Singapore

'He was very serious about his races'

Friends of S'porean skyrunner who fell to his death in Mount Kinabalu ravine not surprised he was training alone

Singaporean runner Woon Tai Kiang, who was killed while training for a mountain climbathon, was always cheerful, funny and helpful.

His close friend Melvin Tan told The New Paper yesterday: "He's always a funny guy who'd comment about anything and everything.

"He would share tips and running advice with the newcomers (of Ultra-Running Singapore, an ultra-marathoner and ultra-trail runner community). It was fun to be with him."

Mr Woon's body was found in a 150m-deep ravine near Sayat-Sayat, Mount Kinabalu, in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, on Sunday.

The avid mountaineer, 36, is believed to have slipped and fallen while training by himself for the Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon on Oct 16.

The annual skyrunning event was cancelled last year because of the Kinabalu earthquake in June. Skyrunning is an extreme sport of mountain running above 2,000m, with an incline exceeding 30 per cent and the climbing difficulty not exceeding II° grade.

Mr Tan said he had met Mr Woon, known as Max among his friends, for drinks last week - the last time he saw his good friend of four years alive.

"It's too soon, too fast, too sudden. We're still trying to come to terms with his death," he said.

Mr Tan, 46, said Mr Woon had given him advice on "feng shui" for his new four-room flat, and the evening was a pleasant catch-up with an old friend.

They became close after running in mountain trails and marathons together for the past four years as part of Ultra-Running Singapore.

Mr Woon usually trained alone on the mountains weeks before a race, said Mr Tan.

"He took pride and was very serious about his races. He had previously trained alone at Gunung Lambak (near Kluang in Johor), so we were not surprised that he had gone alone this time," said Mr Tan.

The event's organising secretary Winceslaus G. Autine said Mr Woon had registered for the race and taken the training pass on Sept 26.

TNP understands that it is not unusual for participants in the climbathon, which is regarded as among the world's toughest mountain races, to train alone as they are all seasoned athletes. Participation in the event is by invitation only. 

Mr Ford Lim, 28, founder of Ultra-Running Singapore, said of Mr Woon: "He was always cheerful, and was very easy to warm up to.

"I came to know of his involvement in the running scene for the past one to two years, but he had his way of lying low.

"He didn't flaunt his running experiences."

Mr Woon, a former manager with the Singapore National Employers Federation, fell in love with running after taking it up about three years ago to get fit.

His ex-colleague at True Fitness, Mr Felix Goh, 43, said Mr Woon had breathing problems and weighed around 90kg about five years ago.

"But when we met two years ago, I noticed a drastic change. He was much healthier, more muscular and was determined to do races," he added.

Mr Woon's mother told The Straits Times at their Bedok North home yesterday: "He was a filial son and was good to us. I told him not to keep going overseas to climb but he wanted to."

Trying to hold back her tears, the 69-year-old, who declined to give her name, said Mr Woon's elder brother left for Sabah yesterday morning to join Mr Woon's girlfriend, who has been there since Sunday evening.

TNP understands they are on the way back to Singapore with Mr Woon's body.

ERRATIC WEATHER

Mr Lim had previously run the Borneo Ultra-Trail Marathon, which took runners through jungle settings and trails around Mount Kinabalu. He said the terrain was just one of the difficulties faced by runners.

"The weather can be erratic. It could pour at any moment. It would be very cold at night and then scorching hot in the morning," he added.

"It was wise of Max to train first to get used to the terrain and the weather."

The high elevation, with the summit at 4,095.2m above sea level, could also induce attitude sickness, he said.

Mr Erick Saith, 27, who took part in the Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon in 2013 and 2014, said that running on the terrain was tough.

"The rocks were sharp and some parts were slippery, so I fell many times," he said.

"Oxygen was a little thin near the summit, so breathing can be hard. You must know your body's limit."

Mr Lim said the Ultra-Running Singapore community will turn up at Mr Woon's wake tomorrow night in the T-shirt they had designed in memory of him.

"I feel like crap. It's a dangerous sport, and we take precautions to make sure we return to our families," he added.

"But this rare case of a Singaporean runner losing his life could have happened to any of us.

"We must always remind ourselves to approach the mountains with humility and care, as Max had surely done so for himself.

"The last thing I want to hear is another runner losing his or her life to the sport they love."

He's always a funny guy who'd comment about anything and everything. He would share tips and running advice with the newcomers (of Ultra-Running Singapore, an ultra-marathoner and ultra-trail runner community). It was fun to be with him.

- Mr Melvin Tan (left) pictured with his close friend, the late Mr Woon Tai Kiang

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Mr Ian Lye, 37, avid skyrunner

  • Always try to go with a partner. If you have to go alone, tell someone where you are going, the exact route you are planning to take and when you expect to be back.
  • Always pack a lightweight windproof and rain jacket, a hat and gloves, as the weather can change quickly on a mountain.
    Speed is also important to safety in the mountains, as the ability to move quickly in the face of rapidly deteriorating weather conditions can be decisive in getting to safety.
    Consider getting gear that is technical, thermal and breathable, yet light enough to protect you without restricting your movements and speed - even if these cost more than traditional, bulkier gear.
  • Use trail running shoes with good grip and aggressive lugs to help you keep your balance on wet surfaces.
  • Study the map and thoroughly familiarise yourself with the race course or route, as this will determine what type of equipment you should bring. Almost all skyraces have a mandatory equipment list for participants that should always be strictly adhered to.

Lauri van Houten, executive director and vice-president of International Skyrunning Federation

  • When runners enter a race, they have to sign an entry form that gives details of the course.
  • In some races, strict vetting is implemented where runners need to demonstrate ability in climbing.
  • Compulsory gear is listed in the rules, and may change in the pre-race briefing, which is also generally compulsory - for example, if bad weather is forecast or an alternative route selected.

Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon

WHAT

An international skyrunning competition where participants run in the mountains at an altitude above 2,000m, with climbing difficulty not exceeding II° grade and an incline of over 30 per cent.

WHEN

October 16

ROUTE

Kinabalu Park main entrance 
to the summit and back

START TIME

7am

TOTAL DISTANCE

24km

ELEVATION OF THE SUMMIT

4,095.2m

NUMBER OF COMPETITORS

109 from 15 countries

TIME LIMIT

  • 2 hours 50 minutes (men) or
3 hours 20 minutes (women) 
from start to summit
  • 2 hours 30 minutes (men) or 
3 hours (women) 
from summit to finish

Invitations to participate are reserved for runners who have completed the race within the required time in the Climbathon in 2013 or 2014, or who have completed any recognised mountain or adventure race that has a route reaching up to or beyond 2,000m, or have been recommended by their country's national mountain race/athletic body or any other organisation recognised by the Climbathon organiser.

OTHER CASES

May 23

National University of Singapore undergraduate Andy Chow Kok Haw, 25, died while he was on a three-week-long pre-graduation holiday in Europe with four friends.

He was swimming at the deep end of a waterfall in Croatia's Krka National Park when he drowned.

May 11

A 21-year-old Singaporean student, Miss Cheng Shi Min, died after falling 30m off a cliff in the Blue Mountains, 130km from Sydney in Australia.

She had been hiking with her father and boyfriend, who heard "a scream and then a bang".

They found Miss Cheng lying face-down in the water at the foot of a waterfall. She died from severe head and chest injuries.

June 5, 2015

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake on Mount Kinabalu left 18 people dead, seven of whom were pupils aged 12 to 13 from Tanjong Katong Primary School. Two teachers and their adventure guide were also killed.

The group was on an expedition to the mountain in the East Malaysian state of Sabah.

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