JustRunLah!: It sounds like your coach Mr Steven Quek was a big influence in your life.
Rui Yong: Mr Steven Quek had the biggest impact in my life when I was 17 and 18 years old in JC because I saw him twice a week on the track for two hours each time, and on Saturdays, and he had at least 6 hours a week watching over me, which is a lot of time together. We were working together to become the best team in Singapore, and under him, it was the best two years of my running up to that stage.
I was happy because I was running well. It was the national school championships in April 2008; prior to that my best ever position was 4th, but going into this, I knew I was better. There were 5 contenders who stood a chance, but as the finish line approached and we were down to four, three, and two, I was like ‘wow, I’m still in the race’. So in the final stretch, I managed to outsprint my opponent and win by 0.17 seconds. That never happens in cross-country, so it was a very dramatic win, and the biggest win of my life thus far.
I’m guessing that was my breakthrough – it gave me the confidence to think ‘you can win races, you can be the best in Singapore if you put your heart into it’. For the rest of my JC life, I no longer had the doubt whether I could be the best, it was a matter of saying to myself ‘if you do the little things right, you are going to be the best’ and by the end of JC, I was not just trained to be the best in Singapore but to get out of Singapore and compete with other countries, and to show that Singaporeans can run well too. One success leads to more things, and you use the platform as a floor to climb onto the platform, so it was in JC when I decided to take it seriously and improve as a runner.
The second big change was moving to the University of Oregon. I had spent a year in the University of Singapore and I was improving. I was still winning races in Singapore but I looked on a global level and thought ‘being the best in Singapore means nothing when there are still so many other people better than us and if I went to Kenya, there will be hundreds of people who will be better than me’.
What’s the point of being contented with the best in a small playing field? At the end of the day, you want to become the best runner you can possibly be, and not just comparing yourself to those around you, since everyone has different abilities and levels of talent.
I wanted to find out how good I can be based on the tools I’ve been given, so I had a few options to go overseas. I was looking at Australia, as it has good universities and good distance runners; I also looked at Europe and America. But Eugene, Oregon was known for its long distance runners and it also offered a degree in Sports Business.
JustRunLah!: So to clarify, you chose your University according to what running opportunities it offered? You are currently enrolled in a Business Administrative Degree at the University of Oregon. How do you strike a balance between your training with your academic commitments?
Rui Yong: I would say, two main reasons: firstly, it offered a Sports Business degree, and secondly, there are many professional distance runners here who devote their lives to this one pursuit of becoming a better runner and without either reasons, I wouldn’t have come here.
I was already a business student, but I wanted to concentrate on specialisation in sports business, specifically, how a sporting culture can be engrained into our nation’s culture. I wanted to do something that really helps me achieve what I want to do. I’m already on a scholarship from the Singapore Sports Council, and I figured I might as well study something that I’m going to apply later on.
I wrote to the University of Oregon explaining that I was doing OK in Singapore but I really wanted to fulfil my full running potential. I came to Eugene on an exchange programme for a term, and decided this is what I wanted to do, so I transferred here and it was my second big breakthrough.
In Singapore, even with Mr Steven Quek, I was training 4 times a week, maybe 5, which is very little running compared to what the best runners in the world do. I came here, looked around, and people were training 9 or 10 times a week, which is twice a day almost every day.
The long runs I’d been doing back in Singapore were 20, 25km at most, whereas over here, I’m running 32km on the longest days. It opens up your mind to how the human body is capable of so much more, and the only way to become good at something is to gradually do more and more of it. There’s really no shortcuts to being a good runner and being here, knowing that there are people working hard around me, gives me the confidence that I can do it too. I gradually built up my mileage from 60km a week, to 70, 80 and eventually over a year, I got up to 160km per week, and that’s how I ran the marathon, with this mileage for preparation.
In Raffles Junior College I learnt to be more focused and disciplined, and building that up earlier in my life allowed me to handle a heavy training load and a University school load which is no joke in itself. I wouldn’t have done well here if I didn’t have the background in RJC. At the same time if I had stayed in Singapore, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now either.
JustRunLah!: It sounds like athletics a big part of student life at your University. Who are your sources of inspiration?
Rui Yong: On a very basic level, the people I’m around every day; they inspire me to push myself harder. My coach inspires me to believe that I’m always capable of more than I’m able to achieve. I have great training partners whom I run with every day, such as my best friend Alexi, who is one of the best 5000m runners in America and one of my most compatible training partners, pace-wise. On days when I’m not feeling motivated, she inspires me to go out and run, and vice versa. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.