of their run last Wednesday. With them are Ms Maureen Setyadi (far left) and pacer Gerrard Lin, waving the SEA Games flag.

I am not a runner. I am a couch potato.

So when I first received a press invitation in April to cover two Singaporeans who were going to run 50km for 50 days, my eyes popped.

Was it 50km spread across 50 days, meaning 1km a day? Was it 50km on 50 days of different months?

I had to call the organisers three times before I was convinced they were not kidding: Ultramarathoners Lim Nghee Huat and Yong Yuen Cheng were going to run 50km a day on 50 consecutive days, as a tribute to the resilience of Singapore's pioneers.

Each day was also meant to symbolise a year of growth for Singapore as an independent nation.

Sweaty and red-faced just from interviewing the runners under the sun at the first day's flag-off, I could only wonder what gluttons for punishment they were.

Granted, they looked lean and fit in their skintight marathoning suits, but would they get past even their first 10 days in this heat?

In the days ahead, as the men ran, I followed in their supply vehicle, and watched as they put one foot before the other, gritting their teeth on some days and smiling on others.

What struck me most was the dedication of those who played a back-end role. They would get no glory for their efforts. All they wanted was for the runners to succeed in this daunting quest.

Pregnant Tan See Leng came, rain or shine, to help marshall the runners and answer media queries.

While many mums-to-be would be resting, the executive director of Heartware Network, which co-organised the run, bustled about every day, checking arrangements, cheering the runners on and ensuring that everything went smoothly.

Her friends Fiona Loi and Raymond Huang also helped out.

And then there was the jovial Maureen Setyadi, 36, who volunteered to be part of the supply crew.

Providing sustenance meant far more than staying in one spot and handing over drinks. While the runners were pounding the roads, Ms Setyadi and Mr Lim's wife, Deborah, would be figuring out if it was time for them to have their endurance drinks or cramp-preventing salt tablets.

The two women shook energy drinks with one hand, held a map in the other, all while communicating hands-free on the phone with other members of the crew.

Sometimes, the runners ran in park connectors, where the supply car could not enter.

Bicycles were deployed to chase after them.

Along the way, Ms Setyadi took the opportunity to get fit too. She cycled so much that she lost 12kg over the 50 days, with the help of a special diet plan. I was excited when she told me it was the first time in two decades that she could fit into her favourite pair of Mickey Mouse shorts.

The runners might have scored a national victory, but Ms Setyadi claimed her own personal triumph.

Then there was Mrs Deborah Lim. The 56-year-old took every opportunity to sun her husband's shoes.

They might be a sweaty pair, or another pair that had been washed the night before. During hectic five-minute stops when the supply vehicle stopped to pass drinks to the runners, she quickly put the shoes on the ground near the car's front seat.

As the days went by, I was surprised that both men persevered. Their extreme feat drew criticism too - some said the run was a waste of time and the pair were "gloryhunters".

But they said they were just doing what they do best to celebrate the nation's birthday and inspire others to surpass their limits.

They did just that. Several amateur runners, including 44-year-old Cheryl Ng and 24-year-old Debbie Lee, decided to join in and attempt a 50km run as well, setting a new personal best for themselves.

Members of the Gei Gei runners group were among others who turned up to accompany Mr Lim and Mr Yong and keep their spirits up.

Last Thursday, on the final day of the run, the crew and the runners came to the starting line at Ion Orchard, exhausted yet excited.

Their surreal experience - of waking up at 4am to get supplies, flagging off at around 7am daily, avoiding spicy food for 50 days - would end the following day.

After seven weeks of covering these two men on their amazing SG50 quest, I found myself fishing out my dusty running shoes and putting them on.

And as I joined them for part of the last stretch, I felt like I was running with superheroes.

Brisk walking with them was easy. But once they decided to power forth during stretches of their last 50km, the banter in the flock of supporters quietened as some huffed and puffed to keep up.

A stoic Mr Yong fought off gastric pains and nausea to run from his heart. The physical education teacher just wanted to prove his personal motto to his students: that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.

"If I didn't complete the run, the teaching opportunity would be lost," the 43-year-old said. He credited pacer Gerrard Lin, 31, who accompanied them on all but one of the 50 days, for providing invaluable motivation.

Not once did 62-year-old Mr Lim let his age slow him down. Seasoned Malaysian ultramarathoner Ng Seow Kong said that, as one gets older, one's muscles recover more slowly from running, which makes Mr Lim's achievement all the more significant.

Of course, both the runners have decades of experience and took precautions.

I was surprised by their detailed log books, where they documented their physical condition and made notes reminding themselves to slow down in the following day's run if they felt unwell.

"I would not do anything to permanently damage my body," Mr Yong said.

In the end, the two men achieved what they set out to do. Although they won no SEA Games medals, their achievement is truly a feather in Singapore's cap.

Their feat also inspired me to lace up and start running again after a break of two years.

Maybe it will also move others to imagine the unimaginable and give it a try.

Now, what shall we do for SG100?

kashc@sph.com.sg

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