Thursday, December 31, 2009

Do You Have an Off-Season?

Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes have asked me if I have I taken time off from training. Yes, I do. Don’t I rest? Yes. Do I have a season off from racing? No.

Why do I persistently race and train constantly?

I do so because my fitness has been hard earned. It took me five patient years to build it to this optimal point. Why discharge and dismiss it by having an over-extended rest and recovery period? I reason that I commit to this pursuit because sports is part of my lifestyle, so it is integrated and ingrained into my curiously complex and convoluted life.

Just this morning, my friends stated that they envied me for my active lifestyle of racing whenever I want to; I corrected them. I don’t race wantonly and impulsively. Every race was predetermined, planned and pursued according to a timeline. I just injected more of such challenges and vacations in a year than most people do. As a self-employed professional, I decide on my lifestyle patterns, so I can have my life choices, instead of work-life balance/harmony. Priorities make it challenging to have balance; I experience and engineer dynamic balance. The childhood game of see-saw is not about static balance – it is highly energetic and requires strong core muscles to execute immobility.

When you do something consistently, you develop muscle memory. You refine what you have defined. Does a concert musician have an off-season from practice? Does a Michelin-rated chef stop cooking a few weeks in a year? Do teachers stop teaching? Does a yoga-master stop stretching through her limits? Does an opera-singer stop singing?

Having an off-season may not be that bad. I had an, ‘off season’ in my triathlon performance, but a splendid running season this year. I merely refocused my energies towards running better. My focus in the next season is swimming; and I am realistic about this Achilles Heel. Professional athletes take time off from sports to recharge and rejuvenate their body. If they spent it on training, they will suffer from fatigue – physically, mentally and on a neurological level. Vacationing and having ‘time off’ and ‘time out’ can help them re-focus on their personal lives. Even world-leaders take vacations from their 24/7 ‘day-jobs’.

How can you apply an off-season strategy?

1) Fast one day in a week

2) Be a vegetarian or fruitarian for one day

3) Take no business calls on a Sunday

4) Skip television one day a week

5) Avoid your social media once a week (i.e. Facebook, IM, tweets, blogs)

6) Switch to a different sport instead of your favourite one

7) Learn something new instead of applying something familiar

8) Experience something different or unusual

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year of Emitting Dangerously

In this tail end of 2009, we have been subjugated or smittened with a cornucopia of 2.0/Generation Y slang: from carbon imprints to Obamism to Tweets to Social Media 2.0. The confusion is mounting, as is the fear of an unstable and uncertain future defined by digital parameters. And, we are not talking about our fingers or numerals!

James Cameron’s Avatar may be an attempt to pre-date his prediction and predilection of the global troubles that may heavily befall us. Woe betides us. The world will end soon, if the film 2012 is to be believed. The plethora of extra-terrestrial and terra firma-based doomsday films may have worked their strange and enchanting magic on us. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may be the wake-up call for mankind, and our leaders. The writing is on the wall, and it is not all graffiti but a cryptic code that may require attentive and meticulous interpretation by vigilant code-breakers. Spew smoke, eat lead and then perish – a simple equation, really for spoiling Mother Nature, and our nature.

Over the months, we have been indirectly promoting a multi-sporting endurance culture and lifestyle. We made overt and covert references to cycling, running and swimming – our meek attempts for promoting and marketing alternative modes of transportation. Perhaps, we are merely attempting to reduce our carbon footprints, and other noxious and indelible residues.

Save a planet: Ride a bike. Please make way for us humble cyclists whether we pay road-tax or not. Coming right!

Illustration of rider: Tan Boon Fong.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Creating A Case for Choices

I chose to run the ultra-marathon on Sunday. Now, I am sore and hobble somewhat with sore feet and legs. This is the consequence of my strange choice to complete a 52.5km foot-race. On looking back, I am glad I did it as I chalk another long-distance race to my list of physical accomplishments.

I had an interesting conversation with a businessperson after dinner on Christmas Day. It was about choices.

The businessperson I spoke to argued that, because of his relative lack of education, he had no choice. I countered his argument by reasoning that we have choices, except that sometimes we are limited by our range of choices. Choices are a pathway of the Western world, whereas Asians prefer the notions of destiny, karma, fate and luck. I suggested that we consider these notions later in our life, and focus on choices now.

He mentioned flexibility, yet I felt that he used this term without fully appreciating it. Flexibility is about having more choices, not less. Anita Roddick once said: 'Three choices are a good beginning.' The more choices we create, the more decisive we can be. In my experience, when people say no choice, it means that they do not like the choices they have, or the decisions they make.

So, what do we do? List down your choices when you have to make decisions. Use these choices to determine your range of movement, and possibilities. Most of the time, we have at least two choices - this is the digital world. Yes or no. Do, or not do. Take it, or leave it. We have choices; perhaps, we may not enjoy these choices as we are limited by them.

List down your abilities, experience, skills, capabilities, and relationships. Determine how more capable you can be with these options and choices. What can you do with each of your competencies? Lead with possibility and openness. Keep creating more choices for yourself, and others. There is always another point of view, or point of entry.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Random Rants and Raves

Doesn’t an alliterative title catch your attention? It is like making my mark.

This morning, my legs are heavy and mildly sore. That is the consequence of running a marathon, and more. I ran 52.5km yesterday on uneven and hard terrain as part of my preparation for Ironman New Zealand 2010 – so, the cat is out of the bag! This will be my last longest run for my run preparation, then lots of tempo and interval training. A heavy menu of swim and fast riding will begin this week as I intend to reduce my weaknesses and deficits. , Due to my involvement in the Singapore Youth Olympic Games (SYOG),I will then spend the latter part of my year focused on marathons in 2010.

It is almost the end of the year, and I have been consistent in making at least one blog post a day since May. I wrote that I would take up Seth Godin’s challenge of one blog a day, for the next three years. Eight months, and going strong! In that of months, I have learnt and appreciated the relevance of Social Media 2.0. Let me know what you would like to read. I have two more fascinating interviews to post in the weeks to come, and I appreciate your patience, as these are busy executives to woo and pursue. The best things in life come to those who wait?

