Cell group leader and runner Jonathan Kang shares about how a dream fulfilled turned into a living nightmare.
Jonathan Kang, a 36-year-old who works at Credit Suisse, is a regular at the Standard Chartered Marathon as well as overseas marathons in Tokyo and Chicago. He is setting his sights on breaking the three-hour barrier for a full marathon.
Kang’s pursuit has not been without trouble: he suffered a near-fatal heat stroke in 2011, and was once knocked down by a motorcycle while training. But April 15, 2013 would mark this runner’s darkest moment yet.
Kang was one of 23,326 runners at the Boston Marathon, during which two bombs were detonated at Boylston Street near the finish line. The cell group leader from City Harvest Church shares his story with City News writer Terry Tan.
When did you start running?
I started back in my junior college days. I managed to get into the track and field team but I was very much in the reserve group. As a student at the National University of Singapore later on, I tried out for the varsity track and field team and participated in inter-club meets, but did not perform well as I didn’t have the speed to be a 200m or 400m sprinter.
What got you passionate about running?
When I was about to finish National Service, I went to join the SAFRA Running Club. That was in 1995 and running wasn’t a popular sport yet. My first weekday training session involved running 7km. It took me by surprise as I had never run such a long distance before! From there, I began to run more long distances and eventually, fell in love with the sport.
When was your first marathon?
The Singapore International Marathon in 1996. I managed to finish it in three hours and 42 minutes. It was a very tough run. After the race, I told myself that I was not going to run anymore … I’m actually paying money to experience pain! In fact, it left me limping for a few days. Still, I continued to run a marathon almost every year.
When was your first breakthrough in road races?
For almost 10 years, I saw little progress in my improvement. My race timing stagnated around 340 to 350. There was even one race where I did a four hours plus. Due to work commitments, I only trained twice a week.
In 2009, I completed the Standard Charted Marathon Singapore in 3 hours and 36 minutes. That was my first major breakthrough in road racing. I was surprised by the timing as I was much older by then.
When I came back the next year, I managed to clock in at 3 hours 26 minutes. It further motivated me to think beyond my current ability and consider running in overseas events.
What were some setbacks you experienced during training and racing?
During the 2011 Standard Charted Marathon, I thought the weather condition was cool and should be fine given that it had rained the previous day. However, I ignored the fact that there was high humidity due to the rain.
I was running at a fast speed, with my friend, Thow Wee, pacing me. I was on track to meet a 3:15 timing. At the 37km mark, I suffered a heat stroke after exiting the Marina Barrage section. I just collapsed on the pavement, badly dehydrated, and in pain and shock. The race doctor came and recommended that I be brought to the hospital as I was developing fits. So I was rushed to the Singapore General Hospital.
The heat stroke was a close death experience for me. It was also, unfortunately, the same year when one of the participants died after completing the 21km category. I probably should have taken more water during the event as I was pushing myself really hard under humid conditions.
At the hospital, I found out that my kidney was affected and an electrocardiogram (ECG) scan showed irregularity in my heartbeat. The doctor told me that if I were older by two or three years, I could have died.
That’s indeed some serious disappointment you have experienced. But after your DNF (short for ‘Did Not Finish’, a term commonly used when a runner fails to complete a race) at that race, when was it that you discover you could actually do better, like the paramount goal of breaking the sub-three hour barrier?
That happened when I ran the Tokyo Marathon in February 2012. I was very cautious this time, making sure I hydrated myself regularly throughout the race. To my surprise, I did a 309 timing which was enough to pass me through the Boston Marathon’s time qualification!
I realised if I had a more careful approach to racing, I’m still able to pursue my dreams. The event was really a good boost to my morale. In the same year, I took part in a few races just to prepare myself.
And are you are on track to meet your goals?
Well, one day after my birthday in September 2012 and about two and a half weeks before the Chicago Marathon, I met with a road accident while training. The incident occurred along Upper Thomson Road leading to Yio Chu Kang Road. I was hit by a motorbike as I was crossing a zebra crossing.
It was a direct impact on the left side of my body. Amazingly, about 20 X-ray scans showed that I did not suffer any fractures and dislocations, and the only damages were just bruises and superficial wounds. I was discharged the very same evening. I can only thank God for this miracle.
Did that mishap in any way affected your performance at Chicago?
For the following days before the race, I had to rest instead of resuming training. On race day, I was still feeling some pain due to the accident. But I managed to run a 308, a minute improvement over my record in Tokyo!
How did your faith in God play a crucial role in getting you through such unfortunate episodes?
