‘Saddle, saddle, saddle! A man with a big heart and a very talented amateur racer! He adopts the right training at the right time.’ ~ CLIFFORD LEE, www.trifastsingapore.com
‘The guy beats some of the pros. What else can I say? But when he trains - no nonsense. No junk miles.’ ~ TEE BOON TEONG
Tobias Frenz is a generous person. Perhaps, it reflects his namesake: ‘God is good’. As busy as he was in his professional position as a CEO for his new company in Kuala Lumpur, he made a great effort to complete this interview. After a long hiatus due to work commitments, he resumed his training late last year as he was doing the Sahara Desert run last October.
For that, he ran a full marathon every Saturday for training. Despite hating the training, he did reasonably well, and at one stage was the leader in this harsh and grueling race. As you will discover shortly with Tobias, training for endurance races can be considered extreme. Time is one of the major indicators of personal success, next to patience, tenacity, perseverance and determination.
This interview took months to realize, but I was determined to pursue it with passion. I believe that you will agree that it was worth it.
Full name: Tobias Frenz
Years in profession: 8
City of Residence: Kuala Lumpur
Years in triathlon: 5
Pet peeves: unpunctuality, unfairness, racial/religious bias
Enrico Varella: Hello, Tobias. Walk us through your lifestyle. You are a CEO of a reinsurance company based in KL, and are an active and competitive sportsman. How do you do it?
Tobias Frenz: Actually, I've taken a step back from sports since 2008 when I was tasked to set up a new company in KL. It took up a lot of my time and there was little left for training, not even racing! On top of that, pretty much all of the items on my sports ‘To-Do’ list had been ticked off during my Singapore days: World championships in Kona, sub-10 timings, Ultra-Ironman and Ultra-marathon wins. The only to-do on my sports list that keeps me from becoming a couch potato is the crossing of the English Channel. But that is a long shot as KL is not a suitable training ground for this.
Now, bad habits die hard, and I get itchy feet if I don’t practice for a couple of days. So, I still get up regularly at 5am for a 12km run or a 40km ride on weekdays. Being an early bird, I reach work at around 7am and leave at about 5pm. I’m quite particular about how I structure my workday and tend to be focused on what I do during the day. It is all about time management! This allows me to slot in a short 1km swim after work in my condo pool. I always swim with medium-sized paddles to build up my strength (actually because it is more fun), though it might spoil my technique - not much to spoil though.
On weekends, I go for one long run (20-30km) and a short ride, between 60-100km. This pales in comparison to what I did in Singapore, but then again, currently it is all about enjoying it and sweating it out, every now and then. So, sports currently fits nicely into my schedule as it is done on a leisurely basis.
Enrico: Other than triathlons, what else do you do to keep active?
Tobias: I don’t think reading books qualifies as sports, so I have to say that I do very little other sports. If you do three sports seriously it is hard to slot in any other sports. I played a bit of tennis in Singapore and enjoyed it, despite being hopeless at it. Currently, I enjoy swimming the most and with my Big Dream (swim the English Channel) in mind, it motivates me a lot. I also have just taken up diving and get excited about freediving.
Enrico: When taking on these physical challenges, how do you maintain your work/life balance?
Tobias: Times have changed as mentioned before. During my competitive days, there was not much of balance as it was all about getting up early: training, work, training, eat and sleep. A routine common to all endurance athletes - and as boring as it sounds - it is a lifestyle I truly enjoyed (most of the times at least). Endurance training, naturally, requires a lot of commitment, self-discipline and comes together with lots of sacrifices. Juggling work and life is a constant struggle, but I think I managed it well and never let one get the better of the other. Mainly because I have never taken sports too seriously and I'm not stressing myself out unnecessarily. I take things as they are thrown at me - this makes life so much easier. This is not to say that I’m not nervous before a race (I am!), but when the race is on, I’m like a happy puppy, trying to engage with the competitors and spectators, enjoying it whilst still doing a good race.
When I'm not travelling, my training routine fits in nicely into my workdays and helps to keep the work stress off my back. When travelling, the training is rather sporadic and comprises, mostly, morning runs. Whenever possible, I prefer running outside but in some cities (think Jakarta or Karachi) there is not much choice but to hit the gym, which I truly dread.