Writing has been an edifying experience – maintaining this blog, and completing the 30-day, NanoWriMo challenge have revived that feel. Expressing your thoughts on public forums like a blog or on Facebook or Twitter can be quite soul baring. Eyeball traffic can lead to responses that you do not expect – albeit mostly pleasant ones. It keeps writers mindful, sensitive and responsible for their thoughts. Thank you readers for writing in and participating in our tribal dialogue!

I will spend the next few days finishing up my business plan for the next two years. It will, of course, accommodate my strange nomadic and active lifestyle. There are a few things I hope to tick off my ‘To-Do’ list – participating in exclusive events being one of them. I have drawn up a massive mind map to give me my Big Picture – I have found that these dream and strategy maps give me better focus, purpose and sense of direction. I do alter my plans based on this template, and my priorities.

Enjoy your year-end break. Swim, ride and run – or do something active today!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You Have to Be Super to Earn a Superlative

I just completed 5 laps of the MacRitchie Runners (MR25) annual ultra-marathon. As posted earlier, I expected to do run 6 loops instead, however I bowed to the stifling heat and humidity of the morning. I actually enjoyed a very good marathon time, for 4 loops of 10.5km each. However, I had to do damage control or else my body would have over-heated.

I was ready to throw in the towel after the marathon distance, however my training buddy Don Ng insisted that we do one more loop. It was just as well we did, as I would not have earned my finisher t-shirt, which is awarded only to those who completed 5 loops, and more. Thanks, Don for kicking me forward!

It is so easy to just call it a day, yet to do so I would have deprived myself of the pride and memory of accomplishing a longer distance. As a shocking consolation, many runners did only the perfunctory five loops instead of the 6, 7, 8, and 9 loops we witnessed last year. Even my friend Tobias Frenz completed five loops only, although in a blistering time. I completed my last loop by a combination of running and fast walking with my mates, Don and Wilson Tan. Wilson expressed that the terrain was hard for him, despite his extensive experience in racing X-Terra (cross-terrain) races. The undulating, muddy, rocky and slippery profile of the run track did pose challenges to the runners in subsequent laps. When I left the venue, I knew only one runner who ran 6 laps; I hope somebody goes beyond that.

I had a great crew of supporters who manned a drink station: we had Gatorade, food and beer. It was nice to crack open a cold one after the race, and share a few cans more with friends.

What did I learn from this event today? Well, if you want something badly you will commit to it. My mental fitness was called to task today. My motivation was the t-shirt; my bragging rights. Jim Collins, founder of Ironman triathlon did say: 'If you quit, you will live with it!' Wilson shared that once your body suffers from neural fatigue, your body quits on you - not much you can do about it, except stick for as long as you can. Walk if you must, just get the legs moving!

It was good day of racing hard, and catching up with old friends. I am glad I still have the legs to run a full marathon after my last one on 6 December.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Putting the Ultra- in Your Resume

An ultra-marathon is a marathon-plus race. It is any distance over the standard 42.195km, usually with additional packets of 10.5km thrown into the wash. Other formats are multiples of marathon distance, i.e. 84km, 136km, 168km; there are 50-milers and 100-milers in the USA. Our previous interviewee, Alan Giraldi has completed the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, and has qualified for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (26-27 June 2010) – which is very hard to get in.

On Sunday, 27 December I will participate in my second ultra-marathon. Why? All for a t-shirt…and then some. I ran 52.5km last year, which are 5 loops of the off-road, 10.5km track. I aim to complete 6 loops this year, and earn another ultra-marathon t-shirt.

From 7.00am till 7.00pm, the established local running club of MR25 will facilitate this boutique race that attracts about 300 runners annually from Singapore and abroad. My friend, Ironman John Cooke will fly from Perth to do this race again. Multiple-Ironman winner and Kona finisher, Tobias Frenz will drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on Saturday just to do five or 11 loops, depending on how he feels.

This run route takes place on varied terrain: road, sandy trail, and rocky track. There are water-points at strategic locations, but it helps to carry your own water. The organizers provide water, electrolyte drinks, fruit and even lunch. If you register by 6.30am at MacRitchie Reservoir on Sunday, you can join us. You have 12 hours to complete as many loops as you wish to, and stop whenever you want to. It is a great year-end gathering of old friends and new ones; it is as much a personal test of endurance and willpower as it is a social activity – you can chat to fellow runners when the gremlins start gnawing at your back at the 30km mark.

Next year, I intend to run in the Adidas Sundown Marathon and complete the 84km distance. One step at a time...

Wish us good weather tomorrow!

Friday, December 25, 2009

All I Want For Christmas Is/Are...

This list was decided exactly 1 hour 15 minutes after midnight, on Christmas morning. In the spirit of left-brain logic, and right-brain abstraction I laid down my wish list for the year. These are things that matter much to me.

1) More tolerance and respect for fellow human beings

2) People appreciating and valuing personal values

3) Learning how to be more human than we already are

4) Actual commitment towards renewable energy sources

5) A cure for a disease, and shared healing commitments (pharmaceutical companies – take note!)

6) More concerted efforts to care for the elderly and physically challenged

7) Better health care for those who need it most (including the under-developed nations)

8) Less focus on being politically correct, and doing the right things

9) A significant shift towards enhanced human thinking and potential

10)More good things, and less bad things (hey, it’s my list!)

What’s on your list? Which will you ensure will get a nudge in the right direction?

Have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Does Empowerment Exist?

This article triggered off my constant thoughts about empowerment, and its validity and reliability.

How often do you empower your staff or colleagues? When was the last time you were empowered? How real is empowerment?