It’s indeed not by my own strength but God’s grace and gift to me. I had experienced a heat stroke, met an accident and, yeah, escaped the Boston bombings. People can say that you are lucky when calamity strikes and you survive. Coincidence is when it happened again. But the third time? I believe it’s God’s grace. This can only be a supernatural intervention. After all, the Bible describes God as our Good Shepard. I realised, in the end, we need to have the ‘God’ factor in us.
Speaking of your qualification for Boston, a significant development occurred in February 2011 when the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced some major changes for race qualifications. These changes included lowering qualifying times and disallowing a 59-second grace for race records. The changes are expected to take effect from the 2013 edition which is the one you just completed. What was your response when it happened?
I was definitely surprised by the changes. The qualifying standards are already very stringent and by cutting off five minutes of the original timing requirements, the BAA had made it more challenging for people to enter the race. Previously, I had a three hours, 15 minutes and 30 seconds record which could have earn me a spot if the 59-second grace is allowed …
Did it, in any way, force you to readjust your training and race strategy?
To be honest, after the announcement of the changes, I nearly gave up the idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I went into Tokyo Marathon 2012 without any expectations. However, during the race, upon passing the 25km mark, I was still running at a reasonable pace. At 30km, I was convinced that I could finish the race in 310 if I maintained the effort. Three quarters to the end, I realised that qualifying for Boston is a very strong possibility. I made it through when I crossed the finish line in 309!
How was the general support from family members, friends, and running mates of your running and the rather daunting goals?
Throughout my running years, my wife, Vivi, has been incredibly supportive. She had accompanied me to races, even overseas events, and is also my cheerleader. When I was contemplating about receiving professional coaching, she encouraged me to go for it if I was serious about achieving my goals.
I’m very thankful to Vivi for her understanding. She even stays up and waits for me to come home when I embark on my late night runs.
The cell group has also been a tremendous source of support. All my members know that I’m into running, so every time there’s a race in town, they would be asking me if I’m joining. They know that I will attend StanChart year after year. In fact, for several years some of the members would come in the wee hours of the morning to support me at the start and end of the race.
There was this time during a meeting that we were supposed to set five-year goals for ourselves. I told them my goal is to complete the five Marathon Majors within the next five years. So after they knew that, they would send me off at the airport as I departed for Chicago and Boston.
I also find good support from my church friend and training partner, Thow Wee.
And lastly, there’s Pastor Aries Zulkarnian who always sends me his best wishes whenever I have an upcoming race.
How has running influenced or affected your personal handling of faith?
I believe what the Bible says that you have to prosper in mind, soul and body. To us, God should always be our priority. At the same time, we have to take care of our bodies and be happy. All these three are related and we should do well in each of them.
When I run, it helps my soul because I love what I’m doing and that makes me happy. Running also clears my thoughts and allows me to think about God. During my long runs, I reflect upon life, family, cell group, church and my own spiritual progress. It’s my way of connecting with Him and making prayers.
What lessons can you draw from running in doing ministry as a cell group leader?
One of the lessons is that it is possible for you to devote time to your passions and hobbies even when you are serving God or have family commitments. God wants us, as Christian athletes, to excel in our sports because in so doing, we can honor Him. Sports can also teach us humility and not taking things for granted.
I always tell my members that they can dream and it need not be about running. And just because you are involved in sports, it does not mean you have to cut back your commitments to God.
Another lesson can be learned from running uphill, for example. It’s a reflection of our spiritual walk. It is a long journey, not a sprint, and what should matter is longevity. We will fall at times. For me, I nearly lost faith in running but I never give up. You just got to hold on to your passion. If you are confident of what you want, you will press on.
As runners, we know that with every uphill, there will always be a downhill. When we overcome obstacles, it will become easier for us. It will make us stronger so that we can run better.
However, at the end of day, what matters most is our relationship with God and with our loved ones. Without God, nothing is possible.
In order to realise your dream, you enlisted the help of Murugiah Rameshon, one of Singapore’s top running coaches who also holds the historical record of being the country’s fastest marathoner. How did it go?
I was introduced to Coach Ram after my Hong Kong Marathon. During that period, I got to train with some good runners in his team like Ashley Liew, one of Singapore’s top marathoners, and my friend and fellow City Harvester, Thow Wee. I began to dream big and drew a lot of inspiration from them. However, due to work commitments, I was finding it hard to cope with the training schedule. I was with him for about six months.
You once stated that you only trained 60 to 70km weekly whereas elite marathoners are said to train about 100km and beyond. Is it also due to work commitments too?
