Over 50 half-marathons & biking across a minefield: Educators tell us about their lives outside the classroom

Not your regular ‘chers.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | September 03, 2021, 11:55 AM

At 50-something, Denise Dillon has achieved an impressive record — chalking up one full marathon and more than 50 half-marathons under her belt. And that’s already discounting several shorter runs that she completed along the way.

It’s all the more notable, considering that the Australian had picked up running only a decade ago, when she was in her 40s.

The associate professor of psychology at the Singapore campus of James Cook University (JCU) had been in Singapore for about two years when she was casually introduced to the sport.

“In 2010, someone suggested we do the Standard Chartered half marathon and three of us walked it together – at that time we couldn’t even manage to run at all,” said Denise, who completed the distance at a decent timing of three hours, 22 minutes and 30 seconds.

Dillon at the Standard Chartered half marathon in 2019.

Although she was no stranger to outdoor activities, having enjoyed hikes and bush walks back in Australia, they were definitely less intense types of outdoor activities. Her unexpected accomplishment in her first half marathon spurred her to run more regularly.

“Being able to label myself as a runner was tremendously satisfying and gave me a sense of pride,” Dillon acknowledged.

The satisfaction of completing the distance motivated Dillon to take up running. “I slowly built up the pace and stamina and started entering other running events,” said Dillon, who ended up completing four half-marathons and a full marathon within a year.

Interestingly enough, even her parents were amused by her newfound enthusiasm for running, “because I’d never engaged in any sort of sports growing up and once I started running, that became the predominant topic for ‘news’ updates they would hear from me,” she shared.

In fact, running became almost an addiction for Dillon, as “for a few years, it did take over my life a little bit”, she admitted.

“I was always preparing for an event or taking part in another one. During that time I was saying ‘no’ to most social invitations because of wanting to be up early the next morning, or needing to rest up after a long run.

And by early, it would mean getting up way before sunrise and hitting the road by about five or six in the morning.

Dillon completing yet another half marathon in 2016.

One of her most regular running routes is along the Singapore River “from around Clarke Quay down to Marina Bay and a loop around the Bay to return up the river” which Dillon reckons is about 7.5km.

While she has eased up on her punishing schedule quite a bit due to a recent ankle injury, she still does this often, as well as the MacRitchie trail.

“For MacRitchie I don’t like to disturb animals with a headlamp so I’d need to wait until there’s enough light to see, which is usually just around 7am to start,” said Dillon, who finds Singapore “highly conducive” for running, and also counts the Mandai trail down through Chestnut Nature Park among her favourite routes.

Never too late to start

Dillon doing the Bedok Ultra Marathon in 2017.

One piece of advice Dillon has for aspiring runners? “It’s never too late to start, but don’t push yourself too much too soon.”

“Ease into it by listening to your body and allow sufficient time for recovery between runs. Also find shoes that fit you well for the long haul; looks don’t matter at all and neither do massive amounts of cushioning, but tightness anywhere in a running shoe can take away the fun,” she shared.

Her passion for running is so fervent that the topic would often seep into casual conversations with her students before lectures start. “I’ve even been guilty of finding ways to bring examples of my running experiences into lectures,” said Dillon, who’s also a nature-lover and specialises in environmental psychology.

She would often draw on her own personal experience when it comes to her lessons, especially on topics such as motivation.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve also used running examples when talking about pro-environmental behaviours during environmental psychology lectures as well,” said Dillon, who also described how some of her best times as an educator have been celebrating with students at their graduations.

“It’s so satisfying to see them launching off into the next phase of their lives, either to professional careers or to further their studies. I’ve collected lots of happy snaps along the way, with graduates and their families, and it’s been wonderful to hear from many of them even years afterwards, letting me know about their achievements,” she shared.

An educator and adventure biker

Cameron biking up Mount Tamalpais in California.

Surprisingly, Dillon is not the only dedicated educator with a penchant for the great outdoors at JCU. Her colleague, Ian Cameron, 54, happens to be an avid cyclist with a thrill-seeking bent.

The head of department at JCU’s language school regaled us with his adventures biking up and down mountains in California (Mount Tamalpais, to be exact), as well as one of his greatest accomplishments, cycling an arduous route from Croatia to Bosnia, which passes through a minefield.