In my observations and interviews with students and clients, I appreciate that empowerment is more talk than application. I also realized that many managers do not understand fully what empowerment entails. I get annoyed when managers talk about empowerment yet want to wrest it away from their staff. They behave like Silas from the television series ‘Heroes’ where he absorbs the powers of his victims before he murders them; he acts as a parasite.

Empowerment means relinquishing some of your authority whilst still retaining responsibility for your staff. Empower means to ‘give power over’. Other than the public utilities suppliers, few companies practise the handing over of power. They are possessive of it, and tend to hoard it.

Attached to this, is the notion of delegation. Delegate to the person who can best do the job, and not somebody who lacks the competencies to do it well. If you delegate to the wrong person, you are in fact sabotaging them to failure. Now, does that reflect well on your decision-making ability as a leader?

Perhaps you can empower yourself by doing something challenging. Remember the incomplete New Year resolutions you made last year? What about doing a few of them in 2010? Get a few ticks on your list of ‘to-do’ things. Seriously, shed those excess(ive) kilogrammes. Start moving. The journey to a marathon begins with the first step you take. Seek the rehabilitative treatment you owe to the sore back you suffer incessantly with. Stop inhaling from the mini-exhaust pipes (there is carbon monoxide in those 'fire sticks'). Lear to swim - start with a coach and the shallow end. Now, what is it about you wanting to ride a bicycle?

Give yourself the power and permission to pick up where you left off. Dispel any thoughts of abandonment, and instead adopt new habits and skills. Learn to treat yourself and others right.

Stop talking about empowerment – do it! Do the right thing and enhance somebody’s potential.

Another article on Three Levels of Empowerment - determine how relevant it is to you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Youth Leadership at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games (SYOG)

The Singapore Youth Olympic Games (SYOG) takes place on 14-26 August 2010.

The bandwidth of national competitors is squeezed within the 14-18 year olds over 26 sports events. Our older athletes will have to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2012 in London.

Many primary and secondary schools have set up attractive websites to promote the SYOG. Students and teachers have collaborated to set up these online sites to promote these inaugural Games. It is brand extension of the well-established Olympic Games brand.To integrate an active sense of participation, our local schools have incorporated brief geography lessons on participating countries. Fuchun Secondary School features the British Virgin Islands as one of the participating countries. Compassvale Primary School features Congo.

SYOG has invited young presenters, commentators and reporters to lead the events. This is an awesome opportunity to allow our youths to express their leadership qualities through the eyes of different professions. Here is the rare and unprecedented opportunity to learn and appreciate professions in the Social Media 2.0 economy, broadcast and print journalism, and media relations.

Have you enlisted a young student leader for this occasion? It is a great chance to reveal the leadership and creative potential of our student community. The Olympic core values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect will remain strong and reliable guiding values for our youth leaders.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Are You An Active Observer or Pedestrian Participant?

Sounds oxymoronic?

How do you approach life? Do you actively participate with a sense of openness, without judgement and a sense of adventure?

Do you prefer to watch the world go by as you hide in the shadows of voyeuristic protection?

Do you approach your life as a spectrum of possibilities? Or, is it governed by a polarity response: either, or? Neither, nor? Do you reflect on, ponder over, and think about how you connect with the world, and how it has an umbilical cord-like nexus with you?

Are you the wayward traveler or waylaid traveler? What is your position and stance? Do you go with the flow, or do you flow with the go?

How do you really approach your life?

Fierce Invalids From Warm Climates

The title of this blog post comes from the 2001 book by Tom Robbins, who writes in a unique style of narrative and prose. The first few pages may through you off, yet you regain your balance and then makes a lot of sense and sensibility.

The moment I stepped out of the plane, and walked on the tarmac of Terminal 3, I was overwhelmed by the familiar humidity that enveloped me like a pouncing shadow. It squeezed the only words I could muster under such shocking circumstances: ‘Darn - It’s hot and humid!’ Okay, I did not exactly use ‘darn’ but in the interest of ‘Smallville’, we sanitise this narrative.

Having spent several days previously, overseas, in cooler climates I had adapted to the cold of early winter. I altered my dietary habits to accommodate to higher-fat meals. In the past, I used to be averse to fatty foods, as I wanted a leaner body. Today, I can still attain that look with my high-mileage triathlon and marathon training. So, I had less qualms succumbing to social norms and habits; eating being one major social activity of relevance.

It was nice to wear warm clothing, and my dusty but trusty leather jacket (bought about seven seasons ago in a thrift-shop in Las Vegas) had its days in the sun again. I felt confident with this mildly over-sized skin, as it made me look larger than life. However, the cold air humbled me at times with its icy cold scratch. You learn to adjust, adapt, adopt and be adept in what you do and experience.

It is good to be home again. Travel makes you appreciate the things you take for granted. [I am munching on a slice of apple pie from Han’s and a cup of freeze-dried instant coffee. Later, I will have a strong cup of local espresso at the coffee shop.]

Riding Solo or With A Pack?

There are advantages with training in a pack. The herd mindset may determine which leader to follow. However, you will need to manage team dynamics. This is about managing characters, personalities, and expectations of the group. Of course, the group looks out for its own kind – safety in numbers, familiarity and a sense of identity.

Going solo has its relevance, too. You report to no one but yourself. You decide on your agenda. You have all the flexibility in the world, to do or not to do. Yet, you will need to strongly motivate yourself, or else procrastination can dominate you. It is so easy to not be pressured to wake up earlier to do a bike ride, run or swim. It is so easy to edit your workout by an hour, or five kilometers, or skip a pool session. Once you have agreed to join a group, your commitment matters and you have to honour your commitment.

Perhaps, the approach is somewhere in-between. Have a chat with your training mates and consider your options.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Hole-in-One

In recent weeks, the golfing world has reacted somewhat mildly in response to its Golden Boy’s revelation of transgressions. The civilian, non-golfer, world has reacted more enthusiastically to the drama that is unfolding of the indiscretions of one of the most valued player in golf. Such is the enormous impact of leading sportspeople on society, where they are treated like role models, demi-gods, and moral compasses.

