Sunday, December 13, 2009


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

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