Monday, August 8, 2016

Ash In A Flash - My "Why"

Hello and welcome to my blog! You might ask, why “ash in a flash”? Firstly, my name is Ashley Liew. Secondly, my cousin wrote this original slogan on a cardboard while supporting me at the 2014 Chicago Marathon.
The original "ash in a flash" crafted by my cousin at the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Photo credit: Samuel Tan.
Thanks to a brilliant suggestion by my father, a bulk order of t-shirts was made for my would-be supporters at the 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games Marathon emblazoned with “ash in a flash” on the front. On that race day in my home country of Singapore, I was touched by a sea of red supporters braving the rain hoping to see something special.
Pictured are several family members of my “ash in a flash” support crew at the 2015 SEA Games Marathon
Although I did not win a medal that day, something special unintentionally did happen. My chiropractor Dr. Kelvin Ng, who had checked and adjusted my spine before and after the race, “leaked” out a small gesture of sportsmanship on my part that occurred during the race. The story in the media quickly went viral, inspiring a nation and more. Even Singapore’s Prime Minister on numerous occasions has publicly quoted my philosophy which is simply this: “it is not always about the medals, but also about the things you do in between.” I strive to maintain that philosophy in my journey towards qualifying for the 2020 Olympics, as well as for when I start practicing as a Doctor of Chiropractic at Family Health Chiropractic Clinic (Singapore) starting November 2016.
Singapore’s Prime Minister recounting my SEA Games incident during the 2015 National Day Rally
With that, I am excited to share and inspire with my story. Hopefully, you will understand my “why”.

Humble Beginnings
I may be a national marathoner today but my story has an unconventional beginning. I started running to lose weight. Up until Junior College, I was not enrolled in any school sport. I took pride in the Boys’ Brigade and Chamber Orchestra (the violin was my second instrument in addition to the piano) but I felt it was time for a change. However, the competitive nature of school sports meant that without a prior background it was near impossible to be on a team. Thankfully, canoeing and dragonboat accepted me.

Jumping into such rigorous training being a non-sportsman was a shock. In the midst of it I came to enjoy running during the warm-up and cool-down. For the challenge, some teammates and I signed up for the 2004 Singapore Marathon. I chugged to the finish in 4h29m34s for that first marathon. It was such a difficult challenge, but I felt like a winner just for completing it.
Transcending 2004’s starting point to improve my marathon personal best by almost 2 hours in 2015
Although I became hooked onto distance running, my weight continued spiralling out of control. At my heaviest, I weighed 80kg [compared to 56kg since 2011]. When I looked at my 2006 marathon finisher photograph [I ran 4h18m36s that year], I was appalled. It made me reflect upon all the years of schoolmates teasing me for being fat, to the point that I sucked in my stomach everywhere I went. My friends even gave me the nickname “moobs” (short for “man boobs”)! Although my running performance was gradually improving, I still was a “nobody” in the sports scene. When I joined the Singapore army I was even rejected from the Officer Cadet School reserve run team because I was too slow. My self-esteem continued lowering. I was so desperate that I even bought a slimming belt, which did nothing for the weight.

It was then that I started realizing that my calorie consumption was in huge excess of calorie expenditure. I had wrongly assumed that fairly regular exercise gave me the right to eat whatever I wanted. Through improved quality and reduced quantity of my diet, I finally started shedding pounds and gaining back self-esteem. My running improvement curve also accelerated throughout 2007, which was satisfying. 

Here is an important takeaway: never let your starting point determine your final destination. You have it within yourself to transcend perceived limits and transform into the best version of you that you can be.
Anything is possible: from overweight straggler in 2006 to American run magazine cover boy in 2016
Coaching the Turnaround
While my first running improvement spike was from losing weight, the second and more significant spike was from meeting Coach Rameshon (reigning Singaporean marathon record holder with 2h24m22s). I clearly remember our first encounter, when he told me, “This needs to go down some more,” while pointing to my remnant of a belly! With training structure and reinforcement of self-belief, something magical happened from 2008 to 2009: I went from 3h34m14s (outside top 100 Singaporeans) to 2h51m22s (runner-up Singaporean) marathoner. As I stood on the podium, I was immensely grateful. I also realized there was more athletic potential left to be untapped. I am glad that I did not let “conventional wisdom”, which ruled out any possibility of making such dramatic improvements, cause self-doubt.
The 2009 Singapore Marathon: a pivotal moment in my athletic career, thanks to Flexifitness Coach Rameshon
Chiropractic and the Vertebral Subluxation
I did not find chiropractic; it found me. Embarrassingly, I had never heard of the word “chiropractic” prior to 2010. That changed when Dr. Kelvin Ng gave his health talk at a performance symposium organized by my bike shop sponsor [I had taken up triathlon as well]. What he said was simple yet made sense: having a fully functioning and balanced body free of nerve interference could not only potentially improve performance, but more importantly increase vitality.