I learnt, today, that one of my students scored a hole-in-one at a golf tournament. He won a Mercedes Benz B-Series car for his effort! Because of his win, he cannot qualify for another hole-in-one prize because the value of his prize puts him in the league of professional golfers. What an interesting position to be in! He has the bragging rights of a lifetime for this rare feat. And, he has the status of a professional for two years. What are the odds? Needless to say, he is one happy and confident man. Events like this can be life-changing; the car he drives reminds him of his badge of honour.

In that same class, one student ran marathons; another completed an Ironman triathlon race two years ago. Each of them completed a marathon a fortnight back. These personal achievements can be akin to hole-in-one moments. It is so easy to give up, and leave the race in humiliation by submitting to pain and discomfort. Or, you can stick to your guns with patience and perseverance. Each physical challenge could have been a hole-in-one moment. Anything can happen, and it usually does. They have both signed up for the 84km ultra-marathon in the Adidas Sundown Marathon held in late-May 2010.

How often do you experience a ‘hole-in-one’? These are experiences that happen like flukes - unexpected events and results. They are rare and unprecedented opportunities to shine, albeit through surprising moments. Can we, deliberately, create hole-in-one moments? How can we increase our chances for such delightfully ‘random’ occasions?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Facing Rejection

I have watched all of the six seasons of Entourage. This HBO series delves into the lives of a rising Hollywood star and his coterie: two childhood friends; a struggling, older actor-brother; and a hotshot, socially offensive agent.

There are some significant insights you can glean from the series. Firstly, it explores the purpose and dreams of his team. Do they continue to live off his earnings? Do they have their own plans to develop and grow as individuals? Do they live in the shadow of the golden goose? The underlying theme of social parasites and friendship is hinted at more than strongly in the subsequent seasons. Age and maturity also factor in as they seriously reflect on their individual lives.

Secondly, as actors have to audition for their parts how they handle rejection? How do they continue to stay optimistic when they face a barrage of rejections? Is there a threshold for one’s patience and self-esteem when constructive criticism becomes too hard to swallow? How does one stay positive and forward looking when the going gets tough? How do you manage your emotions when you get a bad review? What if the most brutal truth comes from your agent or best friend?

Lastly, Entourage deals with relationships. How do you manage personal and professional relationships? Can you mix personal and professional relationships? Is consultative decision making the best way to go in a team? Are relationships based on pleasing others, and accommodating to your friend’s needs? Do we have close friends because we fear our loneliness? How do you manage overwhelming egos? How do you manage your values like integrity, honesty, and trust?

Do give some thought over these questions.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Leadership By Inspiration

Inspiration is the stimulation of the emotions and mind to a higher level of feeling and activity.

My friend’s 77-year-old father completed the marathon a fortnight ago. Two months shy of his 78th birthday, Uncle Kor ran a 4 hour 39 minutes at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon. That is an amazing time for a septuagenarian, who had a heart bypass when he was 70 years old, runs two marathons a year, and has completed 11 of them!

I find it inspirational that at such a mature age – when most would be doing active sports like lawn bowling, speed chess, and feeding Japanese carps – that Uncle Kor would be participating actively in a grueling sport like marathon running. It gives me hope that I may, one day, still lead a fairly active lifestyle at a ripe age. Perhaps, I would cross the finish line at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii! Or, even complete my 40th marathon!

Inspirational people create a sense of hope for us. They motivate us through their actions. They lead by example. They inspire us by moving our intellect and emotion or prompt our actions or invention. Look around you – there is plenty to be inspired by! Stay open-minded and be impressed by the talents, performance and abilities of others.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teaching to Somebody And Nobody

At one point, I felt like a radio deejay. Who is listening in? How am I sounding? Am I speaking too fast, or too deliberately? Are they still there?

You will need to engage your imagination. You need to hallucinate that your audience is there, in front of you. There is no way of getting feedback, or interaction except for the audience who are physically there with you. Feed forward leads to feedback, which leads to more feed forward - that is the process of 2-way, communication complete with real-world distractions like a distraught customer on the phone, an urgent meeting to attend, and worries of unmet sales targets.

Yesterday, I taught a class that video-casted over a wide geography so as to maximize its student reach. In principle, I taught on a large stage, and the session beamed over 30 locations throughout the country via a network of video-conferencing. However, I had no clue how the other students were responding. I was used to interacting with actual people, face-to-face, or at least, a Skype-based coaching opportunity or meeting. I like more control over my teaching environment, where technology does not become my hindrance and mislead me. I prefer walking on stage and off stage, and being with my students.

To add to this cauldron of challenges, my students were constantly migrating in/out of the auditorium. I had to stay focused on my delivery, which was in Mandarin and the occasional local dialect. Thank you, Mom for leading me the way to effective bilingualism! Rapport was every bit as important as my sharing of information and anecdotes of my personal and professional experiences. This was my first ethereal audience, drifting like lost souls. I had a few epiphanies, I assure you, however it was based on confidence, clarity and my commitment. I channeled my concerns into actions. It was better to do something different to get different results.

This singular event led me to explore how I can be more effective in my presentation of such a class. I received feedback that the students would benefit more from the training if I stayed more to verbal presentations. What I did was involved my immediate audience with activities and exercises: discuss, write, ask, respond, practise and do the exercises. However, based on this format I had to adjust my style – I spent some time expressing my influence more like a talking head, supported with PowerPoint slides. I eventually decided on the TED style that worked better.

This was my first presentation that I allowed to be recorded, which was a shift in my mindset. I am unsure how effective future salespeople will find this archived 5-hour session, as my students enjoyed my personalized coaching as I moved around the auditorium.

In the weeks to come, I will share with you different interventions with Social Media Tools 2.0 in the process of classroom and online teaching. Let me know which modality you would prefer me to focus on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Influence Need Not Be a Straight Line

Push and pull are Newtonian laws. Influence follows these forces.

