When he was 48, his doctor told him he would die in his 60s if he continued the lifestyle he was living. Later, a palmist seemed to confirm the diagnosis, and told him that his life would end at 67.
So, Yee Sze Mun decided to do something about that rather depressing prospect of his life ending so early. He got off his butt, joined a gym and started working out 3 times a week. And he also took up running. And he ran, and ran, and is still running.
Today, at an age when most of us would be leading a sedentary life or resigned to retirement, the 82-year old Malaysian has run more than 150 races since his first one at age 50.
And included in those 150 are more than 40 half-marathons, 30 marathons, and more than a dozen Ironman Triathlons, probably the world’s toughest endurance competition. To complete that race, you would have to do a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride, and a 42km run – and accomplish them all within 17 hours.
Even for a fit, young person, the Ironman is a tough competition to qualify for, let alone complete. But for an octogenarian to even qualify to do the race is, quite frankly, extraordinary.
Yee’s remarkable journey began in his late 40s, when he decided that he was not going to fulfil his doctor’s prediction of an early death.
“One day my doctor told me that my health was in terrible shape and I’d better start exercising or else I’d die in my 60s,” he tells The New Straits Times in 2016. “So, I started exercising. That was the beginning of my journey into fitness.”
He completed his first half marathon when he was 50, and his full marathon 2 years later, at 52, where he also completed his first triathlon – the The PD International Tri. He placed second in his 50 and above age-group.
Not bad for a former couch potato.
And 6 years after that, in 1995, he did his first Ironman in Kona, Hawaii, where he clocked in at 16 hours 27 minutes.
Yee had seen the Ironman competition on TV one day and saw that ordinary people had also taken part in it. Yee thought: well, if others could do it, why not me?
So he did.
“Once I succeeded, I got hooked,” he said.
But the initial success did not come easy. It took a lot of grit, especially when he had no coaches to help him with the training required to prepare for the gruelling race.
He trained on his own, and “ran a lot, swam a lot and cycled a lot.”
“I’m sure it would have been better to have had a coach but that option just wasn’t there back then,” he says. The training on his own seemed to have worked as he chalked up one race after another.
In 2009, he achieved his personal best of 14 hours 46 minutes at the Langkawi Ironman.
He was 72.
Yee, who hails from Kuala Lumpur, has completed Ironman in his home country in Langkawi 11 times, coming first in his age-group four times.
His current training regime sees him train twice a day, “usually one event in the morning and another in the evening.”
“It can be any combination of events, such as a run and a swim or a run and a bike ride or a swim and a bike ride, etc,” he explains. “It just depends on how I feel at the time. There might be a more scientific way of training but I go with my instincts.”
But the ravages of time take their toll, no matter how much we try and delay them through intense training, and Yee is feeling their effects now.
“I am now fighting the battle on many fronts,” Yee tells The Star newspaper last year. “The Ironman is challenging for anyone, young or old. But I now have additional hurdles because of my age. My eyesight is failing, so is my hearing. My reflexes are slower. I have lost muscle strength, and recovery after each race and training session takes longer.”
“Age is no longer just a number,” says the retired regional sales manager. “My mind is raring to go, but my body is stuck in first gear.”
But if there is one thing his experience has taught him, it is to never give up. And so he continued to prepare for the next race, the November 2018 race in Langkawi – his 17th Ironman.
He is 82 this year, just 5 years younger than the oldest Ironman athlete in the world, American Madonna Buder, widely known as the Iron Nun.
Making Yee’s preparations harder is his injury a few years ago from a cycling accident.
A vehicle had slammed into him, causing him to now suffer chronic pain in his neck. It is a condition which his doctor has told him is incurable. He cannot move his neck as much as before the accident, and he can only manage the pain from it, pain which he says is 24 hours, 7 days. It keeps him from having a good night’s sleep too.
And this is what the public do not see, and which Yee has to endure alone.
“The blood, sweat and tears is something people don’t see,” Yee tells The Star. “Everyone cheers me on and tells me how amazing it is that I’m still racing. They ask me about my diet secrets or my training regime. They don’t realise the sacrifices that are involved, particularly for an old fellow like me.”
His doctor has advised him to cut down on the training and the races.
“I’ve been advised to slow down and I have,” Yee says. “Instead of six races a year, I do four.”
What’s that like, to do so many races in a year? In 2017, Yee gave an idea of his punishing schedule for that year.
“The first one is a Half Ironman in Sri Lanka in February, followed by an Olympic distance triathlon in Port Dickson in April. After that, it’s another Half Ironman in Vietnam in May and a Half Ironman in Bintan Island (Indonesia) in August. I’ll end the year with Ironman Langkawi in November.”
So it is no surprise that he chafes at the thought that he should, like other senior folk, take up golf or something less challenging (and risky).
Yee, the first inductee into the Ironman Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2015, is horrified at such suggestions.
“My family and friends have advised me to take up golfing or go for morning walks instead of racing,” he says. “Are you kidding me? I will never go for a morning walk. Instead of doing me good, it will demoralise me.”
“If a day comes when a full-blown Ironman is too much for me, I’ll stick to Half-Ironman, which is half the distance but still involves a cut-off time,” Yee said last year. “And if that becomes too much, I can still do Olympic distance triathlon which has no cut-off time. Whatever the case, I’ll still be competing.”
But why is he doing all this?
“Life would have no meaning otherwise,” he explains. “The challenge of it keeps me young. I really can’t imagine sitting around all day watching TV. That kind of lifestyle isn’t for me anymore although I was a couch potato in my younger days.”
“IRONMAN is about ordinary people performing extraordinary feats thought impossible. I too believe I could do it, and did… Just continue to believe in yourself, follow your dreams and never give up. You will become a better person, physically, mentally and in every aspect of your life.” – Yee Sze Mun.