At that point of his talk, my mother had recently passed away after bravely fighting her stage IV colon cancer for years. I assumed she was “healthy” before diagnosis, displaying neither overt signs nor symptoms. She also ate well and exercised regularly. Her diagnosis made me realize my definition of “health” needed fine tuning. What Dr. Ng said about health flowing from above down inside out made me curious, so I started having my spine checked and adjusted if necessary.
My mother was my biggest fan, supporting me at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Florida
Along with the spinal adjustments came Dr. Ng’s patient education. I learned that “feeling better” did not equate to “functioning better”; that higher state of functioning was largely dependent on a healthy nervous system operating at 100%. The nervous system, consisting the brain, spinal cord, and spinal nerves, serves as a communication superhighway to and from every cell, tissue, and organ. Its role as a master coordinator of the body is akin to an orchestra conductor ensuring harmony among the many different inputs. The miles of extensive nerve networks within your body are responsible for firing your hamstrings while running, the reflex when accidentally touching a hot stove, and keeping your heart beating while asleep.

I also learned about a new term that made chiropractic unique: "vertebral subluxation". If you break up the Latin word “subluxation”, it means condition (-ation) of less (sub) light (lux). Who would want less light? When you have a subluxation, a spinal bone becomes misaligned, thereby narrowing the opening for the spinal nerve, putting pressure on it, and ultimately interfering with the flow of nerve impulses (abnormally increased or decreased). An analogy of the subluxation is when an orchestra performs without a conductor, resulting in noise rather than music. Subluxations can occur through physical, chemical, and emotional stresses that the body cannot adapt to. This is where chiropractors are unique because they locate, analyze, and correct these vertebral subluxations through specific yet gentle chiropractic adjustments.    
Reunited with Dr. Ng who served as my Doctor of Chiropractic at the 2015 SEA Games. Photo credit: Family Health Chiropractic Clinic (Singapore).
Citius - Altius - Fortius
“Faster - Higher - Stronger” is the Olympic motto. As athletes, and more importantly as human beings, we all seek to maximize our optimal potential. This could mean running a marathon 10 minutes faster, having more mental focus while studying, or being able to play with your grandchildren. It makes sense that getting regularly checked for vertebral subluxations and nervous system interference has resulted in the following for me since 2010: continual performance improvements, not suffering a single training injury (almost unheard of especially with the athletic demands of marathon training), only falling sick once (bounced back within three days without drugs), better school results (previously used to be “average” on academics), and feeling more connected to my inner self. Thus, I am grateful to my chiropractor and my coach for helping me release the God-given inner potential that I have always been blessed with. 2012 ended on a high with me emerging local marathon champion and by almost setting a national Ironman triathlon record (10h3m29s).
Setting 2012’s fastest Singaporean time for the Ironman while competing in Texas
From teenager with low self-esteem to marathon champion in 2012
Journey to Sherman College of Chiropractic (Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA)
How did someone completing a Bachelor of Social Sciences (Double Majors in Political Science and Finance), as well as someone who had long envisioned himself becoming a banker like both his parents, pursue an entirely different career path in health care? I only started considering this possibility when interning as a chiropractic assistant for Dr. Ng. Having the opportunity to see so many patients’ lives transformed for the better, in addition to my own, made me realize that being a Doctor of Chiropractic offered a meaningful avenue of effectively helping people. Having seen how Sherman College shaped Dr. Ng’s chiropractic philosophy, science and art, I knew that an adventure to South Carolina was the next step.
Giving a chiropractic health talk at a Greenville Track Club meeting in South Carolina
I had my first culture shock when taking that first drive in Spartanburg after touching down on a frigid 2013 New Year’s Day. I asked myself, “Who turned off all the lights?” I was so used to every corner of Singapore being lighted at night that I took for granted it was the same elsewhere. While the general pace of life here is slower than Singapore’s (which I have come to appreciate over the past four years), the intensity of academic demands from school and national boards was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It did not help that I still had to train and compete at an elite level on top of it all.
Silver medalist at the 2014 World Chiropractic Games in Florida while representing Sherman College
The daily sacrifices while studying were worth it as I came to fully appreciate the vastness and wisdom of the human body. The major premise of chiropractic is this: “There is a Universal Intelligence in all matter which continually gives to it all its properties and actions, thus maintaining it in existence.” Dissecting cadavers during anatomy laboratory sessions gave us a glimpse into the coordinated complexity within each of us. However, a cadaver cannot self-heal once cut. Contrast this with accidentally grazing your skin: you can put a plaster over the wound but ultimately the body self-heals without you telling it to. This self-healing in a living organism occurs because of an inner wisdom which we call “Innate Intelligence”, one which is absent in a non-living cadaver. Chiropractors merely work alongside with each person’s unique “Innate” life force to optimize that person’s unique potential.

