Racing Against Giants: LTC Joshua Toh's Journey towards the Backyard Ultra Marathon
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Joshua Toh isn't your average runner. As a Commando Officer, he's no stranger to challenges. Last year, he didn't just compete, but conquered Singapore's Big Dog Ultra Satellite Team Championships, finishing 51 loops of a 6.706 km course. That achievement placed him in the elite top 7% of 500 international competitors from 37 nations. The Backyard Ultra Ultramarathon is no walk in the park – participants are tasked to cover 6.706 km within an hour, round after round, until the last remaining runner.
Training for an Ultramarathon
Can you share your motivation to participate in the US Backyard Ultra (BYU) after winning last year's event in Singapore?
After my win last year in Singapore, I qualified for the BYU world championship in the US, where we have many elite athletes qualifying from all over the world, and many of them have a lot more loops under their belt.
Witnessing their qualifying races, I am even more inspired to race against these “giants” and test my limits.
What are your expectations and goals for this year's Backyard Ultra Marathon in the US, given that it's in a different location and environment, compared to the race in Singapore?
While the weather is expected to be cooler and more favourable, I know that the terrain will be tougher, having to run in the undulating trail condition. My aim is to beat my own personal record, and I intent to run for as long as my legs can carry me.
Your daily journal entries show a tremendous amount of dedication and consistency in your training leading up to the Backyard Ultra Marathon. Can you share how did you manage to maintain such a rigorous training schedule for almost three months?
I actually started my training way earlier, back in January this year although I only started recording details of my training 100 days before the race. I believe one’s actions are driven by their aspirations. In my case, it is the dream of doing well and completing with a respectable result.
Can you share some of the highlights or memorable moments from your training and preparation leading up to this marathon?
LTC Toh training at Labrador Park.
In my training, I frequently bump into familiar faces in places like MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah Hill, or the Rail Corridor. Many of them greeted or waved to me, some stopped by and we took wefies together and they gave me words of encouragement. This is very heartwarming and it actually gave me added motivation.
Rest seems to be crucial in your training, as seen in your maintenance weeks and rest days. How do you strike a balance between pushing your limits and allowing your body to recover adequately?
LTC Toh preparing for a night run. He runs about 20 to 30 km a day as part of his training.
I try to train 6 days a week with 1 day of rest as a baseline. However, it varies according to how I feel as well as my schedule. My training intensity is also adjusted to this cadence, such that by the 5th or 6th day, fatigue will set in. Once a month, I will also take a longer break of 3 to 4 days with no training at all.
As for mental resilience, you have to stay driven throughout the journey. There were many times I was tempted to take a break or to shorten my training, but the hope of doing well in the race spurred me on. I want to ensure that I will have no regrets of not training harder for my race. Encouragement from friends also kept me motivated because I did not want to disappoint them as well, especially those who are rooting for me.
What role did your friends and family play in supporting your journey and participation in the marathon?
My friends have been instrumental in my preparation. Three key members of my crew — Major (MAJ) Leon Cheng, LTC Arnold Low, and Mr Dave Tan had taken time off from their busy schedules and accompanied me to the US to take care of me during the race. Other friends have also shared advice on nutrition, recovery, and even practical tips, such as the collapsible tub that I have brought to the US for ice baths to relieve muscle soreness. Their constant words of encouragement, especially during challenging times, have been invaluable.
Letters of encouragement from LTC Toh’s family.
Additionally, my family's unwavering support has been a cornerstone. My wife, though not a runner herself, has consistently encouraged me and managed our family affairs, allowing me to focus wholeheartedly on my preparation.
In light of all the support, I'm reminded of a guiding principle: "Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." This drives me to give my absolute best, ensuring that no matter the outcome, I have no regrets.
Throughout your training, you've had some minor setbacks, like rolling your ankle. How do you deal with these setbacks and adapt your training to avoid injury?
I rolled my ankle a couple of times, but thankfully, none of the incidents resulted in a serious sprain. At some point in time, I also felt some discomfort in my calf and decided to take a break for a couple of days. I firmly believe that you can only improve as quickly as you can recover.
It's quite unique to hear about sabbatical leave in the military. How did the flexibility provided by the SAF allow you to balance your military responsibilities and your intense training schedule for the Backyard Ultra Marathon?
