From fat to fit: Run for your life

Banjamin Quek now, working towards his aim of becoming one of Singapore's top distance runners.
Banjamin Quek now, working towards his aim of becoming one of Singapore's top distance runners.PHOTOS: ONEATHLETE
Banjamin Quek (with his sister) in his primary school days.
Banjamin Quek (with his sister) in his primary school days.PHOTOS: ONEATHLETE

NUS grad closes in on dream of being one of S'pore's top runners after making lifestyle changes

When I was a primary school pupil, life was good - sedentary, and revolving around gaming and 3am suppers. I was 68kg, 1.7m, and neither very proud nor concerned about my appearance. I was also encouraged to eat more during meal times because that was how a traditional Asian family showed care and concern.

The turning point was when I was 13 years old and had just entered Secondary 1. I was deemed unfit (figuratively and literally) for my co-curricular activity (National Cadet Corps Land). I was sidelined during team games because no one wanted a player who couldn't pull his weight.

I became really upset because I felt unfairly judged based on superficial qualities. That got me reading up more on food and nutrition and I realised how consuming food high in fat presents higher risks to our health and mortality.

Thus began my bid to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle so that I would be able to fit into social circles and feel less inferior.

DEVELOPING GOOD HABITS

I decided to pay more attention to my diet. No more 3am suppers, less fried food; more vegetables and lean meat instead. I replaced soft drinks with low-calorie soft drinks, or juices, which are healthier alternatives.

My meals began to comprise more carbohydrates (rice), since I was beginning to exercise more and needed the glucose to perform, and more dietary fibre, such as vegetables and fruit. I would try to have two servings of vegetables and one serving of fruit at every meal. Instead of deep-frying meat, I would steam it.

I tried not to eat past 10pm. Our body's digestion process slows down as bedtime approaches. Not having supper played a big part in my weight control.

I started to have better quality sleep too, because I learnt that inadequate sleep upsets the balance of hunger hormones such as leptin and ghrelin. Sleep deficiency increases the production of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite.

CHOOSING TO RUN

I chose to lose weight through running, mainly because it allowed me immense freedom - rain or shine, fast or slow. Ironically, I used to hate running because I never felt suited for it. My aunt would drag me along when she went jogging and I would find all sorts of excuses.

It took a lot of discipline to get started in running. In my sleeping shorts, white tee and my father's oversized running shoes, I looked the part of a struggling runner barely able to complete 2.4km.

With time, I was able to progress to longer distances and with increasing ease. The key to running is consistency and to work hard every day. The more you run, the better you get. It is really that simple.

Of course, it is never easy to run every single day. In order to cope with the monotony, setting the right mentality is important as well. Running is supposed to be enjoyable, as I remind myself all the time.

On days when I was tired, I would run at an easier pace or explore a new route. Setting milestones along the way also helped maintain my motivation. I was proud to check off the little boxes as I progressed from 2.4km to 10km, and beyond.

I went on to represent Victoria Junior College (VJC) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) in competitive cross-country races.

TRANSFORMED LIFE

Over the years, my purpose in running changed. When I started, it was about keeping fit and losing weight. Coupled with the change in diet and lifestyle, I lost 10kg within a year and became visibly more toned.

It bolstered my self-esteem when I was running further and faster. My 2.4km time improved from 13 minutes in Secondary 1 to 8min before I graduated from NUS.

In JC, running helped to clear my mind when I was preparing for my A-level examinations. Since VJC sits right next to East Coast Park, I would go for a run whenever I felt overwhelmed studying. The break allowed me to focus better and be more productive when I hit the books again.

In NS, I stayed in a 13-man bunk. It was hard to have time to myself, but running around the camp gave me the opportunity for a few cherished, quiet moments.

Later, I joined the NUS team. Running at a higher level of competition forced me to manage my time efficiently amidst a hectic academic schedule. It also taught me to persevere when the going gets tough and to have the discipline to stay the course.

It was challenging to train during my undergraduate days. I would feel sore the morning after an evening workout, attend classes, train again in the evening and revise at night. I had to turn down invitations to social gatherings because I was too tired.

There were moments when I thought I was on the verge of breaking down because of the overwhelming study load. However, every satisfying workout I had on the track was a poignant reminder that I was more capable than I thought.

This year, I've decided to take a gap year to pursue my dream of running in Kenya, and work towards realising my long-held aspiration of becoming one of Singapore's top distance runners.

I hope that through my running journey, I will be able to inspire others to dare to dream too.

•Banjamin Quek has a 21.1km best of 1:16:23. Managed by ONEathlete, he will be competing at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 14, 2018, with the headline 'From fat to fit: Run for your life'. Print Edition | Subscribe