Interview by TeamKanyin
In this exclusive interview, ultrarunner Ng Seow Kong shared with us how he started barefoot running and his passion in ultra-marathon.
How it all started
Seow Kong is one of the few runners who advocate barefoot running. Despite his amazing track of records of having completing over 200 marathons/ultramarathons in more than 150 cities in over 40 countries, Seow Kong would say his biggest achievement in running is the fact that he can run barefoot.
“Barefoot running is about how you can overcome the mental barrier, to say ‘I know it will hurt, initially, but I’m going to go through an initial period of conditioning, to condition my foot to the rough surface of the road or the ground, and overtime I will get comfortable with it’.”
Seow Kong started barefoot running in 1980, at 19 years of age. Then, he was a basketball player who would play basketball barefoot.
“We’ve been playing basketball (barefoot) for many years. We would just go the basketball court and take off our sandals or slippers and we would play for hours just like that. In 1980, our small town organised the first ever cross-country race. In those days, not many people were running, I mean jogging was not really a recreational sport (back then). So they (the organiser) recruited us and all those active basketball players to run in that race.”
Before Seow Kong decided to run barefoot, he was actually inspired by a young guy, who had became the talk of the town because he always ran barefoot passing the town.
“In that first ever cross-country race, he joined as well. Inspired, we (basketball players) also ran barefoot. It turned out that I came in fourth. And of course, my barefoot idol was the champion.”
From there, Seow Kong started to run and train barefoot.
More protection running barefoot
Seow Kong described barefoot running as a liberating experience, where the runner is able to connect himself with the earth. While shoes are created with a simple and basic function – to protect our foot from the rough surface and avoid injuries, the surprising truth is that barefoot running actually helps to minimise injuries from running.
“Well, there’s a lot of theories behind barefoot running. Running shoes have cushions, so it will be able to absorb the shock. But precisely because of this cushion, you’ll know that you’ll be landing heavier than normal. Whereas for barefoot running, we know that it will hurt if you land too heavily. So we tend to land light. We will control ourselves to run more lightly. When you run in shoes, you don’t care. You just go as hard as possible and push back as hard as possible so that you can run faster. And maybe, instead of running, you’d be jumping up a lot more higher. Whereas when you are doing barefoot running, you don’t do that, because it will hurt. When you run lightly, it’s good for your muscles and you don’t stress your joints so much.”
Exploring Peninsular Malaysia on foot
In December 2021, Seow Kong organised and took part in the Tour of Peninsular 2021 (ToP21), a 31-day ultramarathon covering 2234KM, which is literally the driving distance from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Chiang Rai, Thailand. Despite being the oldest participant, 59-year old Seow Kong was one of three ultrarunners who completed the run.
“Peninsular Malaysia to most people is not a big place, you can cover 2234KM by driving. But when you run, spending 31 days on the road, you’ll find a lot of changes in the landscape. We came to the hottest place in Malaysia, Choo Peng. It was 40.7 degree Celsius. It was really really hot and very exposed. I have never been to that part of Malaysia. It was my first time. It really felt like cuti-cuti Malaysia, like touring around Malaysia. Before this run (ToP21) started, I never imagined I would come across such a different kind of landscape, climate or weather.”
The whole journey gave Seow Kong the impression that Peninsular Malaysia is still very diverse and rich in different kind of landscapes.
“One day when we are not running, we will drive around Malaysia and take our time to appreciate the beauty of our nature.”
Being an ultrarunner
Ultramarathon is a sport where you will be on the road for a long time. It is a sport where you need to strategise. How do you know when to push hard, when to take a step back and let it go slower? But these are just some of the many things an ultrarunner will think about when he/she is running. Seow Kong revealed that in actual running, a lot of things will go through the mind, especially things that are related to family, work and life.
“It is during the run that you manage to sort out a lot of these problems. Through that (experience), you will continue your running as your passion, as your lifestyle.”
Seow Kong also shared that ultrarunners tend to have their own community and better comradeship. Unlike short distance runners who usually complete the race quickly and go home on the same day, ultrarunners spend more time on the road with each other. They would rest together, walk together and help out each other throughout the run. The feeling of empathy is also greater and more personal.
Advice for novice runners
“Take it one step at a time. You have to enjoy running and the process first. If you don’t enjoy running you won’t go very far.”