Updated: Oct 23
In August 2023, 70-year-old Stephen Lim Nghee Huat (or Uncle Yifa/ Nghee Huat as the kids know him by) set off for Scotland to do what an average Singaporean would never even think about doing. Unlike the forgiving terrain in Singapore, the 346km he would be covering as part of an ultramarathon dedicated to Good Start SG which spanned from the West Coast to the East Coast of Scotland, was challenging to say the least. 95% of the course was located within the mountains and forest, without normal roads to guide you through the unknown. In January this year, he had completed an ultramarathon of 217km in Brazil. In 2016, he had also completed 320km before. Based on these 2 experiences, he roughly knew his ability and limits and believed he was ready to take on a bigger challenge. Gearing up for the big race Uncle Yifa started training in Singapore 6 months before the event, running for 10-12 hours on end to build his stamina. However, the most crucial part of preparation was when he went to Scotland 12 days before the event to recce the area and do practice runs to familiarise himself with the route. It was a tedious process as he had to book several accommodations and vehicles to facilitate the whole journey - the distance was so long that he had to split his training into 4 sessions before the actual event. Each time, he selected the area that he would pass by in the night. He trained in those areas in the daytime so he would know what it looks like during the race. In addition to conditioning his body and mind, there was much to prepare in terms of resources. Items that he had to bring along included sufficient water, energy bars, extra running shoes, winter gear and more. In fact, the 5 pairs of shoes he brought along with him from Singapore were not even sufficient for the training due to the wet weather.
Uncle Yifa’s training was riddled with obstacles and frustrations – he and his training partner kept getting lost and had to reroute several times. There was one incident where he got lost in the forest after dark, and was without food, drinks, torchlights or reception to call for help. Uncle Yifa recounted, “I saw nothing but just trees as I ran ahead for 1 hour plus. It was quite scary. Suddenly, l saw a house at the bottom of the mountain. I thought that maybe it was a farm. I ran ahead and shouted “Is there anyone here?”. Uncle Yifa didn’t get a response but after a while, a lady opened a small door in the corner and looked shocked to see them. The kind lady invited them in for a hot drink and snack while she helped to call Deborah (Centre Aide at LOT Woodlands), Uncle Yifa’s wife, who was anxiously waiting for updates. One hour later, Deborah arrived in her car to pick Uncle Yifa. Before he left, he told the lady, “You are an angel sent by God to rescue us!” Uncle Yifa was thankful and said that he always trusts God’s faithfulness and provision, as He always gives him protection during dangerous situations.
In the days leading up to the race, Uncle Yifa had his own fan club and supporters cheering him on back in Singapore. The children of PPS also held their own version of the Good Start Run to show their support and solidarity, to express how proud they were of him, and to encourage him for the road ahead. Children, teachers and parents all joined in to run at parks within the neighbourhood and collectively clocked in way more than 346km in total. The eye of the storm
Uncle Yifa (runner 78) and his partner (runner 127)
Then came 12 August, the day of the race, where 150 runners from 20 countries were raring to go. As with every journey, this race was not without its challenges. Uncle Yifa only had 5 hours of sleep as he was up packing his supplies. It was raining when they reported at 5.30am, and it was freezing cold even with him wearing 3 layers below his raincoat. 18km into the run, he and his partner made a wrong turn and got lost. Uncle Yifa said, “We really panicked but managed to get to the correct road. We wasted one hour. This was the first setback, an unnecessary mistake.” Thankfully, they even overtook some runners despite being an hour behind. The paths were wet, uneven, and muddy, so his shoes were quickly soaked. “I could hardly use my Walkman to listen to music 'cos of the rain!” exclaimed Uncle Yifa. At times, he didn’t know how deep the water was and did a long jump to avoid the puddles, resulting in him falling and landing straight into the water. The bushes were mostly shoulder-high, and he had to be careful not to hurt his ankle running on roads with such low visibility.
For this Race across Scotland, Uncle Yifa needed a whole support team, which included his wife Deborah, to assist him throughout the 12 checkpoints. Uncle Yifa exclaimed, “Just like in F1, the cars need to change their tyres and every second counts. It is the same concept! I need to get the necessary replacements and supplies like a change of clothes and food before proceeding for the next leg. Every second counts!”
