Young Runners
Brigitte Rozario 
Mark Williams coaching children at the running clinic.

A SMALL group of children stood in front of the coach. While some were trying their best to pay attention, others were already looking restless and glancing around.

Coach Mark Williams organised them in groups to race around the stadium at the Kompleks Sukan MSN Setiawangsa in Wangsa Maju. The children cheered each other on, one or two even running alongside their friends to encourage them to run faster.

Everybody wanted to do well even though it was just a clinic to prepare them for the upcoming Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur Marathon (SCKLM) Kids Dash on April 7. Unlike the scenario that we are used to these days, these kids would much rather run than play video games.

According to Williams, if a child likes to stay home and play video games and you let them do that, then they will carry on doing that. “You can’t just chuck them out the house and say ‘don’t do that’. You’ve got to structure it and it’s got to be about fun,” he said.

Williams should know. He is an Alice Smith School teacher and he has been the official running coach for SCKLM since its inception in 2009. His coaching clinics for children are all about fun and bite-sized information.

“Kids typically have an attention span of about 3.5 seconds. So, we do everything in short spans. We do bear crawls or snake crawls. They think they’re having fun but actually, they’re working their body. If you say we’re going to exercise, they won’t do it. But, if you say we’re going to crawl like a bear, they’ll love it.”

For some children, it is almost like a family outing as their parents are also racing the next day. Half marathon runner and full-time mum May Cheong has two kids in the race this year. She takes part in races almost every month. This is her daughter Yap Mun Ling’s first time. At seven years old, she will be running the 1km (only open to children aged six to nine). As for Cheong’s son Tian Jun, 11, this is his third year and he has graduated to the 3km (for those aged 10-12 only).

According to Cheong, both her children attend Chinese school and hence are very busy on weekdays. “The focus in school is academic studies. As such, we make it a point to keep weekends free for outdoor and physical activities,” she explained.

The siblings are excited – Tian Jun has never run 3km but he has been training hard, while Mun Ling is caught up in the competitiveness of the whole event and hopes for a good outcome.

In previous years, the adult races and kids’ event were held on the same day, making it tough for parents who are running as the timing is different for both. This year, the kids’ event has been upgraded to a proper event with each child getting timing sheets and it is even being held a day earlier. Cheong is looking forward to cheering on her kids this year instead of focusing on her own race.

While she was busy ensuring her kids were okay at the clinic that Saturday evening, businessman Wong Chee Wei was keenly observing his boys. There were no runners in his family before Roddick, eight, and Rafael, six, came along.

The two boys are naturally active. The older one plays badminton and even goes to neighbouring countries to participate in meets. His hero is national player Datuk Lee Chong Wei. The younger boy wants to do everything his older brother does, except he prefers running to badminton. His hero is Olympic champion Usain Bolt and he regularly scours YouTube for videos of the eight-time Olympic gold medallist.

Roddick is gunning for one of the top three spots. As Rafael is just starting out, he often asks his father: “How many kilometres? Do I still have to run some more? I don’t want to run 3km … very hard.”

Yet the youngster wants to race in the SCKLM Kids Dash because he wants to win a medal. He will have his work cut out for him seeing as he will be in the same category as Ahmad Aqiel Ahmad Budiman, who has won the event twice in previous years.

Aqiel, who turns 10 in May, is just a month shy of qualifying for the 3km race. So, instead, he is participating in the 1km, where he hopes to achieve a hat-trick by winning the top spot again. According to his mother, Elaine Mariman, he likes the thrill as well as the sense of achievement when he stands on the podium to receive his medal.

Aqiel is the youngest of three sons – the other two are 17 and 19 – and running is an activity the whole family enjoys.

“We sometimes go for running holidays overseas. My sons have always participated in running events at school. My husband is an ultra-marathoner – he runs 100km races,” admitted the stay-at-home mom. “In my case, I only started running when I turned 40 and since then, have completed two ultramarathons of 50km. Needless to say, I’m the slowest runner in the family. Aqiel can outrun me anytime.”

Her youngest son, who can run up to 10km and more, took up running when he started participating in school events for sports day. He recently took part in an aquathlon organised by his school where he had to swim 100m followed by a 1km run. He managed a podium finish.

The changes to the children’s race have been well received, says Gloria Ng, one of the directors of Dirigo Events, the SCKLM organiser. This year, all 500 spots were snapped up hours after registration opened. If the Kids Dash is a success this year, Dirigo may increase the number of young runners next year.

As a mum herself, Ng understands the task involved in keeping children active. “Maybe the best thing to do is to not give them gadgets. I have a six-year-old as well. It’s a struggle but thankfully he’s naturally an outdoorsy kid so it is less challenging for me.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 276.