SINGAPORE - Accompanied by a cool night breeze and the roar of curious spectators lined up along the outside of the venue, national middle distance runner Jeevaneesh Soundararajah set a new national best in the 2.4km at the Home of Athletics on Saturday (Jan 8) night.
The 28-year-old clocked 6min 52.97sec in the 2.4km challenge at the Pocari Sweat Run to better the mark previously held by top distance runner Soh Rui Yong (6:53.18), who ran alongside him.
Soh clocked 6:55.50, finishing just behind Gurkha Subas Gurung, who clocked 6:54.53. The other runner in their group was Ethan Yan, who clocked 7:09.09.
They clocked the fastest times of those who attempted the challenge on Saturday.
Jeevaneesh, a project manager and engineer for a solar firm, said: "From training, I knew I could do it but it was about executing it today.
"In my last lap I was really pushing through… and thankfully it was just (0.21 sec) under."
Soh, who had tipped Jeevaneesh for the record, insisted he was not sore about losing his mark, saying: "Big congratulations to Jeeva… It helps a lot that he's my training partner so when we train, we push each other."
He also brushed aside the fact that he finished behind Subas, saying that the Gurkha's ability was exactly why he invited him for the challenge.
"We knew he could run below seven (minutes) and we wanted to add a bit of competition because winning all the time is boring," Soh said, tongue-in-cheek.
Jeevaneesh's time won him the reward which Soh had put up - $700 cash and 700 bottles of Pocari Sweat - to any Singaporean who can clock below seven minutes, as well as a list of other prizes which included massages and 700 packets of chicken rice.
Soh, who also holds national records in the 5,000m, 10,000m, half-marathon and marathon, had offered the cash-plus-drink reward in response to the mixed online response to him setting the record last September. Many were encouraging, but others poured scorn.
The reaction, and Soh's reward, generated strong interest in the challenge, and many corporate sponsors threw their weight behind it by offering rewards of their own.
While the 2.4km is not an event which features at major sporting events like the Olympics or Asian Games, the distance is one familiar to many Singaporeans as it is part of the individual physical proficiency test and National Physical Fitness Award test for students.
This interest was also manifested in the presence of about 100-odd spectators who lined up along the perimeter of the Home of Athletics, which is just a stone's throw from the National Stadium, on Saturday.
The crowd - some of whom were Subas' mates from the Gurkha contingent - observed and cheered on the runners from the outside, as the venue had a cap of 100 people as part of safe management measures.
The event also drew the likes of local athletics icon C. Kunalan. The former 100m national record holder said: "This is a very special race and such an unusual experience.
"I am looking forward to seeing the cooperation between (Soh, Jeevaneesh, Subas and Yan) to push each other on, even as the competitive element of wanting to be the quickest is still there."
Singapore Athletics president Lien Choong Luen described the atmosphere generated by the spectators as "electrifying".
"It was fantastic to hear the support and you could see the athletes responding to it as well," he said, adding that he was keen to expand future editions of the 2.4km challenge to include age-group and even army unit divisions.
Said Jeevaneesh: "We've missed this cheering for the past two years so it's nice in the first week of (2022) to have this kind of atmosphere.
"I hope the Covid situation improves and next time we can see the crowd inside the stadium."
Almost 400 runners signed up for the challenge but some dropped out for various reasons, including scheduling conflicts. The challenge was postponed twice, from October to November, and then to January, owing to safe distancing measures.
One of those who ran, 30-year-old sales manager Sim Pek Cheng, had signed up for the October challenge with his friend who could not run on Saturday as he was overseas on his honeymoon.
Sim, who ran under 10 minutes, said: "I had been training for it so I was going to turn up, even without my friend. I did not want to waste my effort.
"It was nice to have the support of strangers along a stretch of the run, and I would sign up if they had the event again, but hopefully with more runners each time (instead of just five)."