By Adeline Wong and Inez Tan

On 25 March 2014, the RI Cross Country team made history by sweeping four team titles (Girls’ A Division, and Boys’ A, B and C Division golds) at the National Inter-School Cross Country Championships—a win unrivalled in the sport’s 55-year history in Singapore. Yet this win was not altogether unexpected—in fact, one could say that it has been 13 years in the making.

The journey began in 2001, when Mr Steven Quek (RJC, 1985) became the coach of the RJC Cross Country team. ‘When I first started, the group was very small,’ he recalled. ‘For the first two years, we were trying very hard to get into the top four positions. The other Junior Colleges were already quite established; they had been doing well every year.’ Nevertheless, the team persevered and their efforts were rewarded with their first team gold (Girls’ A Division) in 2003 and their first double team gold in 2004, and for the last ten years, the Year 5–6 team has maintained a consistently excellent showing at the Championships.

The Year 1-6 Cross Country team
The Year 1-6 Cross Country team

Although the Year 1–4 boys only came under Mr Quek’s wing much later in 2011, the team has actually been moulded by his philosophy for a much longer time before that. In 2005, Mr Steven Quek was approached by teacher-in-charge Mr Vincent Quek (currently Assistant Department Head, Sports) to train the team, but was unable to accept the offer due to prior teaching commitments. Instead, he recommended his former student, Mr Steven Lim (currently Assistant Department Head, Sports Science & Research) for the job: ‘We have a similar approach to training, and since the Year 1–4 boys would eventually join my Year 5–6 team, I thought it would be good to have my own student training them.’ Mr Quek eventually took over from Mr Lim after he left to pursue his postgraduate studies, and in 2011, the C Division boys won their first ever gold medal since the National Schools Cross Country Championships started keeping records in 1971.

It should come as no surprise that a gruelling training programme is a major ingredient of the Cross Country team’s success. While the team trains three times a week, which seems infrequent when compared to other school teams which train up to ten times a week during competition season, they make up for it by scaling up the intensity of their training. Heng Yu Jie (14S06N), captain of the Year 5–6 boys’ team, described a typical training session: ‘Our warm-ups are 20 minutes around the field, and they include running drills. After that, we do interval training, jog for a minute, and then we repeat the process again. We go for long runs every week too. The distance we run gets progressively longer as we get fitter—8, 10, 12 then 14km. The stronger ones even progress to 18 or 21km. The fittest girls could progress to 15km as well.’

A Division Girls' team
A Division Girls’ team

But the runners don’t take long breaks during the off-season either—as running is an aerobic sport, consistency is key to maintaining a high level of performance. Even a two-week break is enough to cause a dip in fitness levels, so the students continue to maintain their thrice-weekly training schedule during the holidays. The highlights of their holiday training include the ‘Christmas Race’, and the ‘New Year’s Race’—every year, Mr Quek thinks of interesting ways for the runners to do their workout and have fun at the same time.

This sounds tough to the uninitiated, but Mr Quek explained, ‘To me, the heart does not know it is Christmas; the muscles do not know it is Christmas. There are already quite a few interruptions in our training programme—we have a 10-day post-Nationals rest period, and we also have breaks for exams, family trips and camps. If our training slot happens to fall on Chinese New Year or Christmas Day, we won’t train on that day itself, but we can always shift it the day before, or the day after. We must be prepared to make this adjustment. We now have a tradition of holding a Christmas Race on Christmas Eve, and after the training we’ll have a makan session and then a lucky draw, and everybody gets to go home with a present.’

And for the most part, the runners themselves appreciate Mr Quek as a strict but well-meaning coach. ‘We have a culture of discipline,’ said Mary-Lisa Chua (14S06H), Year 5–6 captain of the girls’ team. ‘Sometimes it might feel like he’s asking too much from us, but that’s because we’re still young; he sees the bigger picture that we can’t see yet. You can also choose to focus on the better things about the trainings, like how it’ll make you faster, how you won’t get fat, or how you’ll get to sleep really well at night.’

And that discipline has paid off in spades. While the A Division runners have regularly brought home the golds for the past decade or so, this year’s National Inter-School Cross Country Championship marked the first time the B and C Division teams won double medals as well.