Marketing is pull. Sales is push. Work these forces without losing balance. Influence means bringing them to your side, without resistive forces. Offend people, and they become defensive. In Tai Chi Chuan, if your opponent pushes you - you pull them towards you. You shift them. You shift their balance of powers. When you exercise your attraction and allure, you lure others towards you with your pull.

The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line. Go for it, instead of going around in circles. Go directly for it!

Monday, December 14, 2009


This interview is one of our most elaborate and comprehensive look into a fascinating Singapore athlete. Harn Wei argues his points with a sense of civic responsibility and scientific validity. His logic is almost Vulcan-like, yet it includes a sensibility born of action and experience. We now explore his involvement with athletes, his beliefs about limits and limitations, new challenges, and his philosophy towards life.

Enrico Varella: I understand that you volunteer actively with physically challenged athletes. Tell us more about this. When did you start? Who do work most closely with?

Harn Wei: I used to do that, back in 2007. Time commitment on other activities has stopped me from helping them out. I am now volunteering to coach the YOG modern pentathlon squad. Back in 2007, TriZEN - my triathlon club - volunteered to train a group of Special Olympics and hearing-challenged athletes prepare for the first edition of the SIngapore Ironman 70.3. It was a very enriching experience! We established lasting friendship with many of the physically-challenged athletes and it was a very good exposure for TriZEN members to help those in need of our support and understanding.

Enrico Varella: How has Ironman training and racing benefitted you, both personally and professionally?

Harn Wei: As I have mentioned above, planning and executing a year-round training and racing plan for ironman and ultra triathlon is a big test of discipline and the ability to juggle the many different commitments in our lives. This is a good way to build character and many of the lessons learnt from this process can readily be translated into our professional lives.

Enrico Varella: What's next on the list of 'to do' or 'to conquer' list?

Harn Wei: I have a few. Getting more sleep tops the list! Ha! In triathlon, I hope to do a sub-9:30 for Ironman; set a new Asia double Ironman record (which is 24h40min); complete the traditional deca iron in a new Asia record time (which is just over 12 days); and to complete at least once the ultimate of all ultra triathlon - the double deca (yes, we are bringing it - 78km swim, 3600km bike and 844km run - back next year but I am not aiming to do this in 2010 but in 2012). In ultra running, I hope to run the 7-day ultra running event in Athens, Greece, and to complete the 10000-mile continuous run challenge in the future.

Enrico Varella: What is your philosophy towards life? The host of 'The Amazing race', Phil Koegan wrote a book 'NOW - No Opportunity Wasted'. What is your take on that?

I believe in not setting limits on myself, including not walking around and putting labels on myself. Nothing is more effective in clipping our wings of potential than starting everyday thinking 'I am so and so, and I am only good in doing this and this'. No!
Refrain from self-labeling and break away from traditional mindset. Learn from multiple sources. Absorbing what's useful and creating what is essentially our own enable us to reinvent ourselves and redefine our limits!

Phil's 'NOW' philosophy is not being detailed enough, I feel. What does he mean by 'opportunities'? An opportunity may not represent anything fundamentally new and may even encourage one to be further ingrained in the conventional and well-rehearsed. Instead, one should grasp all opportunities to re-define limits and grow in that process.

Enrico Varella: What methods do you use to monitor the onset of fatigue/flat spells/de-motivation during training for such events that come down to you performing at your best on a single day?

Harn Wei: Tools such as HRM and SRAM can only do so much. Your heart rate can be in the acceptable range but if the legs lack the snap or are calling for time out, time out is exactly what they should be given. I rely on the plain old method of 'feeling' and 'internal dialogue'. When we are involved in physically activities, every aspect of our consciousness is involved and engaged - the mental, spiritual, physical, emotional etc. For e.g., how you feel and what you think will reflect accurately the physical state of your well-being, which is a record of what you have done prior to that training session or race. So, simply by being aware of these different signals sent out from the different aspects of our consciousness, we can very accurately monitor our holistic state thourghout the day (or days) and react according.

Enrico Varella: Your website is called TriZen.Tell us more about your Zen philosophy of triathlons.

Harn Wei: My outlook in life is profoundly influenced by the teachings of Taoism. Although my family is a Taoism-Buddhism one, I am more of a free-thinker. So, how does the teaching of Taoism affect the way I look at and do triathlon? The teaching of Taoism (not the religion of Taoism) advocates philosophies that one can readily apply to endurance sports. For example, it emphasizes on the need to create a synergy between "human and nature", which makes sense because we all know the folly of trying to, say, beat the headwind. We don't, and can never, beat Nature. The wisdom of "non-action" - or, wu wei, as it is spoken in Chinese - can be interpreted as striving to do something with maximum efficiency, as if one is not even trying nor doing! The wisdom of "non-self" - or, wu wo in Chinese - can be interpreted as not trying to label oneself in whatever we do, as this is the surest way of restricting our potential in everything we do! Although many of these concepts aspire to lead us to ideal end states, they are by not means impractical. They can be converted and treated as targets or mental notes that endurance athletes can use to guide their training and racing. The gist about applying Taoism to guide our own experience is that we are totally free to define it in ways that suit us as individuals. My interpretation may not work for you, Enrico, and vice versa. And there lies the beauty of the whole thing. You define your WAY of doing triathlon; so much so that your triathlon experience comes around to define who you are. You define your WAY - the TAO - of triathlon (that explains why my email address is TAO of TRI).

