Do the names Tomohiro Tanigawa, Belachew Alemayehu Ameta, Julius Muriuki Wahome, Makda Harun Haji, Merima Mohammed Hasen and Yinli He ring a bell? If you guessed that these are delegates of the United Nations, you’d be close.
In fact, these six dynamic runners just took top prizes at the 2016 Blackmores Sydney Running Festival. Hailing from some of the powerhouse countries of distance running, they joined runners from all over the world to race on one of the most spectacular courses in the world. I was honored to “represent” the little red dot along with 25 other running enthusiasts on this runcation that was unlike any other overseas trip I have experienced prior.
Looking back at this event's history, I learned that Athletics Australia, a non-profit known for raising funds to support the community, got the idea for an annual event in 2000—after hosting that year's Olympics.
Our 2016 experience
It was sheer luck that brought me and my wife to this annual Australian event. That luck, in the form of my wife’s race bib number, was picked for the only lucky draw prize at a race earlier this year. The odds, 1:~20,000! The prize, a free trip to the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival 2016. Once I congratulated her on her good fortune, my next question was: “You’re not going to leave me at home, are you?”
I signed up for our runcation and put all of the details of my travel plans into the hands of CTC Travel. Who knew that their services would deliver more than just the standard plane ticket and lodging? CTC staff, I learned, work with F1 Running Team's coach Lexxus Tan to deliver a travel experience designed to meet the needs of runners competing overseas - runners like me.
Wow. Free training!
At local races (unless you are unobservant), you probably notice that F1 Runners tend to stand out from the crowd and perform at a higher level. I have always wondered what voodoo F1 Running Team Coach Lexxus employs to get his athletes into such great shape. When I learned that my CTC travel arrangements came with 15 free training sessions with the F1 team, I jumped at the opportunity!
At that point, my race results weren’t improving much on my own. I needed expert advice from someone who knows a thing or twenty about winning marathons. My level of confidence grew weekly as I started training and learning what I could from Coach before leaving for Sydney.
With those 15 sessions under my belt, I felt well prepared as I traveled to the airport. But there was a bonus associated with my training sessions: I formed friendships with some of my fellow runner/travellers beforehand, and it’s always more enjoyable to travel with friends!
We felt like a Team, as we boarded our plane
The bond we developed while training was further enhanced as we arrived at the airport, and were presented with complimentary team light jackets. But that's not the only surprise we received from our travel host: they sent us off with printed banners that made all of us feel proud to leave Singapore to represent our homeland in Australia.
We got off to a great start
We arrived in Sydney two days before the race, had lunch at the famous Sydney Fish Market and attended the race expo at the Sydney Town Hall, a historical building at the heart of the Sydney central business district. We received a race route briefing from one of the organisers, took tons of photos and shopped. We did everything besides having to queue to collect our race packs, as that was conveniently done by our tour organisers.
We arrived at our hotel in time for check-in and a ceremonial bib presentation. It was a very nice touch to add to the entire race experience. It was free and easy thereafter, which gave us time to explore the hotel surrounds. The hotel was conveniently located at Surry Hills, which had numerous notable eateries in the area. After dinner and more gallivanting, it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
To prepare for the race, we tested ourselves in the early morning hours of our first full day in Sydney. Enjoying spring temperatures on our easy run, we took in city sights and snapped lots of photos. After getting cleaned up, we were off for a day tour that was as much fun as it was exciting.
One amazing city
We visited the Wildlife Sydney Zoo at Darling Harbour, which showcases diverse and unique Australian fauna, and then set about undertaking a race route familiarization tour. Starting at Bradfield Park, below the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, the race would take us around the city to various landmarks and end at the Sydney Opera House.
We goofed around at the start point, taking in the great view, and then set off on a scenic stroll across the Harbour Bridge. Because we stayed so busy from morning to night, the day ended in a more relaxed fashion as we dined at Darling Harbour and enjoyed fireworks before heading back to our lodgings to do our mental and logistical prep for the race the next day.
Race day is at hand
I always awake on race day with the feeling of excitement that’s infused with a tinge of anxiety! This ritual includes looking into a mirror and asking myself, "Why am I getting up at this ungodly hour?" before the subject of breakfast comes up.
Although the tour organisers thoughtfully provided us with a packed breakfast the night before, I decided to stick to my usual bread and peanut butter purchased from a nearby supermarket.
Since I was taking part in the half marathon, our start time was an hour earlier than the full event. We were brought by coach (the bus, not Lexxus; though he did come along!) to the start point, so getting to the staging area was hassle free.
Having Coach Lexxus on hand to conduct our warm up and take us through a familiar routine in this unfamiliar venue was the perfect way to start the day.
It’s show time
Following our warm-up, we moved to Start Pen A, just behind the elite runners. A great place to start. A short while later, we were flagged off and the race officially began. In Singapore, we normally have a 10 second countdown and then a fog horn to start a race, but in Sydney, the countdown and horn is replaced by a starter's pistol. That shot startled me, but made things feel more like a “real” race!
The weather was great and I didn’t feel fatigued, so I was off to a good start. I remember thinking that if I hadn’t gotten such good advice beforehand, I might not feel as confident as I did. Of course, the scenic route also helped diffuse last-minute anxiety as we took some easy hills and settled into our paces.
I’m happy to report that water points were adequate, with no congestion, offering competitors both water and IsoWhey Sport, the official electrolyte drink. I must add that the pacers I ran with were very encouraging.
A finish to remember
I think the highlight—after running the Harbour Bridge—was the last 750m. We sprinted along Circular Quay to the Sydney Opera House where each of us upped our performances with one last "kick." The cheers from the crowds that lined the course were so energising that , even the calf cramps I experienced on and off didn’t stop me from having the finish I had wanted: a sub 1 hour 40 minute PB.
“Wow,” I said aloud, echoing everyone else’s thoughts, "What a great experience!”
What better way to celebrate a race well run than by hitting the town Singaporen style for a delicious post-run meal? The seafood buffet dinner at The Star Hotel proved a great choice as we dined on the hearty spread and recounted our own personal race experiences.
We head home—or did we?
The next day, the relaxing part of our runcation officially started and we prepared to immerse ourselves in Sydney before going home. We were faced with too many choices, including the Blue Mountains, jet boating, sailing and more sightseeing. They were an ideal way to cap our great runcation.
For my wife and I, we did what most adventurous couples do: we extended our 'cation for another week, but that's another story!
As we look forward to future running experiences, we wish to convey our sincere thanks and gratitude to everyone who made this trip possible: CTC Travel (Meixin), Siew Hoon from Destination NSW who made so many highlights happen, Ming Ham from Wow2wow (fantastic photographer)—and of course, coach Lexxus Tan.
Although the trip was a result of my wife winning the lucky draw prize, I feel that we both won as the friendships forged while training and competing with my Singapore team mates are going to last for many years to come. And when you think about it, isn’t that what winning is all about?