For the past 20 months, I have been serving as a chiropractic intern at Sherman’s Health Centre. It has been the most fulfilling experience witnessing my own patients’ lives transformed. Seeing patients’ back or neck pain alleviate is exciting, but other “happy side effects” like bed wetting resolution, numbness resolution, migraine resolution, and anxiety reduction are even more rewarding. It gives me joy to see patients being able to do more of the things they love to do, whether it is running or playing with grandchildren. All this makes me really excited to serve my community in the near future upon graduation.
Being pinned as a chiropractic intern at the Sherman College Health Center, where I witnessed many life changing health transformation moments with my patients simply by correcting their vertebral subluxations. Photo credit: Sherman College of Chiropractic.
It will be bittersweet to finally graduate from Sherman this September 2016 because I will be leaving a place I have come to call home, as well as parting with my Sherman family. An example of how tight knit we were was when I ran the 2013 Boston Marathon: not only did my classmates successfully convince an instructor to track my race online in the middle of class, but they also frantically checked in with me when they found out about the bombings. I had finished the race hours before the incident, so I had no idea what had happened until I got those texts. On a happier note, they also surprised me with a send-off party before I departed for Kenya in preparation for the 2015 SEA Games.
My father (Andrew Liew), in the blue suit, flew from Singapore to Spartanburg for my graduation ceremony. Photo credit: Sherman College of Chiropractic and David Choong.
Kenyan Adventures
Speaking of Kenya, I had the privilege of training and connecting with world-class athletes in the high altitude town of Iten twice in 2015. To give you a perspective of how steeped running is in that community, an estimated 3000 out of 5000 of Iten’s population are professional runners! I had to see for myself what made Kenyan runners tick. My takeaway was that their secret for success is merely hard, consistent work. There is a saying that hard work trumps talent when talent fails to work hard; I find this true in their culture. Competitive running is their way of breaking their family’s poverty cycle. Thus, they make untold sacrifices and commit laser-like focus into training, while holding onto the self-belief that anything is possible one day.

While soaking up the culture (and fighting against oxygen deprivation on the hills), I walked away from that second training stint with two added victories. Firstly, I made it a point to educate runners (locals and foreign elites) about chiropractic’s focus on correcting vertebral subluxations, to allow for maximum athletic and health potential. Secondly, I was so touched by the plight of children growing up in the slums that several locals and I started crafting a new Community Based Organization (CBO) called “Running for the Vulnerable Families in Kenya”, in an effort to pool local and international resources together for the benefit of selected beneficiaries. Our CBO soon became certified and I was appointed as its Director. Thanks to the efforts of our amazing committee members on the ground, we have had several success stories, including moving an orphaned sister and brother out of the slums into a safer environment.
Kenya: from training at high altitude with the best runners to serving the vulnerable families
Proudest Moment of Athletic Career
This moment happened shortly after crossing the finish of the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon. When the organizers realized a Singaporean was about to emerge overall runner-up, they somehow scrambled to find a Singapore flag (to this day I am amazed how they did this) so I could drape it over myself during the prize presentation. Here I was in a foreign country, running my fastest ever time of 2h32m12s (average 5m48s per mile pace for 26.2 miles) and placing second at a major marathon, proudly representing the “little red dot” called Singapore. I was emotional thinking about how far I had come since struggling in 4h29m34s at my first marathon, which means it took me 10 plus years to run almost twice as fast! I was also emotional because this effort was another one in remembrance of my mother; in fact my mantra I repeated to myself that whole race was “(mom’s) strength and (God’s) grace”. Having Coach Rameshon physically there to witness this made the experience even more special.
Feeling proud to be a Singaporean as overall marathon runner-up in the 2015 New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, pictured with Coach Rameshon who finished the marathon too
My “Why”
A target of mine has been to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Marathon in Tokyo. This journey will call for more sacrifices and consecutive weeks of 100+ miles running, for which I am prepared for. However, targets to me are simply what we want to achieve. We need something more than targets in life to give us direction. That is why instead of just my target, I focus more on my goal: to fulfill all the potential I have been blessed with.
I am blessed to have been sponsored by ASICS since 2010. Their tagline of “sound mind, sound body” is aligned with my philosophy.
To help readers understand my goal, I need to explain my “why” in life. This “why” drives each of my actions, from transcending the fatigue in a marathon to serving a multitude of chiropractic patients. My “why” is my mother who inspired the community with her resilience, optimism, and joy despite suffering years of terminal cancer. Despite her challenges, she knew she still had to maximize her life’s purpose. Since her passing, I have realized this: we all have a God-given potential that needs to be fulfilled and the only way this can happen is having a nervous system functioning at 100%. This is how I ended up being a chiropractor, in addition to my athletic pursuits. I trust that each of you discover your unique “why”; you will inspire others and be connected with your “Innate” once you discover it.
“Liew does it for late mum”. The New Paper (Singapore), 8th June 2015.
The Next Step
My story in the athletics scene is still being written as I continue to train for regional and international marathons, as well as resume part-time coaching at Flexifitness (Singapore). My story as a soon-to-be associate Doctor of Chiropractic at Family Health Chiropractic Clinic (Singapore) will soon begin. As a chiropractor, I look forward to giving, loving, and serving the community out of my own abundance, without expectation of return.

Life is a marathon, so enjoy the long run. It is too short and precious to let it “flash” by. You and I have many purposes and much potential to be fulfilled. Are you ready to fulfill them?
Representing Singapore at the 2015 SEA Games Marathon. Photo credit: Sum Chee Ming.


  1. Thanks for sharing! Love reading it! Looking out for your next post!

    1. Thank you for your input, Terence! Glad you enjoyed it. My next post is actually already up at Enjoy!