A Division Boys’ team
A Division Boys’ team

Tan Chong Qi (4I), the Year 1–4 Cross Country captain, claimed the B Division individual gold medal, clocking a personal best of 14 minutes and 26.7 seconds over the 4.3km route. ‘I was able to break away from the pack after the 600m mark,’ said Chong Qi. ‘My strategy was to chiong to the front and not let anyone touch me. I just ran away from them.’

Yu Jie’s and Mary-Lisa’s results had more of a surprise element. Leroi Lee from Anglo-Chinese Junior College led the A Division boys for most of the race and looked set to win, but Shohib Marican (15S07D) overtook him in the last 500 metres, followed by Yu Jie in the last 100 metres, cementing a 1-2 win by Raffles. For Yu Jie, this latest result completed his sterling record of podium finishes across the six years he has competed—3rd-2nd-3rd-1st-2nd-2nd—putting him up alongside the most dominant cross country runners of the noughties (2000–2009).

Mary-Lisa shared that she wasn’t expecting to win at this year’s championship. ‘I thought Adeline Bee (14S03U), our only other Year 6 runner, would win. But this year, I was running with this NJC girl, and she was trying to overtake me at the windiest part. That got me a bit miffed. I figured that I would hide behind her, and let her block the wind. After that, there was a stretch with lots of supporters—all from NJC, all shouting her name. I got really irritated, and willed myself to overtake her. Then I came upon the stragglers from the previous B Div race, and I overtook them and found myself getting encouraged. After that I saw Adeline, and all I could think was, “Why is she getting closer? This doesn’t usually happen.” So I overtook her as well.’ Mary-Lisa went on to finish first for the Girls’ A Division, with a personal best time of 14:21 over the 3.6km course.

While many view cross country solely as an endurance sport that tests mental resilience and celebrates the triumph of mind over matter, it in fact involves a great deal of calculation and strategy. ‘It’s a mind game. We play in our heads and then we run,’ Yu Jie grinned.

B Division Boys’ team
B Division Boys’ team

The beginning of every race is important. After the whistle is blown the runners separate into two or more packs, and the front pack is made up of all the competitors who are fighting to win. If one does not stick to the front pack from the beginning, his chances of winning are slim. Raffles Cross Country also participates in other races held before the championship, so the runners can analyse their performances and set new goals. But regardless of the intensity of the competitions, the captains say that they feel a sense of security as long as they can see their team mates running with them. Perhaps this is especially so as the members of all three divisions usually train together—the runners are all banded according to their speeds instead of their age group, with some of the A Division girls training with the C Division boys, for example. Mr Steven Quek, Year 5–6 teacher-in-charge Mr Tay Meng Kiat, and, occasionally, alumni of Raffles Cross Country also join in, helping to pace the different groups.

‘Running with others with a similar pace can give one more confidence and reassurance,’ Mr Tay explained. ‘Having someone to run with you when you’re tired and push you on is important because even when you don’t believe in yourself, you can at least believe the person who’s helping you can manage the pace and follow him. It makes a lot of difference when you are close to your personal limit; it helps you pull through, and you all improve as a group.’

Another benefit borne out of this arrangement is the strengthening of bonds between the juniors and their seniors. When the seniors share their experiences with their juniors, and describe how they succeeded in the face of challenges, juniors feel more confident of doing the same.

C Division Boys’ team
C Division Boys’ team

Mr Tay, who has been the team’s teacher-in-charge for the past ten years, also expressed his happiness and gratitude towards the alumni who continue to lend their support to the juniors even after their graduation. He recounted how the team members that participated in the Track and Field meet of 2009 had fought hard for the Boys’ A Division title, even though they were still trailing behind a rival team by on the last day of the competition. ‘No one expected us to win, but the students really gave it their all and fought hard for every single point and position. By the last event, we were winning by a slim margin of three points,’ he said. ‘It’s a really good feeling to see people like them helping others to succeed.’

Raffles Cross Country has the privilege of actually being coached by one such Rafflesian alumnus who has faced numerous challenges himself—Mr Steven Quek (RJC, 1985). In RJC Mr Quek had joined both Athletics and the Lion Dance troupe, but his lack of time-management skills at that time eventually took a huge toll on his studies.

