Running in the land of champions

It has given him new friendships, an appreciation for the native chai tea, and even "Jackie Chan" for a nickname.

But perhaps the greatest blessing for Soh Rui Yong since arriving in Kenya two weeks ago is the ability to resume full training.

The Singaporean marathoner, who is spending seven weeks training in the town of Iten, crossed the 100-mile (160km) mark within his first week there.

It is the first time he has managed mileage like that since he was struck by a foot injury last November.

Plantar fasciitis, a tissue inflammation at the bottom of the foot, meant the 2015 SEA Games gold medallist's training plans had to be worked around the issue.

But having protected his body from heavy pounding for months and coupling treatment with disciplined stretching, Soh said he felt ready to turn up the intensity in Kenya.

"I got here and things felt good," the 24-year-old told The Straits Times in a phone interview from Iten.

"I was conservative and paced myself in Singapore because I wanted to be hungry and ready to go when I got here.

"I've been experimenting with different shoes, focusing a lot on stretching and physiotherapy."

This meant a return to twice-daily training sessions, and a 28km run - his longest run so far this year.

He said: "I just have to accept that my body is taking a lot of pounding from marathon training and I have to be smarter about (my training).

"With an injury like mine, I can still run a good 5km or 10km, but marathon training and racing is so much more demanding and so different, you have to be a lot more careful."

Getting back on track with training, however, gives Soh renewed confidence in his push to qualify for this year's Olympic Games. He needs to shave more than seven minutes off his personal best of 2hr 26min 1sec to meet the qualifying mark of 2:19.

The environment of training among champions at the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, which sits 2,400m above sea level, has also had its effect on the Singaporean.

Despite a small population of about 42,000, Iten has produced an impressive list of champions, including 800m world record holder and 2012 Olympic gold medallist David Rudisha.

Said Soh: "The people here train two to three times a day to try and be the best in the world because that's their way out of the poverty cycle. They have very little support but they make it work.

"I've been lucky to have support from Singapore Athletics and sponsors like Flight Centre Active Travel Singapore to be able to do this."

Soh is working to gain entry into the Hamburg Marathon on April 17, where he is gunning for the Olympic qualifying mark.

He said: "The hilly terrain here means there are almost no flat roads to run on except on the track. It's very demanding and my muscles are not used to it.

"But if you're in your comfort zone, you'll never have a breakthrough.

"That's why I chose to come here."

This article was first published on February 17, 2016.
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