I have Jen to thank for today’s Running The World interview. She introduced me via Twitter to Grace, who’s a Singaporean runner. Grace responded to our tweets by quoting Call Me Maybe! Got to love that!
Grace also suggested I speak to Holly , an American ex-pat and running coach in Singapore for a second perspective on Singapore Running. They were both fantastic to talk to and this is what they said.
Before we start, tell us a little about Singapore.
Grace – Singapore is a city of about five million people. But it is also its own country – not in China, not in Malaysia, not anywhere else! We have arguably the best food in the world: laksa, char kway teow, nasi lemak, roti prata, the list goes on! I love to eat and I love to run. The two kind of feed into each other… As it’s a tropical island, Singapore is also quite small (42km across) and very hot. You know how runners in North America start complaining when the temperature creeps up above 70 or 80 degrees F? Over here we call that Tuesday morning. More on that later.
Holly – Despite limited space and lots of people, though, the government has made a concerted effort to maintain green spaces. So although they are more ‘urban park’ than ‘ginormous wilderness national park’, there are green spaces with lots of trees, playgrounds, paths, and water features. There are also a few areas that have been preserved as forest. Singaporeans, in my estimation, love all these spaces – the parks, trails, and green areas are always full, especially on the weekend – with people of all ages.
Cat’s note: Singapore’s square mileage is 240 square miles. That’s basically the same size as San Francisco or just under 2 x the Isle of Wight in the UK. I was pretty gob-smacked that the entire country was so small!
Tell us a little about yourselves.
Grace – I’m Singaporean (ethnically Southern Chinese – Singapore is multi-ethnic, and while the majority is ethnic Chinese, there are Indians, Malays, Filipinos, Indonesians, and other newer waves of immigrants and expats). I was born and grew up here, but lived in the US for five years while getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I’m a journalist for one of the local newspapers. I’ve been living in Singapore for the past six years but will be moving back to the US (Boston) at the end of this year for a while, as my ridiculously clever husband is ridiculously clever and got into his first choice PhD programme first go. Besides running, I like to eat, cook, dance, play board games, travel, and read a lot.
Holly – I’m a 31 year-old American living in Singapore with my Chinese-Singaporean-American husband, zero kids, a few tomato plants, and my vermicomposting worms. I was lucky enough to have my mid-life crisis about 20 years early (at 31 years old), and after spending 8 years in research science (including a PhD in Biochemistry), I started an online run coaching business (Run With Holly). I also have certifications to teach indoor cycling and Pilates, and freelance at several local gyms. Basically, I love helping people find empowerment through being fit.
How did you get into running?
Holly – I was a swimmer in high school, and distinctly remember telling my swim coach, during pre-season dry-land training (which included running), that I shouldn’t run, “…because I’m a fish. Do you know what happens to fish on land?? They DIE.” But, I started running on my own volition in college, initially because I calculated that it was the most efficient way for me to avoid the “Freshman 15″. Gradually, I started running outdoors, and actually enjoying my runs – they were a respite of quiet “me” time in the frenzy of college life.
Upon graduation, I moved to Rochester, NY, where I learned what it meant to be part of a running community. There were so many experienced runners there who patiently taught me how to run long, and longer, and even longer, and really long, and then really long on trails. They taught me how to run in the snow, and the ice, and in the middle of a blizzard, and when it was 10*F. They taught me about hydration, nutrition, and Body Glide. For all of this (but especially that last part), I’m forever indebted to them. Nowadays, I love trails the most, but log miles on a mixture of trails and roads. Last year, I raced distances up to a marathon (road) and 50K (trail). Half-marathon training is my happy steady-state place, but I’ll increase for a longer race about once a year.
Grace - You can read a little bit more about this on my blog, but both my parents ran for exercise when I was growing up. My dad even ran a few marathons, in the days before tech t-shirts, fancy shoes, or gel; in fact, he ran at least one marathon wearing a cotton shirt and old-school nylon shorts, carrying a baked sweet potato wrapped in foil… He still runs, just not marathons. And my mum runs every day. So I grew up running, too. (But not competing – I haven’t a competitive bone in my body.)
I was always a restless kid, and my ‘thing’ was ballet. I used to follow my mum on her jogs around the block, but didn’t start running seriously or training for specific events till I started working in 2008. Now, it’s how I blow off steam.
How popular is running in Singapore?
Grace – It’s is absurdly popular. Here is an example of the kind of numbers we get at races: the Singapore Marathon recently had to cap the number of entrants at 10,000 for the half-marathon and 20,000 for the 10k!
Holly – Running has exploded here in the last 5-7 years. When I first visited Singapore (in 2006) there were only a few races the whole year. These days, there’s a run or triathlon almost every weekend. As in the US, running is an upper-middle class dominated sport.
