No one takes part in 100 marathon runs barefooted without earning some kind of legend. Of all the “titles” he has been conferred – and they can go from Wah Koh (brother Wah) to Wah Shuk (Uncle Wah) – Tan Wah Sing likes “sifu” best, “… because my feet are usually in the air as I run …,” not unlike a kung fu master.
The 60-year-old notched his landmark centennial at the Standard Chartered KL Marathon on Aug 7 last year, a feat his feet may never have envisioned when he embarked on this unconventional approach in his maiden shoeless marathon at the turn of the millennium, the 2001 International Penang Bridge Marathon. And he hasn’t looked back since.
Tan’s running escapades began almost accidentally, when an invitation from a buddy to hike Bukit Pelindung in Teluk Cempedak, Pahang, resulted in him realising how unfit he was.
“Before even reaching halfway up the hill, I was completely out of gas. And my friend commented that we still had a long way to go,” said the amiable Kuantan native (who still works in his beloved hometown but commutes to the Klang Valley where his family resides). At that point, he knew something had to give.
Like any other small town boy with ambitions to lead a decent existence, Tan’s trajectory in life took a relatively conventional path.
While in school, he barely had any interest in sports, though he took up table tennis (a typical Chinese school game, he acknowledges), and due to a paucity of players, inexplicably found himself representing the state in 1975.
“I remember looking at the name of my first-round opponent and thinking that it was a girl’s name. I thought, ‘Oh, ok, I might have a chance’. But it was a guy, and I was knocked out,” he hilariously recalled his brief but eventful stint in the sport.
School soon gave way to tertiary education, where he pursued engineering at the University Of Manchester, after which he returned to the country as a qualified civil engineer. “I was bonded to the government for two years, working for Water Works (Jabatan Bekalan Air),” he shared. When his bond wasn’t extended, Tan uprooted and headed to the nation’s capital seeking new pastures, eventually securing a job with a consultancy.
And while the boy can be taken out of Kuantan, Kuantan certainly can’t be taken out of the boy. He predictably found himself at odds with the pace of city life, with KL’s growing traffic jams contributing to his increasing stress levels.
“I was spending too much time on the road to and from work. And the working hours were long, too. Sometimes, I had to work full days on Saturdays as well. I had no time for exercise,” he said, outlining his hectic life.
Following his Bukit Pelindung misadventure, Tan vowed to make improvements in his life, particularly, seeing to his health more. He began running, initially, by the side of jogging tracks, away from prying eyes, and in badminton shoes, no less. Later, he joined the Hash House Harriers, quickly getting hip to the customary reward at the end – beer. Then, he enlisted to be part of a running group, where there was no “happy ending”, unlike his previous group.
His first competitive barefoot run was in 2000 at the Hyatt Charity Run in Kuantan, taking in a 10km route. “I realised that I could do 10km without much trouble.”
The Star’s PJ Half Marathon then came a-calling, where he even sustained an injury, but still saw the race through.
“The run offered medals for the first 50 who completed the race, but the year I took part, they offered 70 … and I was the 70th person to cross the line,” he shared beaming. “Back then, medals were so precious,” he said, attesting to his humble background.
After reading more about barefoot running, he became curious about it. While his engineering background may not have directly contributed to his knowledge and application of barefoot running, he has definitely benefited from the basic physics principles of “action and reaction, traction, friction and even aerodynamics”.
“Running shoes were originally designed for sprinting. But in long distance running, due to fatigue, a runner’s posture tends to change around the halfway mark. The main thing is to land on the forefoot,” he explained, revealing that the natural reflex of the human foot suits this action better. After all, man roamed the earth for thousands of years barefooted and did just fine.
In the course of his running adventures, he has faced resistance. Organisers have attempted to bar him from races, fearing injury on his part. But invariably, they allow him to run in the end.
However, injury has been a problem, especially in the early days.
“I ran on different kinds of terrain to condition my feet. Of course, pebbles and twigs have pierced my soles, but I just remove them and continue running,” he offered, indicating a high threshold of pain.
With the more stubborn debris that lodge in his feet, he has an able attendant to remove them for him – his beloved wife, Susan Oon. “Doctors charge a lot of money to remove these things, so my wife uses a magnifying glass and tweezers, and does the job just as well,” he said with pride.
Tan has taken part in marathons around the world, from as close as local competitions, to those in Japan (Tokyo) and the United States (Boston, Chicago). At the Amsterdam Marathon, he ran a route which included a nightlife area, exposing him to broken glass on the road.
“Once I start running though, I just can’t stop. But what I do have to be careful of is, the injury becoming infected. And stepping on damp surfaces can easily transmit diseases,” he stated, fully aware of the hazards of his hobby.
He recommends would-be barefoot runners – apart from the obvious of conditioning their feet first – to study their routes and be careful when running, especially in the dark. “Go slow, if you have to.”
So, is he the bane of the running shoe industry’s existence?
“I don’t think so, but because of people like me, they have to offer better products,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
While he gleans much satisfaction from his achievement of running barefoot, what he enjoys most is the human interaction with other runners.
“They are always curious about how I do it, and many dialogues take place … and many friendships are formed that way.”
He might be treated like a potential criminal for walking into a supermarket here barefooted, seen as a prospective shoe thief, but in many places around the world, Tan is a bona fide superstar.
He’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to run barefooted, but he is certainly in an elite club which has rightfully earned him celebrity status. And long may he run for that.
The ultimate irony? His dad was a shoemaker!