There’s a good chance most Singaporeans plan to watch the summer Olympics in August in hopes of witnessing a great performance by the first female marathon competitor in 20 years. If she succeeds, Neo Jie Shi could pick up the mantle of Singaporean Yvonne Danson, who finished in 38th position in a field of 86 international runners at the 1996 Games. No runner has ever medaled in the games.
Of course, getting ready for Rio de Janeiro 2016 is no walk in the park, and support from Singapore Athletics (SA) officials plus fans hungry for success are critically important to get this long-distance runner – who recently became a Pocari Sweat ambassador — to that medal stand. Her attitude is positive. Her outlook is, too. Is this her year? We sure hope so!
RS: You’re 30 years old; do you consider yourself a latecomer to Singapore’s running scene?
Jie Shi: Not really. I started running while in university in a bid to get fit and signed up for my first half marathon at Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon in 2006. Finding this a challenge which I relish, I went on to participate in the marathon the following year and have not looked back since.
RS: How goes your preparation for the Olympics with your new coach, Steven Quek?
Jie Shi: Really well. Coach and I are focusing on improving my speed and I will run the 10km at the Seoul International Marathon on 20th March to test it out. When Singapore Athletics advised me that he was going to coach me, I was very grateful. He takes me through three quality workouts per week with easy runs, cross-training or total rest days in between. Our major focus is on speed for Seoul, so I’m doing two sessions of intervals on weekdays and one long run on weekend. Coach has taught me the value of a structured schedule.
RS: Do you have problems juggling work, life and training?
Jie Shi: As I work full time, I train on weekday evenings after work and weekends morning. I stay focused at work and complete urgent and important tasks first so I can leave on time to train. If I know there are important tasks at work which require me to work late, I will plan my work beforehand such that I tackle the tasks on my rest day or easy / cross training days. If it is too late to run or if I’m too tired after work, I simply treat it as an enforced rest day. I reserve my rest day which is now Wednesday evenings and weekends to spend quality time with family and friends.
The challenge to juggle work, training and time spent with family and friends will always be there. All three aspects are important to me and I try my best to strike an equilibrium.
RS: How important is it to have a “team” behind you?
Jie Shi: It helps to have a supportive husband who is also into competitive running and who trains with me whenever he can. I am also blessed to have an understanding family, friends, employer and colleagues who know how important running is to me and they accommodate my schedule.
RS: You joined the Jurong SAFRA Running Club. Why did you join?
Jie Shi: Because running alone can be boring; it helps to run with friends — running together is a joy.
RS: In what ways do your training buddies assist you when you prepare for a big race?
Jie Shi: My training buddies, husband and I do our long runs on weekends together. Most of them are faster than me. If I were to run on my own, I would probably be happy to complete the long runs in my comfortable pace. With these training buddies, they motivate me to put in more effort in my long runs, so I run faster and closer to the pace I need to maintain during the marathon. All it takes is a few good workouts with them and my fitness and endurance improved. The fast long runs also boosted my confidence leading up to the big race.
RS: Where can we catch a glimpse of you training?
Jie Shi: We like to switch it up for variety, so you’ll find us doing long runs at East Coast Park, MacRitchie or Upper Peirce Reservoirs or Sentosa on Saturday or Sunday mornings.
RS: Can you tell us about your most memorable race and why it’s memorable?
Jie Shi: The January 2015 Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon. What made it memorable? I had a great racing experience and received wonderful support from all volunteers and supporters. I lost my watch’s GPS signal after exiting the last tunnel at the 35km mark and lost track of time after that. I wasn’t sure I could finish under my goal time of 3:10 at that point. It was an exhilarating experience to chase for the time till the last second when I crossed the finishing line, and especially memorable and sweet because I achieved a personal best time of 3:09:57.
RS: What was the toughest race you’ve run so far?
Jie Shi: Last June’s SEA Games Marathon, I started too fast and by 15km, I knew I was in trouble. The heavy rain and strong winds that came mid-way in the race made the run pretty miserable. It got worse at 30km when my calf cramped and forced me to slow to a jog. I finished in 3:35:54. Not the best time, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
RS: When friends and family aren’t around, how do you motivate yourself?
Jie Shi: First, my love and passion for running keeps me motivated. I also believe that I can get stronger and faster, so that desire to keep improving keeps me going, too. I should add that I love the adrenaline rush that comes with running at top speed!
RS: As a brand-sponsored athlete, do you feel extra pressure to perform well?
Jie Shi: My sponsors do not put pressure on me to win races. The pressure to perform is more from myself to continuously strive to improve.
RS: Have you been injured? How did you recover?
Jie Shi: I had to stop running for several weeks to recover from plantar fasciitis last August. To stay fit, I worked out using an elliptical machine and attended spinning classes. Thankfully, the injury improved enough by mid-October to resume my road training — albeit at a lower intensity and pace.
RS: If you had to replace running with another sport, what would it be and why?
Jie Shi: I can’t imagine life without running, but if forced to choose, I would pick basketball. This was my first sports and CCA in junior college. I really enjoy the game, especially sprinting up and down the basketball court chasing the ball, shooting baskets and doing layups. I like team sports as the sport focuses not just on individual’s strength but on teamwork as well. Basketball taught me a lot about team spirit and tenacity.
RS: Your running achievements prove that Singapore’s female runners can compete with the best runners in the world. How can we urge more female runners to take up competitive running?
Jie Shi: Getting women to join a running club is a great way to interest them in competitive running. Until I joined the SAFRA Running Club, I never trained with competitive runners. It’s a whole new experience. These runners, especially the ladies, inspire me and my performance improved as a direct result of their influence.
RS: What are your goals and targets for this year?
Jie Shi: My goals are to enjoy the training process, keep improving and achieve personal bests.
If you were to meet Jie Shi in person, what advice or encouragement would you give her as the Olympics get closer and she works hard to qualify for her event?