How popular is running amongst women in Singapore?
Grace – The flagship Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore had mostly men and 16 per cent women finishers, but that’s shifting. Last year, there was an all-women’s half marathon (the Great Eastern Women’s Run) and 10K – it was packed! I think younger generations of women are more likely to be running than older generations – it’s probably the same in every developed country around the world. My grandmother ran track races in school, but it wasn’t considered a pastime for grown women. My mum jogs every day, but she claims it’s just to keep fit and she doesn’t race – I’m trying to change that! That’s not to say they don’t care about fitness – you’ll often find gaggles of older women going for a stroll or doing tai chi together. And some of them are very fit indeed. My parents’ generation (the baby boomers) is also more into running than the previous one.
Holly – Everyone is running (more younger and middle aged than older, obviously), but the longer the distance, the higher the ratio of men:women. People tell me there’s still some social/societal stigma surrounding women doing hard-core exercise (getting sweaty, etc) – I’ll admit that I haven’t noticed much difference between Singapore and the US, but I primarily work with and surround myself with folks who are already running.
As a female runner, is safety an issue for you when running?
Grace – In Singapore, I feel perfectly safe. Singaporeans are generally very polite, reserved and well-behaved (at least, they will keep their thoughts and remarks to themselves…or to social media). A woman out jogging on her own is not going to be catcalled or whistled at.
Holly - It’s really, really safe. Singapore is a ridiculously safe country, period. I describe this way: I could get in a taxi alone, ask the driver to drop me anywhere, then run home – and not worry about running through a “bad” neighborhood. It is SAFE here – and there are people out everywhere, almost all the time. I have never been whistled at or cat-called here AT ALL – even when wearing something smallish or tightish. Guys may watch (I see their heads/eyes turn), but there are never any lewd comments. This contributes to my feeling of safety while running out here.
What do women tend to wear when they run?
Holly – Most of the women here run in shorts & a short-sleeved shirt. Some wear tanks (UK – vest top). Very few run in just a sports bra. I typically wear shorts and a tank, but will sometimes go with just a sports bra, depending on when and where I’m running. If I’m running trails and don’t think I’ll need the shirt to wipe my face, I may go in just a bra. However, I have to run past some outdoor eating areas to get to the trails, and if I’m wearing too little, I feel a bit self-conscious. But that’s me, no one has ever said anything to me. I will note, though, that the more traditional Muslim women do still run and race in while fully covered, in pants sometimes even with a long skirt on top, and hajibs. It’s quite awesome.
Are women catered by the Singaporean running industry?
Holly – Apparently, the importers and sellers haven’t yet figured out that lots of women are running and (gasp!) also want to look cute. For example, Lululemon opened 2 small showrooms in the last year, and now I see women wearing Lulu anywhere that women are working out. There’s simply no one else bringing in that kind of gear for women.
Grace – There aren’t really any shops here that are dedicated specifically to women’s running, alas. I think it’s an under-served niche. Most of us just end up buying things from Amazon and shipping them over, or shopping when we travel.
What is racing like in Singapore
Grace - Races will sell out or close MONTHS in advance. For last year’s Safra Singapore Bay Run and Army Half Marathon – that’s one event with a 21K and a 10K – 46,000 people showed up.
Holly - Most are sponsored by a big name in running shoes or apparel (Brooks, Adidas, Nike), and executed by a local event production company. A few have banks or other large corporations as headline sponsors. There are very few small, local, fundraiser races. Most distances are 10K or more, and a third marathon was added to the race calendar this year. (See below Re: Distances people race). Short races are slightly more expensive than in the US (~$35 USD), but the longer races (half, full) are pretty comparable.
There is one main area in Singapore that is wide and free from traffic (along the waterfront downtown), and near to large congregating spaces. There is approximately one road that the government will agree to close for a race. Virtually every long race – and many of the shorter runs – are done along some slight variation of this course. (Racing here can get boring fast.) Races are huge – usually thousands of people (2,000-4,000 for smaller races; the larger multi-distance events can have up to 40,000). Start times are early (4-5 AM for longer distances), starting pens are packed, not separated by pace, and HOT. The same guy works the mic at virtually every race I’ve attended. People don’t line up by pace (this happens in the US, but it’s worse here), so if I don’t arrive early enough to get at the very front, I spend much of the race dodging people. Courses are often routed over narrow bridges and paths, and bottlenecks are common. Aid stations frequently run out of water and/or electrolyte beverages. Finish areas tend to be packed and sometimes chaotic. Having said all that, I love seeing people out being active – and of course, I am so glad to see the running community growing.
Interestingly, volunteers are usually local students fulfilling mandatory or extra credit volunteer hours, so they do their jobs as best they can, but aren’t runners and often make mistakes (lead runners have been mis-directed, or allowed to run off the wrong way, by misinformed or uncertain volunteers – in at least 2 races that I know of!). They also don’t really know how to cheer. Spectators are rare (see: early start), so courses tend to be very quiet.
