Friday, April 13, 2012

The sad state of Malaysian distance running

by wan won.

I was just browsing through the race results of the recent Larian Bendang Teluk Intan. The timing recorded by the top three in the male open (21km) category were: first - 1:05:25; second - 1:07:00; third -1:07:31. All Africans, presumably Kenyans. No surprise there. By the way, the race is allegedly underdistanced, but not too much at 20.35km as measured by GPS. GPS can be inaccurate too, though.

I don’t know if anyone figured this out yet, but the current Malaysian record for half marathon is 1:07:59 set by Muniandy Arul Thevar back in July 2004 in Ipoh (source: Wikipedia). And all three Kenyans beat that during the Larian Bendang.

According to McMillan running calculator, which predicts reasonably accurate race times for different distances based on current race performance, the top Larian Bendang guy has the potential to run a sub-2:20:00 marathon. Other factors such as terrain and underdistance issues aside, that also means that he can easily beat the current national marathon record of 2:26:38 set on a downhill course or 2:28:36, both done overseas by Chan Yew Woo (same Wikipedia source as above).

So, what’s my point?

The point is, unless the nation take a very serious effort to take distance running, or even running in general seriously, bringing in Kenyans to compete in local races will just ruin the sport. All the top prizes will go to them, and there will be no motivation to go on for local runners. Bring the Kenyans back when we have runners that can do 4 minute mile on a regular basis.

One of the reasons I say that our distance running is not taken seriously is because the race courses here don’t seem like they were designed by runners for runners. If they are designed by runners, or someone with an athletics background, all I can say is this: get another job.

Let me explain.

Distance running is mainly about pace management. Start too fast and you’ll blow out. Start too slow and you’ll never catch up. To manage your pace you need two things. Number one: a watch. Number two: distance markers. Unless you can really dial in with your paces (which may take months or even years of steady practice to get it precisely right to the second just by feel), you can skip the watch. But without distance markers, how will the runners know where they are at a specific point of time? If they don’t know where they are, how can they calculate their pace? Not everybody is blessed with the money to buy a GPS enabled watch. Distance markers = basic requirement. So please race directors, mark every kilometer (or mile) properly. And I do mean every kilometer/mile. You will really help the runners with that simple gesture of putting correct distance markers at the correct places. Placing markers every 5 km does not count. Same goes to signs saying xx kilometers to go, that is just plain stupid.

One more thing, why do most races in Malaysia make it hard for the participants? The course designers seem to have a fetish to design the hilliest course possible. Why? It sucks the fun out of the casual runners. We want the people to enjoy running and participating in races, so they can do it again and again. Not to satisfy the race directors’ masochistic desires.

Many of the overseas races I browse on the internet and magazines proudly advertise their race as a ‘fast course’ meaning the course may be flat/cool/have a nice surface/well managed or even ‘downhill’. This makes the race particularly appealing to runners who are looking to set their personal bests. But here in Malaysia, it is as though the high temperatures and humidity are not challenging enough. The hillier the race, the better. Then after the races are done and the race results published, we wonder why Malaysians have poor timing? Why Malaysians are slow?

In a nation that just paints the track on the school fields once a year, you can count on us staying slow. We have the potential if we start early enough. It’s not just about genetics (even though the genetics play a major role). It is also about the opportunity, the desire and the direction.

Here, everybody focuses on football, because it’s a national sport. It is good that we have grassroots programme to deal with that. But what happens when our football players grow up? Yup, they become crap. Whose fault is that? Athletics is going the same way too, but not too obvious, because we don’t have a grassroots programme (we just pick whoever is inherently fast at school without giving everyone a chance to train, unlike football). And there’s not much money offered in the sport, again because I guess the sponsors think we are slow.

Shift some of  the focus to distance running. We can do it. Start them early with proper guidance. Good runners don’t always make good coaches. We need coaches with proper knowledge about the science of the sport. Coaches who know what is the specific purpose of each run. Coaches who can motivate. Certainly not politicians, not even polo players. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous turf wars. We’re not even fast to begin with. Shut the hell up and work together to get fast.

Until we can mass produce 4 minute mile runners, expect local races to be dominated by foreigners for years to come. A lot can be done to make Malaysians run faster.

Start by putting proper distance markers, please.

-wan won- 


  1. Replies
    1. thanks. have to find a new soapbox. =)

  2. Aye aye. Good posting and a great read. Sad but true aint it?

    1. thanks. just thinking out loud.
      still wondering all this time apa la susah sangat nak letak papan tanda jarak tu?

      dan gaduh-gaduh padahal takde la laju pun.. haihzzz...

  3. According to some track and fields records set in many years ago like in 1968, 1976, 1986 etc has not been break through yet.

    1. that's the thing. declining instead of improving.
      something must be wrong somewhere, don't you agree?
      macam biasa la. always basking in past glories. just like local football.

  4. a very good post! - hanim

    1. thanks hanim!
      hope the messages get through.
      distance markers please!

  5. My 2 cents - keep the Kenyans, but do separate category - International and Malaysian. Just like Thais Marathons, both categories will have winners and keep everybody happy.

    If we kick the Kenyan, French, Moroccan out from our race, then the winners will always be "Jaguh Kampung". If we want to improve, we need to learn from other runners especially international runners.

    Most of our elites local runners don't have the dough to compete in International Major Marathons, Boston, NY, Berlin etc. Sad but true, congrats for this mind provoking piece of article.

    p/s What happened to your original blog WW? he he

    1. Hi Ray. It's always great to have a healthy discussion.

      "My 2 cents - keep the Kenyans, but do separate category - International and Malaysian. Just like Thais Marathons, both categories will have winners and keep everybody happy."
      Agree. Set different registration fees for both categories too. =) But do you realize that the Kenyans competing here are like their 2nd-3rd-4th tier athletes? They can't make it in Europe, Americas or even Japan. So why not kick slow Malaysians ass and make money doing it?