To say that I learn all my triathlon-related lessons from my own interpretation of the ancient teachings is untrue of course. In my triathlon experience so far, I have the pleasure to learn from many who have helped to shape my outlook in triathlon and life. They are my coaches. First, there were Roch Frey (husband of Heather Fuhr, 1997 Ironman World Champion and multiple ironman champion) and Paul Huddle (husband of Ironman living legend Paula Newby Fraser). They taught me something very important: excellence is all about time efficiency and training smart. Under their coaching, I cut my Ironman timing by 50min between my first and second ironman attempts. Next, the person who taught me most about how to coach and inject flexibility into a well-grounded training regimen is Katja Mayer - former top German Ironlady who won a few ironman races in Florida and Brazil. Training for two years under her tutelage cut another 1 hour 11 minutes from my timing and, most importantly, I rediscovered the fun in endurance sport! When I trained for my first double Ironman world championship in 2003, I again approached Katja to write a program for me. Initially, she was hesitant as she wasn't sure how to go about it (and she said I am crazy!). I think she might have sought some advice from Scott Molina, who was then training for his Ultraman World Championship and to whom Katja frequently turned for training advice. I dedicate my 8th placed finish to them. Unfortunately, ever since I moved on to the quintuple, and later on, the deca ironman, I lost contact with Katja. However, I am still applying what I learnt from her, Paul and Roch to the way I train and race.

I am a firm believer that to make the decisive leap to the next level, we need an injection of fresh ideas. Every one of us is limited by our own assumptions, bad habits and blind spots. No matter who we are - amateurs or pros - we need to approach someone who can see through our mistakes and enlighten us to better ways of training and racing. What I notice about many triathletes in Singapore is that they don't invest as much resources as they should in coaching, compared to how much they are willing to put into buying equipment. In order to achieve those goals I mentioned earlier, I know I need to break free from my present mindset of training and learn from others. That is the only way to advance to the next level of performance. The best is yet to be.

Enrico: Thank you for the interview, Harn Wei. It was enlightening and educational.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Dr Kua Harn Wei blends theoretical physics, philosophy and pain into an unusual equation for human potential

Enrico Varella: What was your proudest moment in triathlon? What have been your major achievements?
Harn Wei: The proudest moment has to be crossing the finish line first for the 10th Ironman of the deca Ironman in 2006. To me, it epitomised a coming-from-far-behind win but it really showed me how by putting my emotion and passion into a race, we can achieve the wildest of dreams - including recovering from a tight illiotibial band (which occurred after only the 2nd Ironman) and literally getting stronger and stronger toward the end of the deca. Ranking as high up there in terms of triathlon achievements are: clinching 8th overall in the double ironman world championship in 2003 (my maiden ultra triathlon), setting a new Asian records for the triple Ironman in Germany in 2009 (after running non-stop for almost 19 hours for 126.6km, after the 11.4km swim and 540km bike), setting a new Asian record for the quintuple Ironman in 2005 (after battling very bad abrasions from the bike and run) and, of course, winning 2nd place overall in the 2008 Ultra Triathlon World Cup Series.

Enrico Varella: Tell us more about your last Deca. You dropped out because of a bad knee injury. You rode with one leg. It must have been hard on you.
Harn Wei: Yes, I will remember that for life!! The deca was the last race in the world cup series of 5 races. The challenge in the 2008 world series was to complete as many as 19 ironman races - 3 double, 1 triple and 1 deca - in a span of only 5 months. I managed to complete all races up to that point of the deca. I had a good swim (I finished the 38km pool swim in just over 17 hours) and managed to climb very steadily to the 4th place overall with a very consistent cycling effort. When I nearly hit the 1000km mark, I found that a faint strain in the inner left knee cap has worsened into an intense pain. Soon, I could not even bend my left leg any more. It was horrifying, especially since I have never gotten any serious injury in any part of my body. It didn't take long before the knee swelled up like a balloon and earlier diagnosis conjectured an inflammed Hofa fat pad.
It was very demoralising. At that point in time, I knew that my chance of becoming the World Cup champion was slipping away (in fact, as long as I finished the deca within 12 days, I would have gotten the world number 1 ranking). So, I was very determined to make it through the 1800km and go on with the running, which I was sure I could just limp and walk through the 422km and yet make it sub-12 days. Repeated rest didn't help and I needed to resort to anything that my fatigued mind could possibly stretch my imagination to come out with!

I have the ability to see the lighter side of things. This shows in the way I see triathlons! I remembered that during the 2003 double ironman world championship in 2003, in Lithuania, when I was 4km into T2, my support crew discovered that my running shoes were stolen at the transition area! I had a very good ride and swim up to that point. Amidst my disappointment, I switched to the lighter side of things and told my crew 'give me any shoes. Even if you have a pair of slippers, I will wear them and finish the double marathon!'. Although it was meant to be a 'half-joke', I was all prepared to do just that. Fortunately, they found my worn-out travel shoes, and I completed my run leg in them.

That spirit rekindled my hope in Mexico. I have always been a fan of training on the bike stationary trainer, and one-legged drill has always kept me alive on the trainer. In my search for a way - any way - to cover more distance on the bike, I took off my left bike shoe and basically just started pedalling with my remaining functional leg. It was a mix of fun, adventure and, well, just my plain old self of not giving up so easily. Mexico has always been a sacred place for me - a place that had more than once brought out the best (and worst) out of me as a person and athlete. With one leg, I managed to cover another 50km, over 4 excruciating hours! Soon, I had problems with my right leg too and right hip. That was when my sense of sanity and logic kicked in and told me enough is enough. If there was a time to quit, that was it. Although quitting means that I would at best hold on the second position in the world cup, it is more important that I recover fully from this injury and come and fight on another day.

When I returned to Singapore, I went for a thorough medical examination, including going for a MRI scan of the knee. The results revealed something expected and something unexpected. The expected thing was that the pain was actually caused by a medial synovial plica irritation. The unexpected result is that my knee is healing fast and that the main meniscus and ligaments in my left knee are intact and they show no sign of premature deterioration due to training and racing over long distances.

I consider this a huge gift of a luck and vow to take good care of my legs so that they can carry me over longer distances and help me explore more places in the future.