‘I was struggling to cope when I was in RJC; the exams and stress were so painful,’ he confided, wincing at the memory. ‘So when I became a coach, I understood the trials our students are up against. I wanted them to learn from my mistakes, and to study consistently and train consistently. I don’t want them to have to go through what I experienced.’

Mr Quek’s determination to impart to his students the importance of skills like time management and discipline led to him writing the first edition of his book, Excel in Sports and Studies—You Can Do It!, in 1999. It has since gone through several revisions, with the latest published in 2012 under the title The Student-Athlete’s Handbook.

‘Every year I tell different students the same things—and sometimes, the same students the same things—so why not write a book?’ he laughed. ‘There’s no big secret behind the Cross Country team’s big win this year. I always emphasise the importance of eating healthy and sleeping early to my students. We all know “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, and the Chinese saying “Early to bed, early to rise”, but putting it into practice is another thing. Commitment, time management, prioritisation—these are real values that will help you in life. This is what we want to teach our students, and this is why we participate in CCAs.’

Mr Tay agreed. ‘I think this is what they are supposed to bring back from their running experience: motivation and determination, and that helps them do well in their studies. When you work with students in a CCA context, you get to see different sides to them that you cannot possibly perceive in an academic classroom. And as you gain a more balanced view of the demands that are placed upon them as a student of this school, you can refine the way you approach them in class, and try to ease them through the competition period. It’s easy to tell the students that they should be focused and disciplined, to go home after training at 7pm and be well-rested and complete their assignments and still wake up the next day for tomorrow’s class… it’s not impossible, but it is tough. We try our best to monitor the students and guide them along the way.’

Clockwise from top: Mr Steven Quek (in white), Mr Vincent Quek, and Mr Tay Meng Kiat (bottom right)
Clockwise from top: Mr Steven Quek (in white), Mr Vincent Quek, and Mr Tay Meng Kiat (bottom right)

Mr Tay almost always runs with his students during their training sessions, but it might come as a surprise to many to learn that he didn’t always have a penchant for running.

Mr Quek smiled as he recalled Mr Tay’s first session with the team as their new teacher-in-charge. ‘He came, carrying his backpack with his sandals, and I said, “Mr Tay, join us! Bring your shoes and run with us!” He replied, “Mr Quek, the longest distance I’ve ever run in my life is 2.4km,”’ he said, laughing. ‘Meng Kiat wasn’t a runner but he has a positive attitude, so he joined in.’

‘Well, if you’re there you might as well do it,’ Mr Tay shrugged. ‘It’s better than just standing there and watching the students train; it’s best to make good use of your time and keep fit! It was very hard when I first started running with the students because I’m not athletic, but exercise is something that gets easier and more enjoyable when you do it regularly.’

Last year, nine years after joining Raffles Cross Country as teacher in charge, Mr Tay, former Year 1–4 Cross Country coach Mr Steven Lim, Mr Ngoh Shay Piao (who teaches Biology) and Mr Raphael Iluyomade (who teaches Philosophy) won the top team prize in the Singapore leg of the J P Morgan Corporate Challenge Championship. They went on to represent Singapore in the international leg of the Challenge, a 3.5 mile road race held in Rochester, New York on 21 May 2013. They came in 13th in the Men’s category with a collective time of 1:41:38.

‘Running can be very repetitive, so it may not be as appealing as games and team sports to some students; it requires a special sort of personality and personal drive,’ Mr Tay observed. ‘There are students from performing arts CCAs or uniformed groups that join us only in Year 5–6 and do well because they have the discipline and personality required for endurance sports.’

‘The Year 5–6 students are more motivated and mature, but some of the Year 1–4 students are still unsettled in their training. When they go home, they may have other distractions which take time away from resting and their revision. So our B and C Division win was a little unexpected, but we always knew that we had a chance. It was the belief that we could win that motivated everyone to chip in and put their heart into doing their best for the team. Although some were very fit and prepared while others were not in their top form, I think that doing it for the school, and doing it for your friends was what made all the difference.’