Yeah, it is. I work daily and will sometimes finish around 8pm. There were days when I even had to work on weekends. I also need to spend time for cell group ministry and my family. With such busyness, I had to cut back on time spent on track training. I used to do speed work sessions every Mondays on the track.
The morning before the start of the Boston Marathon must have been a very exciting one. Describe the atmosphere.
All the runners gathered at the Boston Common, from where school buses then ferried participants to the start point at the Hopkinton High School. I’d never experienced such an incredible atmosphere for a marathon. People were wearing event jackets and T-shirts. Everyone on the bus was exchanging information and encouragement. At the start point, people were already doing warm-ups, looking as if they were running for the Olympics. I felt like I was in the presence of elites. It was thrilling.
Was there heavy security presence prior to the race?
Yeah, there was. There were patrolling soldiers and guard dogs around. It’s still puzzling how the bombing could have happened with all the precautions taken.
Did you get to mingle with some of the top-flight runners like Shalane Flanagan from USA, Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo or Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa?
No. These athletes were part of the elite wave, which were cordoned off from the rest of the participants. We were segregated in blocks and I was part of the first wave in the seventh corral.
CN Boston is commended for its dynamic supporters. Perhaps the most popular band of supporters is the famous Wellesley College Scream Tunnel. Do you feel that the energy from such an enthusiastic crowd somehow boosted your performance?
The stretch where the Wellesley College supporters gathered was around 200 metres. The supporters consisted mainly of female students. I was not so much affected by the cheering as I had my earphones on and relying more on music. I did not allow myself to be distracted and was focused on the race.
It’s a very interesting form of support though. Students were holding “Kiss Me!” placards and some runners, who were with me, had diverted to the side just to shake hands and hug the supporters, even to the extent of actually kissing the college girls!
How did you feel upon crossing the finishing line and meeting a personal best (PB) of 304.21?
I was more relieved than overjoyed that I had struck a personal best. My wife and I initially planned to stick around the finish point, but because it was so cold we decided to return to our hotel. We were happy that I had run my best timing, but that joy evaporated minutes later when we heard about the bombings. From that point on, thoughts of my race success just ceased to exist. It was no longer relevant. Now, if there’s one good thing about my timing, it is that it helped get us out of the events grounds earlier.
What was the general feeling among the Singapore contingent after the explosions?
I think everyone was relieved that none of them were affected, but our hearts went out to the victims.
How did you and your wife cope with the impact of the incident, spiritually, emotionally and mentally?
The bombing has made Vivi and I reflect a lot more on life. We constantly remind ourselves that God preserved our lives. During our time in Boston, we were thankful for His protection and we prayed for the victims and their families. We saw God’s common grace at work as people were united by the tragedy. I believe this is how He works in the background for the non-believers.
How did you cope with the flood of phone calls from home, including one from Channel News Asia, following the attack?
My wife and I were overwhelmed by love and concern that were upon us. We are glad that people are thinking about our welfare and safety.
Did you have any change of plans due to the attack?
My wife and I decided to leave the States on May 18, Thursday instead of the original departure date of May 19, Friday. Had we stuck to our initial plans, we could not have left the area due to the city lock-down to capture one of the bombing suspects.
Runner’s World editor-at-large Amby Burfoot, has described the bombing as an attack on the Bostonian community itself, not just acts of aggressions directed solely at the marathon and participants. As one of the runners, do you see the attacks as harm done against the marathoners and spectators or something beyond?
It definitely goes beyond. This is an attack on the general Bostonian community. I felt that the bombers had leveraged the popularity of the marathon in order to express their motives. As the event attracted participants from all over world, the perpetrators probably realised the wide international media coverage the bombings would garner.
Next year’s edition of the Boston Marathon will likely hold special significance for participants. Will you see yourself coming back to Boston?
Yes, I would want to qualify for Boston again. I want to run the race as the feeling will definitely be different from previous editions.
How do you feel God’s guidance helps you make decisions regarding your future running exploits?
All the recent incidents have reminded me to treasure my loved ones even more. God has called me never to take them for granted. As much as I wanted to take part in more races this year, I would also like to devote more time to God and family. I will probably concentrate on completing the Marathon Majors. After all, running is not everything.
Lastly, any words for runners of CHC?
Perseverance is the key to completing any marathon. Likewise, God wants us to endure, keep hanging on to Him, and not give up.
Running also parallels our Christian walk. We may think we are running alone but with every step we took, God is always with us. He is watching over every moment of our lives. Psalms 23 states that though we venture through the shadow of the valley of death, He will still lead us out and provide a way.
We don’t run alone. We run with God.