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Prerna Singhpathom on how she hopes to empower women in the community through the sport of running

by Aiden

How it’s changed her life and those of her trainees.

By Ashima Sethi

When we were all put under house arrest during last year’s second COVID-19 wave, I’ll be honest when I say had run out of all patience to make anymore Dalgona coffees and freshly-baked bread. The Chloe Ting workouts weren’t hitting the same either, and so I decided to make use of the fact that the streets were relatively empty, and take up the sport of running just so I could be outside. What was supposed to be an escape from the mundane soon became the part of my day that I was looking forward to the most. Running allowed me time to think about important things, to listen to an informative podcast I’d put on the backburner, or just time to jam out to a playlist of all my favourite tracks from 2008 when Pitbull was still top of the charts. Beyond its meditative quality, the rush of endorphins that come from pushing your body and having it in motion for hours is as rewarding as it is addictive.

Although I’ve been training for a few months, I’m still early on in my journey as a runner. I have dreams of competing in official races later this year, which is why I was excited to be able to sit down with Prerna Singhpathom, who has truly set the bar when it comes to being a dedicated runner, to truly understand what it takes to succeed in the sport.

Prerna, who is a full-time kindergarten teacher, found her passion for teaching a decade ago. A passion that spilled over into her decision to become a running coach for women in the community. “Teaching is my happy place. I’m a firm believer that you should never hold knowledge back, so being able to share my expertise is like therapy for me”, Prerna says with a smile. Of course, getting to a point where one is good enough at their craft or skill takes an immense amount of patience and dedication. So I ask Prerna to recap her journey into the sport. She shares herinspirational story with Masala.

Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you fell in love with the sport of running?

When I was growing up, I attended school in India where I was not into sports at all. My teachers had to invent punishments for me because I would findany place in the school to hide out so I would not have to participate in any sports [Laughs]. It was only after my son was born that I began working out in order to get back into shape. I began with YouTube videos, then moved onto swimming and Zumba.

One day, my husband decided to introduce me to running. He has always been into sports, and was somewhat of a sports star when he was growingup. When we did our first run together, he was like “you better not stop!” and so I actually ended up completing a 5km on my first run, which I think was testament to the fact that sometimes you just need someone to motivate you. The endorphins I experienced on the day really got me thinking, “wow this feels amazing,” and my running career began after that.

Can you walk us through your running career thus far?

My husband continued to push me when I was starting out. We signed up for many events and began participating in them together. We completed 10km runs before moving onto what is recognised as a Tri Dash, which is a slightly smaller version of a triathlon that still involved running, swimming, and cycling. I have always found cycling to be quite a challenge, so this was a tough one for me but I completed it. Next, we signed up for a duathlon in Bangsaen that included a 5km run followed by a 42km cycle and then another 10km run. It was very challenging moving uphill but I managed to complete it in 3.5 hours.

After that, I began training for a 21km (half marathon) and after two years of competing, one of my friends encouraged me to sign up for a 42km full marathon. I had no idea what I was getting into because it was a completely different calibre than preparing for a 21km; you’re on your feet for so many hours that you really have to commit and train to your fullest capability. Without the training, you will hit what we call ‘the wall,’ which is when you simply cannot go anymore, you’re injured, or your body or mind gives up. It took four months to train for the full marathon and it wasn’t easy. You cannot drink. My friend and I were advised by one of the members of the Thai Indian Runners to follow this app. They also gave us advice on nutrition and vitamins. It was a very challenging time. Once I competed the 42km, I thought to myself: “Okay it’s time to relax now! I’m a marathoner, I can relax now!”

Can you tell us about how you began coaching and what was your motivation to offer these services?

After completing a marathon, I no longer felt motivated to continue pushing myself to run. I wanted to go back to going to the gym and dancing, but one day, someone from the Thai Indian Runners explained to me that they did not have a lot of women joining the group, andthat they thought I had potential to start training some of the girls in order to inspire more people to get into running. At first I was worried thatnobody would sign up, but we ended up having 40 interested participants, 10 of which finished a 5km with me. After that there was a second group, but then it stopped there.