Dr Kua Harn Wei blends theoretical physics, philosophy and pain into an unusual equation for human potential

Enrico: What did you do to prepare for Kona? Which sacrifices did you make?
Harn Wei: I prepared for Hawaii - my Ironman debut - by over-training, big time! Ha! My preparation for Hawaii should be what one should NEVER do for an Ironman. Back then there wasn't as much information about training for an Ironman as we have today. It suffices to say that, the moment I stepped out of the plane in Kona a week before the Ironman, I felt as though I have already done the race!
Enrico: Why the Deca-Ironman triathlon? What started you on that?
Harn Wei: Oh, I have already stopped asking why I do this and that after I moved on to the double Ironman. Rationalizing begs for logical answers; ultra triathlons, and the deca-IM in particular, defies human logic. The more one rationalizes, the more one finds reason NOT to do something like that. So, to make life simple - don't ask, don't answer. Do. This whole process is not very scientific of course and I am sure Professor Enrico Fermi will frown upon my unscientific approach. But, hey, who says a physicist needs to be a physicist all the time, right? This is an occasion when the triathlete steps in and the physicist takes the back seat.
Enrico: Who are your biggest influences in your life? Why them?
Harn Wei: Anyone who puts in his and her best - nothing but the best - in whatever he or she does. It can be the so-called common people in the street. Life is too beautiful to be wasted by not taking things seriously. However, it is not advisable to take things too seriously as though one's dignity is dependent on the value of one's achievement. Finding that balance point is what the meaning of life is about.
Enrico: What is your strategy for racing? Is it ‘all or nothing’, or ‘one step at a time’, or ‘be the best’?
Harn Wei: All of the above. We need to adopt different mindset, or even mantra, to deal with every unique situation. For one, we should start a season with a plan of what to do and what not to do. Sticking to this plan typifies the 'all or nothing' attitude. However, in building up for an ultra, for e.g., never make the mistake of resting on past laurels and increase the run mileage too much too soon. This is the "one step at a time" strategy.
Most people fail to complete an ultra triathlon not because they are unfit, but because they lack the patience to literally "taking one step at a time" during the darkest moments of the race. Most also make the mistake of looking too far ahead; when they are tired but know that they still have 84.4km of running to do before reaching the finish-line, they will very likely be discouraged and/or demoralized. The best way around these dark moments is to take 'one step at a time'. After you have done this frequent enough, you will reach the finish-line.
Another excellent approach is to focus on the moment. Think about the "now", the "present". And strive to be your best at that present moment. This means getting in the nutrition, appreciating what the volunteers are doing for you, ensuring good technique and staying relaxed at the same time. This is the "be the best" strategy.
Enrico: What mental skills/anchors do you use once you really start hurting (in a race) and the grizzly bear climbs on your back telling you to just walk or quit?
Harn Wei: Grizzly bear? Fortunately, I have never had to deal with one in a race or anywhere else in my life! Ha! Walking and quitting is not necessarily the wrong thing to do! When you are pushing the limits, your body is the best barometer and you need to constantly receive the messages beeped out by your body. If you are adequately trained in the art of ultra sport, you will know what kind of pain is fine to push through and to live with. You create your own mental checklist and troubleshooting procedures, pretty much like what you would do to your automobile. Anything out of the norm always call for extra attention. I experienced this a few times in my ultra triathlon endeavors and if walking will remove the pain, then walking should be seen as a part of the race strategy instead of a sign of weakness or cause for humiliation.
After all, before we could run, we had to learn how to walk, didn't we? Quitting is always hard for the mind and it may create a mental barrier in future races. But in many occasions, my best races emerged right after a little voice in me threatened to pull out of the race. It seems that the inner dialogue woke up someone else inside to come to the rescue, who brought with him that extra energy from some unknown corner deep within, to rekindle a dying flame. So, to summarize, walking and quitting (and the thought of quitting) are not necessarily a bad thing to do. This, I understand, is nothing similar to what you might have heard before. But many times in life, I find, the best way to move forward is to take half a step backward. Doing so will alleviate pressure or boredom in the mind, which is especially important in ultra sports in which efforts are always repetitive in nature.

Some background information
Full name: Kua Harn Wei
Age: 38
Status: Single
Profession/Discipline: Mad scientist on climate change technologies and policies.
Years in profession: Forever.
Years in triathlon: Forever, too.
Pet peeves: People driving SUVs on Singapore roads. People calling golf a sport and Tiger Woods a sportsman.
Hobbies: Anything that pushes the limits of the mind and body.

Photo-credits: 'Neulengbach_bike1.jpg': AustriaDouble2008

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Dr Kua Harn Wei blends theoretical physics, philosophy and pain into an unusual equation for human potential

Youths are fiery and opinionated, yet indeterminate. They think they have all the answers culled from angry rebel writers, animated conversations and opinionated arguments. Their premature decisions to become vegans, animal activists, environmentalists and other voices of conscience belie an urgent sense of responsibility – perhaps this is the early sign of maturity? Yet, in a Zen way their ‘cups are already full’ and they may have to empty their cups to accommodate tacit experience and wisdom.

The way that waves roll towards the shore; the subtle kiss of an afternoon breeze; the annoying sting of the midday sun; the teasing rustles of leaves on a tree. There is something Zen about these acts of Nature. Yet, these are the very intriguing observations that accompany the mind of an endurance athlete: in this case, an ultra-distance triathlete. In his mind, there is no judgement – only observation and respect for his surroundings.

Meet Dr Kua Harn Wei – a mature late thirty-something, career academic, and serious athlete. He is Singapore’s first Double-Ironman, Quadruple-Ironman and Deca-Ironman. He has completed 10 Ironman triathlons back-to-back, over 10 days. He has been ranked within the top-5 ultra-endurance triathletes in the world, including the highest-ranked in Asia. He is analogous to Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man raised to guru status. Where else can you us the word ‘guru’ unless one attains the reputation of uber-athlete, philosopher, and someone with just enough insanity to push the envelope of the impossible?

Harn Wei’s blog title reads suspiciously like a commercial for sports-shoes: Where the Impossible Becomes Possible. However, the tagline reads reassuringly as: When You Change the Way You Look at Things, the Things You Look at Change...’ Here is an attempt to change the way you look at things...

