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.