He put in a caveat, however: “You don’t really cycle through a minefield; the road and nearby ground have been cleared, but you are warned in no uncertain terms not to stray too far from the cleared area by red ‘achtung bonen!’ signs, sporting the indispensable skull and crossbones to good effect!”

A photo Cameron took while biking from Bosnia to Croatia.

Having more or less settled in Singapore for the past nine years with his partner and son, the people and weather rank high on his list of things that he likes most about our sunny island.

Despite Singapore’s decidedly less dangerous terrain, Cameron still enjoys his occasional ride outdoors when he finds the time these days.

“I enjoy riding through the central catchment area, along the park connector, which gives a real feel of getting into the wilds, even though it’s in the middle of Singapore.

“I remember one of the first times I biked along it, a slim branch fell onto the path just in front of me – then slithered away quickly! Not a branch but a snake; I always wonder whether it was trying to land on me!” he recounted.

Getting over the fear of trying something new

It’s a wonder that Cameron, a former national swimmer who once also hitchhiked across the Andes, does not think of himself as particularly adventurous. But his daredevil spirit is in part due to the profound impact he finds it has on one’s psyche.

“Doing things like this [referring to his biking exploits] is great for your own sense of achievement. I don’t think of myself as very adventurous, but when I get a plan, sometimes I can surprise myself,” said Cameron.

“It’s good to push yourself to find out what you’re capable of: it’s usually more than we think. That’s why I like to tell these stories, in the hope that it’ll inspire other people – students, colleagues or friends – to get out there and try something.”

And the English language teacher has reason to believe he has in some ways made people sit up and think, ‘I can try that”.

He gave the example of when he used to cycle to work in Kandy, Sri Lanka, during a time when adult cyclists were not commonly seen on the roads. About a year later, however, Cameron “detected a noticeable increase” in that number.

Of the fear that many people have of trying something new, Cameron had this to say:

“People often think ‘I’m not that kind of person” – well, nobody is – until they do it, and then they are!”

Added Cameron, who has taught for the past 30 years in many countries across the globe: “One of the joys of being an educator is that you can influence young people, and I like to encourage them to try new things and so achieve more.”

Cameron on the Ciro trail in Bosnia.

And while students may not always be outwardly appreciative towards their teachers, one particularly memorable incident made Cameron’s hard work seem worthwhile.

“One of the naughtier teenagers I taught slipped into class late and asked his classmate (in Spanish, thinking I didn’t understand) what they were doing.

“His classmate replied that we were doing a song, and he asked what the song was. His classmate said he didn’t know, and he (the naughty one) replied that it didn’t matter, it was bound to be good as it was me (and I always chose good songs, I suppose).

“One of my proudest moments, inside the class or out,” said Cameron.

Pet peeves as a teacher

Evidently it isn’t true that teachers lead boring lives. With Teachers’ Day coming up, JCU’s campus Dean, professor Abhishek Singh Bhati took the opportunity to pay tribute to all teachers: “I would like to thank all teaching staff for their contributions towards educating students this Teachers’ Day but at the same time, I also want to celebrate them as people with interesting lives beyond the classroom.”

And when it comes to the classroom, one thing that both Cameron and Dillon can agree on is that students, be it those they encounter in Singapore or overseas, tend to be a tad too quiet for their liking. No surprises there, if you ask us.

“It can be exhausting having to be the one who does all the talking, so I’d love to find a way to have students speak up more,” shared Dillon.

“Since we’ve been doing blended learning with live lectures online, I’ve noticed that students seem more responsive in text messaging, which is nice to see but still doesn’t replace vocal engagement.”

It’s a point that Cameron brings up as well: “I wish students would realise that saying nothing is always worse than saying something. Nothing will come of nothing, as the Bard said.”

Asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t dedicated educators, Dillion, an avid reader who counts ​​Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Malcolm Gladwell among her favourite authors, shared: “In my own opinion, I work best in the background, so if I wasn’t a lecturer I’d still like to be involved in research and writing. Editing is also appealing, because it’s oddly restful.”

Replied Cameron cheekily: “[I’d be] a billionaire playboy, of course! Or maybe a restaurant critic.”

This article is sponsored by James Cook University.