Brother Tony Fesalbon: The Running Servant

As he laced his new pair of adidas running shoes on the day of the race, brother Tony Fesalbon was happy to be part of the group who showed up at the starting line.

After training for three months, this is the day he’s been waiting for. Eager to try out his runners after retiring his old reliable New Balance sneakers, brother Tony immediately senses a huge crowd before him.

This year’s Standard Chartered Bank Marathon saw a record field of 73,201 participants competing for the full marathon (42K), half-marathon (21K) and 10-kilometer events that organizers urged the government for better routes and closing roads for an extended period of time.

However, only about 64,000 were in the field as the starting gun was fired. Still, it was an impressive growth from the 1,000 runners who joined the event in 1996. This year’s quota was filled up online in just three hours.

IMG_2970How it All Began

Running became brother Tony’s passion who adopted it while working for an engineering consulting firm in Makati, Philippines. One of the company’s top managers then was a running aficionado, and invited him to join for a run every other day after work.

“I was even challenged to join the 10K race or else I won’t pass my probation,” brother Tony quipped.

When he moved to Hong Kong in 1996 to work for an architectural firm, brother Tony, then 26, brought with him the passion of running. He juggles his role as planning engineer, a husband to sister Rachel, a father of two boys, Franz Enzo, 11, and Giancarlo, 8,  and as coordinator of Kids for Family and Life (KFL) ministry of Couples for Christ Foundation for Family and Life (CFC-FFL), a role the husband-wife tandem held since August 2010.

The Training Regimen

To prepare for a prestigious race such as Standard Chartered Bank’s, brother Tony runs at least 10 kilometers per week during the first month and 20K per week during second month. On the month before the race, he runs 30 kilometers or more per week.

He prefers to jog at night along Castle Peak Road from Sham Tseng, where he lives, to Tsuen Wan and back — a distance of about 10 kilometers.

Challenges during the training months include bad weather, busy work schedule, and other commitments. The growth in popularity of the annual event also means more difficulty in online registration, which adds to a participant’s frustration.

A cold snap with wind chills and rain hit Hong Kong a week before the race, depriving brother Tony and other runners a crucial stretch of training sessions.

“It’s disappointing when you’re in the mood to train, and the weather won’t cooperate.

“I wished I could do it even on a treadmill,” he laments.

Training on Sunday, a commonly-imposed family day, is limited at night time when everyone else has settled down and ready for bed. For obvious reasons, no training takes place during scheduled Family Ministry’s household meetings and CFC service days. He is not the lone runner in the CFC community competing in this edition of Hong Kong marathon; brothers Rey Roque (21K), Alan Madrid (10K) and Matt Baguio (10K) also joined this year’s race.

While not practicing strict diet during training months, brother Tony stays away from pork and beef.

“I take fish oil capsule, which is good for [your] heart. I eat protein rich breakfast (eggs) to help heal my muscles fast after heavy workout [such as 10K run],” he adds.


A day before the race, brother Tony eats plenty of carbohydrates-loaded meal. Sleep is an important component to a successful race so he makes sure he hits the bed by 8:00pm; waking up at 3:30am gives him enough time for hot shower and toilet.

“I take hot shower and finish it with cold water to awaken my senses.

He then proceeds to the starting location in Tsim Sha Tsui at 5:00am via the MTR which opens earlier than usual.  The race starts thirty minutes later.

He runs with an empty stomach on the day of the race and drinks a glass of water, just before the starting gun is fired. As a well-equipped race with strategically-located drinking stations, Standard Chartered Bank marathon participants do not fear dehydration. Stretching and prayers for guidance and safety are also important elements in brother Tony’s pre-run preparations.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong has a bad reputation for its air pollution, and this year’s mammoth marathon crowd only brought anxious moments for organizers. Air pollution was at its worst levels at the Western Harbour Tunnel, which links Kowloon and Hong Kong island, and even on open-air areas of West Kowloon Highway, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.

Ironically, brother Tony’s motivation to run is to be healthy and maintain active lifestyle until reaching his retirement age.
“I want to be able to cope up with my two hyperactive growing boys who both love sports. They love basketball but they also showed interest in running.”

Thankfully, only injuries, fatigue and bruised feet were among the cases this year. In 2006, a 26-year-old half-marathon runner fell unconscious upon reaching the finish line, and announced dead after he was rushed to the hospital.

The Big Day

“It’s always exciting to see fellow runners, ramped up for the race, doing the stretching, applying lotions and sun blocks, taking selfies, ” recalls brother Tony on the most noticeable things at the starting point.

“You see runners of all ages excited to hit the starting line. I was in the middle of the mammoth crowd of runners — about 200 meters behind the official starting line. To my back is a half kilometer long army of runners further behind,” he adds.

During the last seconds leading to the starting gun, runners join the countdown on top of their voices.

