SINGAPORE — The thought of running more than three hours did not sound very appealing.
But Singapore’s former SEA Games rowing gold medallist Saiyidah Aisyah Mohamed Rafa’ee decided to try and qualify for the 2020 Boston Marathon anyway – and she did it, with a time of 3 hours 27 minutes and 2 seconds.
The first and only rower to represent Singapore in the Olympics during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the 31-year-old has relocated permanently to Boston in June, and got married to American Ross Zuckerman in October.
And she caught the marathon bug during one of her visits to her now-husband in April. They were watching this year’s Boston Marathon together when Zuckerman casually remarked that she could probably qualify for it.
Took up challenge without hesitation
At that point, the longest distance Aisyah had ever ran in her life was only a half-marathon, but she took up the challenge without hesitation.
“I never wanted to do a marathon but the Boston Marathon 2020 will be held on my birthday (20 April), and I like to do something crazy on my birthdays. I like to prove to myself that growing older doesn’t necessarily mean I cannot race anymore,” she told Yahoo News Singapore.
As participation for the Boston Marathon, one of the six prestigious World Marathon Majors, is only via qualification, Aisyah signed up for the Beantown Marathon, an official qualifying race at Bare Cove Park in the town of Hingham, Massachusetts.
That race was in July, meaning she had only three months to train for it.
Aisyah falls under the 18-34 age group, and the normal qualifying standard for that group is 3hr 30min. However for the 2020 race, the accepted qualification time was 1min 39sec faster, which means Aisyah needed to hit 3:28:21 or below.
Despite the odds being stacked against her, Aisyah responded with the kind of grit that earned her a memorable rowing gold medal during the 2013 SEA Games in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
“During the six-loop Beantown Marathon, I had a target time to meet for every loop. I got to see Ross on every loop, so that helped a lot,” she recalled.
“I felt really good for the first 30km, but the last 12km was so hard. I think that’s what people call ‘hitting the wall’. I’ve never experienced anything like that before; it was a different kind of pain compared to what I’ve felt in rowing.”
Elation, then dread at qualifying
Sensing that she was suffering in the final stages, Zuckerman jumped in to pace Aisyah for the last two loops (personal pacers were allowed for the race), and she eventually finished in 3:27:02.
“I wasn’t really expecting to qualify because in previous years, those who qualified had to be at least five minutes below the qualifying mark. My time was only three minutes faster, but they accepted more runners for 2020, so I got in,” she said.
“At first I was excited, then I was filled with dread the thought of having to run another marathon. However, I heard that some people take years to qualify for the Boston Marathon and it is a huge expense to come out from Singapore, so I reminded myself to be grateful that I am living here and earned this opportunity to race.
“Boston also carries a lot of history, being the world’s oldest annual marathon since 1897, so the more I read up about it, the more I started to appreciate and embrace it.”
Still involved in rowing
Despite her qualifying feat, Aisyah has no intentions of switching her focus to running entirely though.
She is currently taking an Advanced Certification for Rowing Leadership at Community Rowing Inc, a non-profit rowing club in Boston. The programme is designed to impart the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to be a master rowing coach.
She has also got back into the boat recently with a team of nine masters women (aged between 27 and 70) and raced in the Head Of The Charles Regatta.
“I used to compete in the single scull individual event. This time, in a crew team, you’re rowing with other people so it feels nice having a team to train with and seeing these older women train is just very inspiring,” she said.
“Training is not as hard as they used to be when I was training for the Olympics but I am trying to avoid going back to that life because there are other areas in my life I want to focus on right now.”
Planning to study sports psychology
So what’s next after the 2020 Boston Marathon?
Aisyah is thinking of getting back to triathlons, or trying out cross-country skiing. Or she may even a non-sports-related challenge.
“My life will continue to progress; I want to make sure I keep learning and growing and not stay stagnant. I’m also planning to further my studies in sports psychology because I feel that it is such an essential part of sport that hasn’t been given as much importance as it deserves,” she said.
“After the Olympics, I’ve been constantly trying to find the next big challenge. I’ve been trying out different sports to maintain my fitness, but any race I joined wasn’t as big as the Olympics, and will never be.
“I realised that the next big challenge doesn’t even have to be sports-related. Instead, I challenged myself to become a better person, read more, travel more and do more non-sporty stuff.”
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