Side note: swag bags are called “Runner’s Entitlement”, and are a VERY BIG THING here. Most include a technical shirt (you get before the race), and some other goodies. Runners LOVE these bags, and you should have seen the wrath unleashed when a run at the Singapore Zoo exchanged a stuffed plush toy for something else (I forget what) in the Entitlement. Folks were quite furious.
Final note: Registration works VERY different from in the US:
- Race dates are released 3-5 months in advance.
- Sign up are open until 1-2 months before the race date. (NEVER any day-of registration – EVER)
- Packet pick-up occurs 1-2 weeks before the event (sometimes special consideration is made for folks traveling here to run). (NEVER any day-of packet collection).
- Thanks to this, buying/selling of bibs is officially prohibited but occurs often, even on public websites/forums.
What kind of races do you like?
Grace - Most of the time I look for small, local races. I just volunteered at an overnight ultramarathon with 200 participants.
Holly – I’m pretty lukewarm about most of the races I’ve done here, although I did really like the Yellow Ribbon Run (here’s my race report) – it’s one of the few fundraisers, it’s run in a totally different location, and organization was decent.
Is Trail Running popular in Singapore?
Holly - Yes, but the trail running here is pretty tame. The most notable bit are the monkeys, which are always fun to watch, and almost guaranteed to be spotted during a trail run. :) There are a few rooty or rocky areas – although what seems to happen is someone will fall in such a spot, complain to the parks association or publish a complaint in the newspaper, and shortly thereafter, that section is filled in with gravel. Kinda takes the fun out of it. In general, Singaporeans (through no fault of their own) have grown up in a city, and act like it. They like to be out in nature, but complain about tree roots. I ran a race along a grassy stretch that used to contain railroad tracks, and many of the participants were upset/worried that there were a few slightly muddy sections. Periodically, people get “lost” in the tiny section of forest in the middle of the island. There are some die-hard trail lovers, though – and those folks (including myself) do our best on the island, and happily escape to run trails in Hong Kong or New Zealand whenever possible! :)
Grace – Yes, BUT. Because Singapore is so small and doesn’t have a lot of trails, what trails we do have are very, very well-pounded and super busy on weekends. I like to run on the MacRitchie Reservoir trail, an 11km loop around a reservoir, and on the Rail Corridor trail, a disused railway line with the tracks removed.
Because Singapore is in the tropics, it has incredible biodiversity. There are more species here in one tiny island than in much larger parts of North America. You’ll find pangolins, tree frogs, freshwater crabs, colugos etc in the nature reserves here. I once saw a real live pangolin scuttling across the trail on an early morning run!
Can I plead with runners not to go off-trail or run on trails at night in Singapore? Runners may chafe at being barred from certain areas, but what they don’t realise is WHY: when they run in protected nature reserves at night or go off-trail, they really do affect and endanger wildlife here. Some animals are nocturnal and don’t take kindly to being disturbed at night. In some cases, if you run through a freshwater stream, the stream gets silted up which can affect fish, frogs and other wildlife. For that reason I won’t do an overnight trail run, it just goes against my nature lover principles! Fortunately, there are a lot of other parks and paths to run on.
What’s popular in terms of gear?
Holly – Running doesn’t require much gear, but even a pair of sneaker will set you back ~$160 USD (or more!). Runners do love the newest coolest shoes, though – and the trends seem pretty similar to those in the US. For example, recent launches by Brooks and Adidas were pretty similar in timing and content in both countries. Singapore is a very affluent country, so although the population is small, it’s not a bad place in Asia for companies to market expensive gear. Really, the most notable things about gear are the price, and the limited selection. Most of the brands are similar to those in the US – there are a few others that are local, but they aren’t that amazing . There is also some nice stuff that comes out of Australia & New Zealand (I discovered wool Icebreaker gear here, for example), but not tons.
What trends are taking off within Singaporean running?
Holly – Running more. Running longer. Singaporeans have, in general, incredible mental fortitude, and an intense desire to succeed at everything they do. This leads to some dangerous running habits that drive me utterly crazy as a running coach. For example, there aren’t many 5Ks here, and I firmly believe one of the reasons is that people don’t ask/demand it. They are quite confident that, without any training, they can go out and run a 5K. Even 10K and half-marathons aren’t that big a deal. People want to know if you’ve run a marathon. It helps that the first super popular race here was a marathon. Lots of people under train, then go out and run 42K – walking, hobbling, whatever it takes to get to the finish line. Race finish times here are probably some of the slowest in the world (I intend to do a thorough numerical study at some point, but don’t have hard data now) – average marathon finish is probably about 5.5-6.5 hours. Granted, heat plays a role – but so does massive undertraining. On one hand, I give the Singaporeans kudos for their mental strength – but kinda want to smack them upside the head for their lack of preparation. (Of course, there are runners, and training groups, that do prepare thoroughly and properly.) But what happens when 5K and 10K aren’t noteworthy distances? The whole spectrum shifts, and suddenly people who want to do more…enter the ultra world. There are lots of informal – and a few formal – ultra runs. Based on what I’ve seen, I only expect to see this grow.