As the loud bang signals the official starting time, favored runners in front take a sprint while the main body of followers take a  more subdued start. The first two kilometers is a bottleneck as expected as runners of all shapes and sizes try to seize each other, trying to establish momentum. Shortly afterwards, the crowd starts to loosen up, with experienced and well-trained runners breaking away from the main pack.

“During the race, I can walk, talk, sing familiar praise and worship songs, and even talk to fellow runners,” he says.

A standard issue shirt, tight sports leggings, two layers of socks offer comfort to runners while applying Vaseline to face and lips provides protection against wind burn and chapped skin caused by the wind. Two energy gels also come handy, strapped into brother Tony’s wrist bands.

Poor choice of running apparel by newbies offers discomfort. As the race progresses, sweat begins to build up and those wearing long sleeve shirts prompted by chilly morning conditions earlier may want to take them off and abandon by the roadside.

During the first five kilometers, brother Tony keeps a modest pace, and try to keep concurrent runners at bay. Eventually, others catch up  and outrun him. At this time, runners not keeping earphones can easily notice other runners catching their breath.

According to brother Tony, one effective way of saving energy during the race is to find a runner with the same pace and run with him or her, until he or she speeds away or loses steam. As much as possible, do not run alone.

“At the last 500 meters, I attempt to sprint to the finish line but is slowed down by exhaustion, ” brother Tony explains with a laugh.

After 20 kilometers of gruelling run, the last one is a killer as runners negotiate an uphill bridge towards Causeway Bay leading to the finish line at Victoria Park. Without enough confidence, weary runners are tempted to stop, walk or even quit the race.

At the Finish Line

tony_fesalbon_1Brother Tony’s initial feeling upon reaching the finish line is a combination of fulfillment and happiness as the three-month long training has finally bore fruit.

Ethiopian Gemeda Feyera won the men’s marathon in two hours, 15 minutes and five seconds, while compatriot Rehima Kedir reached the finish line first in the women’s marathon in 2:34:53.

Even though it is a widely accepted notion that training builds winners, sometimes raw talent supersedes diligence.

But to many others, finishing the race — regardless of the placing — gets the feeling of a winner. Brother Tony Fesalbon is one of them.

In fact, he prides himself of breaking the 2-hour barrier in the recent 21K race. His 1-hour, 56 minutes clocking is significantly better than his previous years’ record: 2 hours, 4 minutes in 2013 and 2 hours, 11 minutes in 2012.

While brother Tony subjected himself to a three-month training, race winner Feyera admitted he wasn’t prepared for the race.

“Financially, this is my best result ever,” said Gemeda, “but my personal best is not fast enough (2:11:45 in Toulouse five months ago), I want to run faster elsewhere.”

Ethiopia and Kenya are traditional powerhouses in long distance races, and their prowess showed in Standard Chartered Bank Hong Kong marathon’s record books. In 18 editions since 1997, the two African countries cornered 15 top finishes in the men’s and 5 in the women’s division. And they’re not pushovers either. The winner of the women’s event in 2006, Dire Tune of Ethiopia, won the prestigious Boston Marathon in 2009.

After the run, it is customary to have a hearty meal, something brother Tony thinks about even before his run was done. Plenty of giveaways like choco bars, bananas, apples and pears are fine treats at the finish line, but he prefers to go home as soon as possible, eat and sleep the rest of the day.

As he reached home, brother Tony is treated to a heavy breakfast and heads to bed afterwards. It is still 10:00am on a Sunday and brother Tony has accomplished a lot already.

Words of Wisdom

To enthusiasts who are planning to join the event next year, brother Tony has words of wisdom to share.

“Running is the sport I highly recommend to everyone. I encourage you to take the challenge and register for the run this coming October. Once you’ved signed up, you’ll be committed to training for the next 3 months — including the festive Christmas season.

“You’ll not only have a more compelling reason not to indulge but to workout. Such motivation alone helps you lose weight, and before the run, you’ll be in good shape.

“Training is very important and it really pays well after that.

“Want to try 10K run? Try it, unless you have a medical condition. Done with 10K? then take the 21K challenge. If you are scared you can’t do it, then you’re right.”

[toggle title=”2014 Standard Chartered Bank Marathon Stats”]
Official number of participants: 73,201
Participants who joined the race: About 64,000
Liters of water used: 115,152
Bananas: 110,000
Pears: 77,520
Baggage Trucks: 57
Mobile Toilets: 343
Liters of Iso-Tone Drink: 54,100

[toggle title=”Things You May Not Know: Brother Tony Fesalbon”]
Looks up to American Olympian Jeff Galloway who wrote “Book of Running” and the fictional character Forrest Gump, the ultra marathoner who inspired from a novel and subsequent eponymous movie.

In the MTR, he prefers to take the stairs instead of crowding over at escalators.


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Elmer W. Cagape

Elmer W. Cagape

Proverbs 3:5. From Davao City. Cool Catholic. Seinfeld & Toad the Wet Sprocket. Astronomy and space exploration. Digital marketing. Travel the world.
Elmer W. Cagape

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