5 in 5: Running out of excuses

The Straits Times' sports editor Lee Yulin, photographed before she goes on a journey to better fitness. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

SINGAPORE - Lamp posts feature prominently in my life as a dog owner.

Male? Female? Big? Small? My furkids love collecting pee-mail from their canine cousins on their walks around our home.

But these days, they aren't the only ones looking for feedback from street lights. I, too, keep an eye out for lamp posts now because that's how I gauge how far I can run without stopping.

I must admit, the start to my bid for 5km fitness in five months was somewhat disheartening. On the first day, I hopped out of bed with a new vigour, dug out my new exercise outfits, laced up my new shoes and bounded out the gate like a kid entering a candy store.

After about 50 steps, my calves started to burn.

The Straits Times' sports editor Lee Yulin, photographed before she goes on a journey to better fitness. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

A few more steps and I found myself breathless. I clung on, and made it past 10 lamp posts before eventually stopping to catch my breath and switching to walking.

Initially, I thought the distance of those 10 lamp posts probably amounted to about 400m, which is one round of an athletics track. But then an online check later made my heart sink - the distance between the posts is only 15m and I had managed a grand total of only 150m! I did not know which was more painful - the ache in my calves or the blow to my ego.

Aunties' Army

But my mood lifted considerably a few hours later when I went online and found a lot of positive responses to my first post about my bid to reach 5km fitness in five months.

There was encouragement from readers whom I'd never met, lots of "jia you" messages from family and friends, and quite a few offers to join me on my journey from fellow women who, like me, are well over 40 and looking for a new challenge. Looking at the numbers, I was almost inspired to start an Aunties' Army to tackle the ST Run. But one dirty look from a friend whom I mooted the idea to and I scratched the thought.

Between Majulah and Just Move Lah

Nonetheless, help and advice have been a constant over the last fortnight, for which I am truly grateful.

Like at a media briefing by Sport Singapore last week presided over by Lim Teck Yin, chief of SportSG. Here is a man with twin missions: Not only to get our national athletes to majulah but to also get the rest of us to Just Move Lah.

I lunched with him that day. With some leaders, you listen to their spiel and come away none the wiser. This was not the case with Lim, who truly, utterly, believes in the need for all of us to live healthy. We talked about sport, fitness, the unsustainable pressures on our healthcare system.


Then we turned to this blog. As he trained his beady eyes on me, I realised with a rising panic: There was no escape. My inability to put down the iPhone (Facebook) and iPad (Candy Mania) near bedtime, my cholesterol, BP levels... all came under the Lim microscope. In football parlance, it was squeaky-bum time.

Perhaps my only saving grace that day was that I was smart enough to pick the right dishes for my plate - fish, beehoon and some veggies. And unlike my colleague, I smartly avoided taking the eclairs at the dessert table, sticking righteously to fresh fruit instead. It's Lent after all.

Even Lim's staff have weighed in on my weight-loss and fitness attempt. I confessed that I have truly struggled to find the time to exercise. Many mornings, my best-laid plans to hit the streets before I hit the office have been sunk. This, even though I've swopped my flannel PJs for exercise tees and running shorts to make the "mental transition" to exercise mode easier. But none of the SportSG staff would cut me any slack: Can't run in the morning? Run at night after work. Or use the office gym. Wake up earlier. Run during the lunch break.

I had run out of excuses.

A sign

The day after my first post appeared, Steven Quek, head coach (distance) at the ActiveSG Athletics Club, reached out to me with an offer of help.

I was mortified.

Quek, if you don't know, is one of the top distance-running coaches in town. This man has helped produce some of Singapore's biggest names in marathon running, including our SEA Games gold medallists Mok Ying Ren and Soh Rui Yong. He even trained Neo Jie Shi, who represented Singapore at the Olympics in Rio last year.

The man has a sterling record of producing champions. Why would he want to help me? Me, of the 10 lamp posts?

Nonetheless, I agreed to drop by Bukit Gombak Stadium, where the club is based, to find out more.

The day arrived. I was excited... in the morning. But as the afternoon wore on, my apprehension grew. So much so that when it began raining on my way to the stadium, relief washed over me. Perhaps it would be rained out!

Alas, it stopped bucketing by the time I reached the stadium. But wait, the track was still closed, because there was a lightning storm. My heart surged with joy, just like the flashes that lit up the night sky. Perhaps it was a sign!

So I met Quek, a warm and earnest man who explained patiently why he felt he could help me and how I could build up my fitness slowly but surely. The key to success: Keeping the pace comfortable initially so I can run farther. Distance, not time, is the aim (for now at least).

While comforted by his assurance that I could reach my goal, I was acutely aware that I was among a different tribe that night. The track was closed but there the club members were, running up and down the stairs, stretching, polishing their leg lifts and so on. Me? I sat there and played with my iPhone after talking to Steven.

Until I met his lovely wife, Denise, who gently coaxed me to get moving and led by an 11-year-old schoolgirl, we took a slow jog back and forth at the bottom of the grandstand.

It went swimmingly, and Denise's gentle conversation was a timely distraction. I found I wasn't gasping like a goldfish which is normally what happens when I run. But that lasted until we took a break to stretch and do other stuff like crunches and planking. And then there was no hiding - the only thing coming off the ground during the crunches was my head. We then moved on to tricep dips - where my hips appeared to bob up and down but in reality, my elbows moved all of an inch.

Eventually all good things must come to an end, and so the lightning ceased. Denise, the kid and I made our way onto the edge of the grass pitch where we ran one round. Without stopping. I was huffing and puffing but elated.

After I had cooled down, Steven and Denise did a quick calculation of the "distance" I had totalled during the session. Turns out, I totalled nearly 2km through all those little jogs up and down the length of the grandstand plus that round-the-field trot. It's about baby steps. And Quek pointed out that this is why he believes I can do the 5 in 5. I felt like a million bucks.

Inspiration comes in different forms. Who knew that I would be inspired by strangers?

Perhaps one day, I too can go from Just Move Lah to Majulah.