      "If we kick the Kenyan, French, Moroccan out from our race, then the winners will always be "Jaguh Kampung""
      Disagree. In running, especially at the level we are in now, Jaguh Kampung title is totally irrelevant. If you can consistently do sub 2:30 marathons here in Malaysia, there's no doubt you will break 2:30s in cooler climates. Pack your bags and move to where you can improve. That's what Azizulhasni did, Nicol David did, Novak Djokovic did and other world class athletes did. If you can do it, it means you can do it. 'Where' is out of the question.

      "If we want to improve, we need to learn from other runners especially international runners."
      True. But what have we learned from them during races? All I know is we never failed to get our ass kicked each and every time. Learning is done during training. Mistakes should be made during training. Not during races.
      Really want to learn from them? Get one (or a few) of them fast runners and help develop our own grassroots programmes, without political interference. Those who really know what they are doing. Knowing what is the purpose of each run. Knowing the maxim "train to race, not race to train". Then again, good runners don't always make good coaches. I'm feeling I'm gonna need a separate entry just to rant about this. Hahahaha.

      "Most of our elites local runners don't have the dough to compete in International Major Marathons, Boston, NY, Berlin etc."
      Because here nobody cares about running except us. The sponsors can't see their return of investment. Stop talking about the Marathon Majors until 4 minute milers are mass produced. Notice I never said sub 4 minutes. =)

      "What happened to your original blog WW?"
      Don't feel like updating. =P

    2. I think what we're discussing here is the development of running as a sport profesionally and not in terms of us as weekend warriors.
      Elites shouldn't fork out their own money like us to go to those major marathons. They have sponsors for that.

  6. Wow! This is heavy stuff dude. Too bad I'm in Monday Mandom mood when I completed this reading.

    Definitely agree with the distance markers. Years been running and they still sucks at it. Perhaps we should remind them prior to every race. 2 cents.

    Foreign runners. Keep them coming. Raise their fees, lower their prize money, IN their own categories of course. Then we have a decent competition/comparison in terms of performance putting aside money factor. 2 cents.

    4 cents already. Sorry, and thanks for sharing the argument. Now I've used up my brain juice for the day.

    1. Heheh.. even the so called big running events kat sini pun fail nak letak proper distance markers kan? Mintak race fee bukan main lagi.. For less than RM100, they can put simple KM markers every kilometer. Kalau nak lagi jimat, letak mile markers every mile instead, RM50 pun cukup. Kalau nak bling-bling lampu neon LED lip-lap segala, kena kuar duit lebih la sikit. Itu pun mau ajar ka? Lagi mau claim international standard. =P

      This post is meant to be provocative and make us think why we suck at running. I guess people take my foreign runners thingy out of context. I don't mind them coming (to an extent). It's just that I feel really sorry for our local champions. They run fast, but not fast enough. And in my honest opinion, it's kinda too late for our current local champions to go faster. Do a hard reset, develop a new talent base and use them to whoop the foreigners' asses instead. It may take 10-20 years, but I believe we can do it.

      There's a need to develop local talents the right way. Have you seen local 10-12 year old schoolgirls (not boys) decimating adults in their category? I had the opportunity to race (and fortunately overtook them girls) during a recent 5k-ish race. The girls went on to win the top 3 placing in their category, beating teenagers and young adults alike. What saddens me is (yes, still IS) that no one told them anything about pacing. They went out way too fast leaving me behind early, and slowed down in the middle which enabled me to easily pass them. With proper guidance, the kids can go far. Hopefully no one will exploit them. Jangan dah terer jadi bodoh sombong sudah la. That's what I mean when I said our runners should know what they are doing, understand why each run is run the way it is. Bukan main ikuuuuut je apa orang/buku/majalah/website suruh.

      There, I repaid your 4 cents, siap keep the change lagi. =)

  7. well said Wan :) totally agree with u on those foreigner runners. Event dekat kampung2 pun diaorg sapu. Why? because the organizer allow them to take part. 'International'.. Wohoo.. thats a good publicity aint it?

    "Start them early with proper guidance" and proper arrangement as well, like when running even for a short 5km distance, bagi la air bro. They just wanted to get the quantity in an event, not the quality. With such a bad experience during their first run, some might even considered that running is a tough sport, have to endure 5-8 km without water, how to run longer than that? and it happened quite frequent lately(usually with organizers with no experience in this)

    Be smart. Choose your run :) and one that u can enjoy it, not get suffered or injured.

  8. Mmg bias pun... Bagi saya, walaupun banyak dah event running kat msia ni, byk tempat masih kurang... Mcm kat area utara n pantai timur... Pastu kalau dlm sekolah cikgu ph ayik suruh main bola je... Suruh lari... Hmmmm 100meter je... Saya kat sekolah dulu asyik corot je... Mana ada cross country ka... Susah pihak sekolah nak organise... Mungkin sebab safety... Takkan nak pusing lengkong padng sekolah je kot... Hehe

    Dah musim pru13, kalau lah saya jadi yb menteri sukan ke, saya wajiblkan event running ni perlua ada untuk area2 daerah sekolah... Untuk kenal pasti pelari jarak jauh yg berbakat... Anak sedara saya dh masuk sekolah sukan, harap ok la... Jgn pulak masa dah tua nnt isap rokok plak... Hehe


  9. Wow... Your post was straight out of my mind. Thanks bro.

    Your points are spot on. We need to have representatives in Tokyo '20 for marathon. And not just to make up the numbers.

    And we will. I'm sure.

    And so begins my journey of a sub-2 hour marathon. 01:59:00 in 5 years. Here goes.