I then decided to begin coaching on my own. I had only one trainee and I kept pestering her to join me on my runs until she did. She then began telling everyone that it was a great experience, and once people saw her coming to the park with me, it sparked interest. One person then turnedinto a group of 10, and today, many of them have already completed their 10km with me.

I’ve had many people approach me and tell me: “you know, I can’t run at all” and I always say: “that’s exactly what I’m here for!” I want to help people who want to run, but don’t know where to start. The know-how is what I’m here for. There are many benefits to running. It’s one of the easiest sports to train for as it requires no equipment and no company. Running is also mind over body, you’re not competing against anyone except yourself. It takes time, it’s about more than just speed, as it has a lot to do with breathing and posture, too.

What can people expect from some of your sessions?

I view my training as sewa; it’s free of charge. I try to focus on three types of running and several forms of strengthening. When I first started, I didn’t know any better so I wouldn’t strengthen and what happens as a result of that is that you lose muscle. There are many benefits to strength training, especially reducing the risk of injury. With my trainees, I introduce them to 10 types of strengthening that we do twice a week. For running, we do fast intervals, slow intervals, and a continuous run that increases gradually over time until they reach their distance goal.

How do you keep your trainees motivated to keep striving for their goals?

I try to include fun elements. For example, I often host dinners or picnics. We had a Halloween run last year and then afterwards we went to dinner dressed up in costumes. A lot of the girls come to the training sessions because they want to be involved in the social fun later! I also get medals made for when my trainees complete 5km, and trophies made when they complete 10km. I also throw them a party because they work so hard, AND they deserve the recognition. I’m so appreciative that my trainees take me seriously and we always make it clear that nobody is competing against each other, it’s all very supportive and empowering.

Many people don’t realise just how much having a strong mind impacts your ability to run. Do you have any experiences that you can share that reaffirm this?

I recently completed a 21km that I initially wanted to train hard for in order to get my personal best, but I didn’t actually end up training because I had a lot of things going on. I was running with five of my trainees from my first set, so at the start of the run I was definitely more focused on making sure my girls met their goals. Then when they were done, I kept going and I realised on my Garmin run tracking watch that I was actually running below 6 minutes per km and I wasn’t tired. I managed to complete 10km in 1 hour and 1 minute, so I continued to push through and for the other 16km I ran at a pace of 6 minutes or below and I ended up with a time that was 2 minutes under my personal best. I think this experience was really the epitome of mind over body and it was a big achievement for me.

How do you hope to grow this initiative in the months to come?

I definitely want more people to join. I want people to know that I’m here and I’m more than happy to help you get started. I give each runner I work with a programme so even if they live far away, they can follow the programme and train individually. I host group runs around twice a month, and this is the opportunity for everyone to meet, have breakfast, and hangout.

If you could give a word of advice to those who don’t believe they’re confident enough to start running, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid, running is just like everything else, you just have to take the first step. Like I said before, everyone is capable of running, you just need to want to run. It might be daunting because you feel like you’re coming out of your comfort zone, but we can take baby steps, and I promise in the long run, you will get where you want to go!

To better understand Prerna’s impact on the women in the community, I spoke to Preeti Singhsachathep Narula, one of her trainees, about her experiences.

“One of the things that drew me to the group was that the first time I joined, I made it clear to everyone that I simply could not run the sameway the others could, and Prerna was so quick to reply with: ‘I don’t need people who can!’

“I was last in the group to go for a 5km and I really didn’t feel like I was ready. However, Prerna stuck with me the entire run at Lumphini Park, despite the fact that the other girls were far ahead. I have some physical ailments so I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the run but she never left my side. She never made me feel like the weakest link, and was always reminding me that it was mind over body. Before I left home, my daughter was like, ‘Mama I know you’re going to come first,’ so when I got home later with a medal, my daughter was super proud of me. Even though I came last, she told me, ‘Mama you taught me that you have to finish what you set your mind to!’

“It is honestly so thoughtful of Prerna to give us these medals and trophies. She has a career as a teacher and yet, despite being so busy, she still comes to train all of us. It is no small feat and I am so appreciative of her dedication to helping all of us. I think the supportive atmosphere in the group should really motivate others to join.”

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