The sabbatical leave definitely provided me with the precious time I needed for my intensive training. I had time to train and to recover, and peace of mind, without having to worry about my work. Work-wise, I am grateful that my bosses are supportive and that my team is able to cover my duties in my absence.
Looking back, I am glad that I set foot on this journey because I always believe in reaching for your dreams and I didn't want to have any regrets about not trying.
Endurance Beyond Limits: LTC Toh's 300-Mile Journey of Heart, Hope, and Victory
LTC Toh (in Red) at the finish line with his crew: Mr Dave Tan (first from right), LTC Arnold Low (first from left), and MAJ Leon Cheng (second from left).
On 23rd October 2023, the finish line bore witness to LTC Toh's remarkable perseverance. Securing the 22nd spot, he completed a staggering 72 loops, spanning 300 miles (482.4km) across three relentless days and nights. While the sun's blazing heat extinguished the ambitions of many, and the night's biting cold halted countless in their tracks, LTC Toh battled on. Beneath these gruelling trials, a burning aspiration persisted: to endure and, eventually, to reign unmatched. Let’s take a further look into this remarkable journey.
What was constantly on your mind when you were completing the loops?
LTC Toh during the BYU Championship in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, United States.
My dream. To be the last man standing. This was constantly on my mind. There were many distractions, like the tough terrain, the narrow path, the heat during the day and the freezing cold nights. Nonetheless, the hope of achieving my dream kept me going.
How did you manage the time you had for each loop?
LTC Toh’s pre-race food preparation.
I was aiming for a 50-minute run and 10-minute rest, which was a slightly shorter rest period compared to my race in Singapore last year, as the terrain in the day here was much tougher. However, I eventually slowed down and couldn’t maintain the 10 minutes of rest after day 1 and found myself with much less rest time. Hence by the second night when I felt the impact of sleep deprivation, I could only steal 3-4 minutes of sleep for each loop. Food-wise I had small bites each hour, with food like oatmeal, potato soup, instant noodles, and sports drinks.
What were the challenges you faced? Was lap 72 always the goal in mind?
The main challenge I would say is the sleep deprivation from day 3 onwards. Not only did I have a problem keeping awake, but I was disorientated at some point when I found myself on the trail, forgetting why I was there! Luckily I managed to snap out of it and got back in time. I also hallucinated, seeing cars and boats parked across the road, blocking the route, though they were just trees and bushes. Being the last man had always been my dream. However, I had a realistic goal too, which happened to be 72.
Now that the race is over, what are your plans?
LTC Toh (left) having a celebratory meal with his crew.
My legs were actually in quite a bad shape. Both feet were swollen so badly they looked like pig trotters, and my Achilles tendon was also hurt. Hence I took 2 days to rest. Eventually, I managed to get out of bed to do some sightseeing in the city of Nashville and to have a celebratory meal with my crew.
What are your thoughts about all the support you had back home, from your family, and your fellow Commandos who have been constantly sharing live updates. Any words for your fellow supporters?
LTC Toh (second from right) together with his supporters.
During my 10-month training which started in January, the amount of encouragement I received and the numerous advice given to me was tremendous. From tips on nutrition and supplements to improving performance, to recovery strategies, I was blessed with people who cared and wanted to see me succeed. There were also those that just wanted to shout out to me to push on. Knowing that so many people cared is truly heartwarming.
LTC Toh’s supporters, including Chief of Army, Major-General (MG) David Neo virtually cheered him on during his race.
While I was racing in Bell Buckle, the huge difference from last year's BYU in Singapore was no doubt the cheers from my supporters, which was what I missed the most. You have no idea how enormous the impact it caused. It was so encouraging to hear the cheers that I couldn’t bear to stop. This year, with just one crew per shift, it was a huge difference. Nonetheless, when I had a little more time to rest before the next bell rang, I whipped out my phone and was overwhelmed with the amount of virtual cheers and encouragement I received.
From personal and group messages, social media comments, and notes of encouragement in the live channel module, the well-wishes were everywhere. My family also made a video to wish me well for my race. To know that I have almost the whole running community and friends in Singapore behind my back is truly inspiring.
To all my supporters, I like to say that; “Although this year I do have many supporters on-site, ironically, I continue to feel very motivated knowing that I am on your minds throughout my race. Thank you all!”.
✍️ : CPL Sim Shang En (Army News)
📷 : Contributed by LTC Joshua Toh and PIONEER