1. You’ve said that “Life is like a marathon” and if you look at how far you’ve already ‘run’, what would you say you are most grateful for, and what are some challenges you’ve overcome and also learnt important lessons from?
I am grateful for all the support I have from my family and friends who have been with me on this journey. When I first announced my 3 year campaign, including one year of no pay leave, to attempt to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in 2012, I was met with much resistance from some of my peers and colleagues. Many felt that the one year of no pay leave will set me back very much in my medical career which is highly competitive. However, my family and close friends encouraged me to do so and I am grateful for that.
I think one of the key challenges I had to overcome was the social mindset and peer pressure. It is no surprise that in Singapore collegiate sports are at a much lower standard than our secondary school sports scene. This is because of the sudden increase in freedom and social activities. As a student athlete, it was tough to stay focused on the task when not many are beside you with the same goals. This is a challenge that will be faced by every generation of athletes in Singapore until we are able to develop a strong collegiate sports system like in Japan or the USA where there will be more athletes gunning for the same goals.
Another challenge that I have been forced to face are injuries. Unlike other goals such as academics and career, there is almost no risk in studying harder or working harder. Even though working too hard may not be good for your mental health, one will not get a brain injury from studying too hard.This is in contrast to sports where sometimes training more or training harder does not give you guaranteed success as the irony is that one may get injured from training too hard. I have been rather unfortunate to be sidelined for almost a year in June 2014 to June 2015 due to a shin injury. That was a huge blow to my preparations.
2. What is a typical day in your life like right now, as you are training to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016?
Currently I am training in Boulder, Colorado with the Boulder Track Club. My coach is Lee Troop, a three-time olympian in the Marathon event for Australia. I usually wake up at about 6:20am and have my breakfast. After about an hour, I will have my first training session which usually lasts for about 2 hours.
Thereafter, I will spend some time studying as I am also doing a distance learning course (Masters in Sports Medicine) with the University of Queensland, Australia. I will then cook my own lunch at about 11:30 which consists of a huge bowl of salad, rice and eggs. I will then take an hour nap after my lunch. At about 3pm, I will head out for my second training session which lasts about 90minutes.
In the evening, I will have dinner with my house mates. Then more studying or reading and preparation to sleep! The cycle repeats on a daily basis. A lot of time is spent preparing for each training session which consists of getting sufficient sleep and good nutrition.
3. What, to you, is “good goal-setting”?
A good goal is a goal that is achievable but challenging at the same time. One needs to do a thorough evaluation on where he is and the resources available around him to help him achieve the goal. For example, in 2012, I wanted to aim to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 for the marathon event. I then had a best time of 2hr 26min and to qualify for the Olympics, I would need to run 2hr 17min. To shave off 9 minutes is challenging but not unheard off. I have read of runners who had improved that much in a few years and I was positive that I could do it.
I had confidence in my motivation to run when I was working (I was working as a house officer then and will need to also serve my national service in 2013-2015). It was something that could be achieved if all the stars are aligned but as I mentioned, you also need to take into account the nature of your profession and whether simply working hard can lead you to your goals.
4. You recently injured your eye, and what surprises me is that you went for a 40-minute run instead of heading straight to a doctor or hospital first. What made you do that?
Indeed, on hindsight, I think it was a silly thing to do. However, I think this is not uncommon among competitive athletes like myself who can be stubborn at times. We are known to train through pain and discomfort and perhaps we are very positive as well that nothing very bad can happen! Instead what was on my mind was to get the last run for the week in and hope that perhaps the blurriness in my vision may go away after a relaxing run. I will not encourage anyone to do what I did.
5. Did thoughts/fears of not being able to see after that accident cross your mind? What would be the ‘worst case scenario’ for you, and what do you think would be your response to that?
Yes. During that short run right after the accident, I thought of my career. I had been selected to begin training in Orthopaedic Surgery in July 2016. I was sure that being blinded in one eye, which is the worse case scenario, I would not be able to perform surgery as depth perception would be very much affected. But I thought to myself that I could perhaps still do Sports Medicine as a specialty which does not involve surgery and still survive. Perhaps it was natural for me to try to think positive but at the same time prepare for the worst. And I told myself losing vision in one eye is not as bad as being totally blind!
6. You are a pretty rare example of a local sporting talent who is strongly supported by various sponsors, and you even appear in commercials too. What are the reasons for your success in this aspect, and have you thought about ‘giving back’ to the local sporting scene in future?
I think the key to garnering sponsorships is to give back to the local sporting scene on a regular basis from the get go, which I am already involved in. I do pro bono running clinics with running events, schools and the community and I strongly advocate sports and exercise to keep one healthy.
I relate well with student athletes and have given multiple talks at junior colleges on key aspects of juggling sports and studies. With some of my friends, I have also set up the Run to Walk movement which is to encourage people to invest in their health through running and we have a free weekly 4.8km run at Bedok Reservoir.
Due to my ability to connect with the community, sponsors then want to come into the picture to support my dreams and not the other way round. My next goal is to pursue my dreams in specialising in Sports Surgery which will take me another 8-10 years. Thereafter, I would be excited to serve the local sports community in a different way.
Mok Ying Ren is a marathoner, doctor and an ambassador of BRAND’S Essence of Chicken. He is a two-time SEA games gold medalist in the triathlon and marathon events and is currently taking time off as an orthopaedic surgery resident to pursue his Olympic dream in the marathon event.
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