Enrico: How does an active physical lifestyle tie in to your work as a corporate leader/key executive?
Tobias: Personally, it helps me to maintain my balance, mentally and physically.
Enrico: Do you think doing endurance sports and multi-sports builds leadership qualities and skills?
Tobias: Yes, I think that this is absolutely the case. As an athlete you have to be disciplined, committed and mentally strong. There is a competitive streak in athletes that drives them to constantly improve and not be content with the status quo. At the same time, they gain self-confidence, learn to be patient and not easily give up or be frustrated if things don't go their way. Successful sportsmen often develop a positive attitude that can be infectious to others and this makes a perfect recipe for an upcoming leader. Sounds a bit cliché, but more often than not, it is like that. Personally, sports have shaped my character significantly and I fit perfectly into the above cliché.
All these are ingredients for a good leader, but it certainly does not mean that all athletes are good leaders. Sports only complement your personal and social skills. Personally, I think that you are born with true leadership qualities and it is difficult to acquire it, athlete or not. While competitive sports can bring the good leadership qualities out of an athlete, it can also do quite the opposite: We have all seen the sour loser, the selfish bully, or the über-ego.
I recently read a book by Warren Bennis where he stated: “More leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together. Leadership courses can only teach skills. Developing character and vision is the way leaders invent themselves.” I very much buy into this. Applied to sports, it underlines that sports can be an important part in developing your character, but vision cannot be trained on the bike or in the pool.
Enrico: Why the Ironman triathlon? What started you on that?
Tobias: Well, I didn’t start from nothing. I had done competitive bicycle road races as a teenager; every Saturday and Sunday, I’d either compete in road criteriums or participate in 100-150km endurance rides that are quite popular in Germany. During winter we did long runs and weightlifting. With hindsight, this period of intense training shaped my character and taught me the basics of training seriously. When I turned around 16, training didn’t fit into my partying lifestyle and so I more or less quit overnight. In my late twenties, I started running marathons/ultras and I realised that I was coping well with long distance events.
Now, the idea to participate in an Ironman came up in late-2004 when I met an elderly cyclist on my weekly Sunday morning ride (who was training for Ironman Korea). This got me thinking: ‘If he can do it (with due respect), I can do it as well!’ I had never before seriously thought about it. It was like an Eureka moment. I remember watching as a kid the Germans like Lothar Leder and Juergen Zaeck racing in Kona on TV and I was amazed at how somebody could run a marathon after the swim and bike.
So, after some deliberation and reading up on the Internet about Ironman, I decided to give it a try. I knew I could handle the cycle and run leg, but the big question mark was my swim. I didn’t swim in Germany and only learnt swimming freestyle when I came to Singapore. My condo had a tiny 18m pool and so I started off with crawling half of it. Half become one, one became two and so the story goes. With hindsight I should have taken some classes as my technique is far from perfect and swimming is still my weakest discipline.
My plan was to do Ironman Western Australia in early 2005 and so I signed up for the Half-Ironman in New Zealand in January 2005 to get a first taste of triathlon. But I had a bike crash on Boxing Day and consequently had to cancel that race. Plan B came into effect and I decided not do any shorter distance triathlon but to go right into the Ironman distance. IM Austria in June 2005 was my first triathlon and I was content with my timing of 10:14h. Indeed, I was so surprised and happy about my time that I said, ‘That’s it, I don’t really need this anymore.’ Well, I would have to eat my words…
Enrico: How many years did you train before you qualified for Kona?
Tobias: I qualified for the first time for Kona at my second Ironman, the IM Langkawi in February 2006. So, it took me about 1½ year.
Enrico: What was it like to qualify for Kona?
Tobias: The first time (2006) it was simply great, and I'll never forget the moment when a friend sent me a text message that I got a slot. I felt blessed (a word I hardly use, being a free-thinker) and could hardly believe it.
The second time, I was kind of expecting to qualify again and I delivered with my then personal best of 9:49h (which I lowered to 9:38h two months later at the Triple Ironman in the UAE). The third time (2008) it was a bit of a pleasant surprise as I had hardly touched my bike for over 6 months before the race!
Photo-credits: Tobias Frenz