Here is how training for a DECA can change your life. A massive, pre-race, fortnight’s preparation can average 43 hours of training per week (done at competition pace, which amazingly is not as fast as a standard Ironman triathlon). In addition, and here is the kicker, it includes several nights of sleep deprivation training! To make things a bit more challenging, you do not take in as much fuel as you should; and you hope that your body functions well.
Interestingly, this is where the science begins. These sessions allowed Harn Wei to figure out the format of his strategy - pace on the swim, bike and run, the work-to-rest ratios, the lengths of the main and secondary breaks, and his state of the mind during these rest periods. He tried to be as exact as he could in terms of pace calculations going into this 2-week, personal training camp. He summarized his experimental findings into a set of general rules-of-thumb, which is always more practical in the thick of action. He reckons that that is when science transforms into an art.

I interviewed Harn Wei about three days after his recent single Ironman triathlon race in Busselton, Perth – the singularity of this event almost a contradiction to this contrarian thinker. He crossed the finish line as Singapore’s third-fastest Ironman triathlete.

Enrico Varella: Congratulations, Harn Wei on your recent Ironman Western Australia finish. Your time of 11 hour 10 minute is highly commendable!
Kua Harn Wei: Thanks Enrico! Wow, how time flies! The last time I did an Ironman - as in, one-and-that-is-it - was 7 years ago. Even this IMWA was a last minute decision made a few weeks after my carbon wheel cracked during the Slovenia Double Ironman World Cup end-August.

Enrico: It must have stirred deep memories for you…
Harn Wei: IMWA sure brought back good old memories about racing in a big group. Since I have been out of the local triathlon scene for about a decade now, I could only recognize a few of you on the course - Adrian Mok (my dear Iron friend who keeps getting better and better), Alvin Ong (from Clementi pool), and Lee Wung Yew, to name a few.

Enrico: Judging at the times, it must have been a tough day at the office!
Harn Wei: But I must say that the riders who came in later actually faced tougher conditions out there than those riding sub-6 hours and sub-5 hours. When I was heading back to town for the marathon, the wind started to pick up. So, I salute those who made it through the tougher wind conditions later in the day, and yet managed to cross the finish line. For those who for some reason could not finish this race, worry not. Ours is a sport of patience and endurance. One race (or DNF) does not an entire career make. Every race is a new beginning. Embrace swim-bike-run with deep passion, learn from every experience, avoid making the same mistakes the next time you race and you will fulfill your Ironman (or, ultra Ironman) dreams one day!

Enrico: Ironman Western Australia has the dubious reputation of being an ‘easy’ course, but it is not.
Harn Wei: I agree. Never for a second believe that there is an easy IM course out there. An IM is an IM. And an IM is never easy - for anyone. If you believe in climate change, then many places are going to get warmer. The only way to deal with that is to keep yourselves cool in the heat of battle. Keep training and believing!

Enrico: Good evening, Harn Wei. Thank you for making time for this interview. You should be resting and recuperating instead.
Harn Wei: Good evening, Enrico. By the way, your name always reminds me of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi. He was a legend in the world of high-energy physics. My basic technical training is theoretical physics and so Fermi is a good role model for me.

Enrico: Talking about role models, you are regarded as one yourself in the local triathlon community. I am familiar with Mr Fermi as is Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer.

Harn Wei: Okay, no more geeky remarks. Only triathlon stuff now!
Enrico: Harn Wei. There are geeks aplenty in triathlons. There are bicycle geeks, training geeks, and geeks on nutrition. We are in good company. Walk us through your active lifestyle. How do you do it?
Harn Wei: Follow my passion. Everyday is composed of two types of activities actually - certainties and uncertainties. Certainties mean those things I do in my office and lab. Uncertainties are things I would do at an impulse, e.g. going to catch a movie after work. But it suffices to say that my days are structured in such a way that I can achieve the most in just a few hours. Time is too precious to be wasted.

Enrico: When taking on these physical challenges, how do you maintain your work/life/family balance?
Harn Wei: My own recipe is pretty simple: structure my sport season around my work and family, instead of the reversed. This way, training and racing get slotted into 'free' time slots throughout the day and week. Once I get the priority right, everything falls into place.

Enrico: How does an active physical lifestyle tie in to your work as an academic, as well as a leader?
Harn Wei: I always try to draw parallels between my sport and academic works. Scientific discovery is about combining scientific enquiry methodologies with a sense of appreciation for the beauty of Nature. It is the same in triathlon, don't you think? We look for ways to improve ourselves - in equipment, nutrition, training methods, etc. All these are very logical in approach. I always apply my scientific analytical skills to design my training program and the lessons I learn in my sports are applied to my academic work (e.g. I need to build a solid base of background knowledge in a new subject before doing the more difficult work).

As for leadership, the fact that I am one of the first around to venture into unknown waters (e.g. ultra triathlons) does give me unique experience and viewpoint to share with others who may just follow suit one day in the future. I don't think I am gifted in that sense, but I am really passionate about sharing with others what I know and what I learn - in sports and scientific research.

Enrico: What made you do Ironman? How many years did you train before you qualified for Kona?
Harn Wei: I did my first Ironman in Hawaii, in 1997. I did not have to qualify for it, since I was again one of the first few in Singapore (and Asia) to want to try something like that. I guess WTC was keen to get more Asians into the sport and gave us open invitations to race in the world championship. After being there once, I don't think I would ever want to go back again, even if I qualify for it in the future. Hawaii is over-hyped in many ways although it is a great race. There are many other races I have been to that gave me better memory. Why an Ironman? Anyone who is interested to push his/her limits just that little bit more will look forward to an Ironman, and beyond.

Photo-credit: 'Finish2.jpg': VirginiaDoubleIron2008 & 'Swim.jpg': LensahnUltra2008

(Part 2: To be continued)