What do Singaporean runners use to fuel when running?
Holly – Similar products to the US. I can find my favourites (Honey Stingers) here, along with other common products. But like apparel, selection is less and cost is higher (up to $3.50 for a packet of Honey Stinger chews). Good thing customs doesn’t mind that we bring back several boxes of chews on each trip back to the US.
And for hydration?
Holly – Given the heat and humidity, this is obviously an issue – and there are actually a few local electrolyte beverages that are much more common (and cheaper and slightly less sweet) than Gatorade including Pocari Sweat (Cat’s note: I drank that in Japan purely for the name) and 100Plus. 100Plus is carbonated which makes it impossible for me to drink while running, but those bubbles are a deliciously refreshing thing at the end of a run. That said, I rely heavily on salt tabs for keeping my electrolytes replenished.
If you could encourage a traveller to do any Singaporean race, which would it be?
Holly – Good question! As I mentioned previously, most of the races are run along a similar route. And although this route gets boring for regulars, for any visitor, it’s a great view of the downtown area. That said, given the organizational issues I’ve experienced, I can’t strongly recommend one race over another. Just sign up, arrive early, and prepare for a bit of chaos. Also, if you’re just visiting, choose a 5K or 10K. There’s no reason to stress your un-acclimated body to a half-marathon!!
Who are the running heroes in Singapore?
Grace – One of my favourite runners is Dr Mok Ying Ren, who won the marathon at the last South-East Asian Games last year, and is trying to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. I hope he makes it!
Holly – Singaporeans don’t glorify sports heroes in the way Americans do – for children, athletics take time away from their studies. So although kids might play a team sport in school, the majority of their time is spent on academics. Athletics aren’t a viable career option, even for the most talented. I think people look up to folks who do really crazy things such as Jeri Chua a lady who is doing a multi-day stage race through Italy (the Tor des Geants)
Cat’s note – Both ladies mentioned these next two inspiring people!
2. These guys, who ran the Marathon des Sables to raise money for shelter dogs;
3. Ah Siao, a local guy who runs marathons dragging a tire, and just ran 31 marathons in 31 consecutive days, to raise money for the Bone Marrow Donor Program (‘Ah Siao’ isn’t his real name – it’s a nickname that means something like ‘crazy’ in one of the local Chinese dialects)
How does social media and the internet play a part in the Singapore running community?
Grace – A lot of the action is on Facebook. In terms of websites to check out, Running Guild puts on a lot of community events and Running Shots are a photography collective who volunteer and provide their race photos free of charge.
Holly – Lots of little communities, forums, FB, Twitter, etc. Not tons of bloggers with new/innovative content, and from my experience everyone is loyal to whatever fits him/her best. Nothing crazy.
What are the best and worst things about running in Singapore?
Grace – The best thing is the running community. People are incredibly generous, friendly, and welcoming. Next best thing is the huge network of paths and park connectors to run on. You’ll find them in almost any neighbourhood, around the reservoir or alongside the canal.
The worst thing is the heat! A few weeks ago I ran a 5K that started at 5pm. And it was something like 32 or 33 degrees Celsius (about 90F). I broke a sweat just walking to the start line. Once you learn to deal with the heat (and I am still afraid of the heat), you will be a much, much tougher runner. But always wear sunscreen.
Holly - Worst: Humidity! Singapore is classified as tropical rainforest climate – average temps are 80-95*F, average humidity about 70-80%; so it’s HOT and HUMID. The body acclimates, but it’s very hard for me to challenge my previous PRs, simply because hot weather is more stress on the body. Plus, dealing with sweat in eyes, soaking wet sneakers (from sweat running down legs), associated chafing (that no amount of Body Glide will save), and simply staying sufficiently hydrated/salted is its own task/challenge.
Best: Well, I suppose the heat/humidity is a double-edged sword, because while my friends in Upstate NY were tromping through snow, freezing their nosehairs, and wearing sixteen layers…I was still gallivanting about in shorts & tank. :) Also, I get an amazing speed boost when I travel and run/race in lower humidity!
Ladies, thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this post when your lives are so busy. You can (and should) follow both their blogs – Grace’s is HERE and Holly’s is HERE and they are on Twitter – Grace HERE and Holly HERE!
For other Running The World interviews, click here.