Nattaya Thanaronnawat: Running for her life

From a fruit farm to the winner’s podium, Nattaya Thanaronnawat shares her journey.

If it wasn’t for her passion for running, Nattaya Thanaronnawat believes she would be working in a factory like most women her age in Lamphun province.

The recently-crowned 28th SEA Games marathon gold medallist—the first Thai in eight years to win in the category—told Life that growing up in an impoverished fruit farmer’s family made her constantly doubt whether she would account for anything in life because money was always scarce while she was growing up.

The hand-to-mouth existence and need to grow up before her time made her suffer from low self esteem and lack self confidence to pursue her dreams.

“We were so poor that as a child I used to suck my fingers while watching other children relish their ice cream,” said the 36-year-old. “I have been an athlete for 20 years. During this time, I have managed to reach a number of milestones in my education, my career and more.

“I became a national athlete at 16. Long-distance running has been my forte since I can remember. I was never good at running sprints.

“While life has not been a bed of roses, it has turned out much better than it would have been if I did not play sports. Today, I have a bachelor’s degree from Thammasat university, a secure government job and the pride which comes with having brought recognition to my country.

“My teammates are my second family. They have been my moral support.”

The long distance talent, who won the women’s duathlon at the SEA Games in 2007, ran her way to Thailand’s first gold in eight years for women’s marathon under heavy rain at the SEA Games in Singapore. Nattaya’s never-say-die attitude taught her early in life that to reach one’s goals, virtues such as sincerity, hard work and discipline eventually do pay off, so perseverance is the key to success.

Her SEA Games victory, however, was anything but smooth sailing. It was a bitter sweet experience, she remarked with a grin, because she very nearly did not make the cut. An athlete in her mid-30s does not easily get a shot at a regional meet, she lamented, so to prove her worth she had to go the extra mile. Her stiffest competition came from the younger generation of running stars.

The diminutive runner admitted that both her family and husband initially tried to dissuade her from competing and questioned why she would attempt it when there was so much young talent out there who stood a “better chance of getting a gold medal”.

But her coaches, Nikom Kansong and Kenyan Peter Titi Matu, believed in her. The sole reason for her to pursue the SEA Games event was simple — Nattaya had never won a gold medal in a marathon.

“I had to do this for myself,” she said. “It used to eat me inside that I had failed to excel in the marathon events despite having been a long distance runner for most of my career.

“What gave me the confidence to chase my dream was a piece of advice my Kenyan coach once gave me. He said that unlike other events, in marathons, most runners peak when they are more experienced. So the older they get, the better they become. This, he said, is because physical strength is built through years of competition, while experience boosted confidence.

“During the initial stages of training for the SEA Games, I was not able to stay full-time with the team because of my work and family commitments. To help me through this, coach Titi Matu allowed me to practice at home with the workout he had planned for me. Eventually, I was able to join them when my boss at the municipality office allowed me to move to a department where I could be covered while training with the national team. The staff coaches have been great in giving me this chance. I am happy I was able to not disappoint them.”

It was her coaches that convinced the selection team for the track and field events to pick her to compete because her running stats had shown she was in top form. She had done especially well at two events leading up to the 28th SEA Games: the 2014 Asian Beach Games Phuket and the National Games last year.

“In Phuket, I managed to finish third against some of the best long distance runners in Asia. At the National Games I managed to pick up three golds,” said Nattaya.

“My stats not only justified my place in the team but also prepared me for the gruelling conditions I would face during my race in Singapore. I set goals for myself in each event I compete. Doing well at the National Games was also a priority because I was competing for my home province, Lamphun.

“I felt it was my responsibility to bring success to my place of birth. I am the person I am today because of the opportunities that have been given me — to have a government job and be able to compete for my country.”

Nattaya remarked that it was her desire to prove the people wrong who have doubted her that was probably her biggest motivation to compete and eventually succeed.

Apart from that motivation, she said that if she did not clinch a podium finish, it was very likely that her Kenyan coach’s contract with the national team would have been terminated.

Last but by no means least was the motivation to prove to her bosses in Lamphun that by allowing her to train for months it was not a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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