On his way to Checkpoint 3, they were waiting in between a forest and a mountain to get water from his crew. However, the vehicles could not find the location and they no longer wanted to wait as 4 runners had passed them by already. “For some reason, I told my partner that since we only needed 2 hours to reach the next checkpoint, let’s just try. There was heavy rain when we went into the forest. Because it was very slippery, I fell many times and got cuts on my leg and hands.
At this point I hadn’t drunk water for over 2 hours. I had to use my mouth to collect water from the rain – I looked up to the sky to collect water for the first time in my life!” Uncle Yifa laughed as he recalled that memory. At last, they reached Checkpoint 3 in just 1.5hours, clocking in 71km in total. Meanwhile in Singapore, Uncle Yifa’s church members from Truth Baptist Church continued to uphold him in prayer from the time that the race started till the end of their journey. Their family and children, as well as the PPS family also constantly checked in throughout so he definitely felt supported from home.
Fast forward to Checkpoint 5 on Day 2, they arrived in a small town at 8pm at night after completing 167km, surviving on no sleep for almost 39 hours and counting.
After finally taking a short nap and recharging, they set off for the next checkpoint. This was when things started to go awry again. In the heavy rain and darkness, they were getting lost on the way to a mountain. Uncle Yifa called Deborah to help to locate where he was using the tracker that every participant had to carry with them for safety reasons. It was then when he realized his tracker was not with him anymore. On the GPS map, the tracker was moving at a speed of 100km/h, which was concerning as those in Singapore thought the worst – that he was being carried in an ambulance due to injuries. Thankfully, it was not so - it turned out that the tracker was taken by an official for its battery to be changed, but he forgot to return it and proceeded to Checkpoint 6 in his car. Once the race director was informed of this, he kept calling Uncle Yifa to check on his whereabouts and safety as it would not be advisable to continue without a tracker.
“In that moment, I felt that God wanted me to stop at that point, so I had to obey. A lot of thoughts appeared in my mind. Physically I was ok, I didn’t feel tired. But I was worried about the safety of my partner and my crew, especially my wife Deborah. She had not slept since the race started either in order to be on standby at all times, and still had to drive around and help to solve problems along the way. Thus, I called the race director to retire from the race. I kept praying to ask God to help me and show me the way out. About 30-45mins later, we got to the main road after trying different directions.” After sharing their location with Deborah, they managed to find them and pick them up. Drenched and shivering, they thanked God that they were all safe and in one piece. About 42 hours and more than 170km into the race, their arduous journey ended unexpectedly. The calm after the storm Uncle Yifa shared, “Once I had time to actually rest, I was thinking, “How am I going to explain to the people supporting me that I didn’t complete the race?” However, when his sponsors, donors and supporters heard the news and the whole story, they all had positive responses and expressed their relief for his safety.
Uncle Yifa, Deborah and crew at the finishing point. Eventually, only 50 out of 150 completed the race due to the bad weather. The difficulty of this ultramarathon was also one of the highest in the world.
“From this experience, I really learnt to pray hard and seek God’s guidance and direction. I wouldn’t take this as a setback but just that I missed a target. I have gained much significant experience such as knowing the importance of being fully alert as small mistakes can have dire consequences, as well as choosing the right partner and crew.”
When asked if he would attempt another ultramarathon like this again, Deborah shook her head immediately, to the mirth of Uncle Yifa. She really went through a tough time supporting Uncle Yifa throughout the entire journey, so he fully understood her response. “When I first returned to LOT Woodlands, the strong feeling I had was that I needed to hug my teachers, 'cos I was really in danger and didn’t know if I would make it back. The whole team really blessed me with many kind words and supported me fully," Deborah shared.
For him, he feels that he is healthy and would consider running for a good cause again. He said, “To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). God has given all me all these gifts – if I don’t apply it and use it, it’s not doing the right thing. I still can contribute much by using this gift so I should carry on unless it is harmful or creates a negative impact on my life. I am glad to have helped to raise funds for Good Start SG this round!”
Indeed, it was no easy feat for Uncle Yifa and Deborah to take on this ultramarathon together and we thank God for their contributions and sacrifices. In total, the Good Start Run has raised a total of $94,470.60 for the Education Support Programme! All glory to God!