Four days a week, Hooi Siew Weng puts on his running shoes and heads out of his home in Overseas Union Garden in Kuala Lumpur at 4.30am for a 10km to 15km run. At 82, Hooi still takes part in full marathons – about two a year – and a fair number of shorter runs, “just to keep fit”.
“He’s crazy,” says Phong Swee Leng, his 78-year-old wife, with a wry smile on her face.
“But he used to be crazier … he used to run four or five marathons a year. Now at least it’s just two.”
Phong herself isn’t a runner and though she teases her husband for his hobby, she’s his biggest support – cooking him food that’s “not oily” and preparing his carbo-loaded meals for the days leading up to a race.
For Hooi, who has been taking part in races for the past 35 years, running helps him keep fit and happy. It also allows him to meet people of all ages with the shared passion for running.
“I enjoy running. I get to make many new friends and it gives me a chance to travel and sightsee as well as race in different countries,” says the retired storekeeper who has run in Australia, Oman, the Netherlands, China, Thailand, Mongolia and Singapore, among other places.
Hooi picked up running at the age of 47, after reading a report in The Star about a T-shirt giveaway by the Pacesetters Athletic Club for the PJ Half Marathon.
“I wanted the T-shirt and so I joined the race. With barely any training, I ran the half-marathon and I suffered. But after that, I started training and racing in 10km and 21km races. Slowly I got better and then I started running marathons,” says Hooi who says that he realised quite early on in his running career that he had the natural ability to run.
The father of three and grandfather of four has since run 57 full marathons so far, achieving his fastest time (3 hours 44 minutes) at the Penang Marathon (his second 42km run) in 1986.
Hooi says that he is fitter than he was when he started running. Physically, he looks years (even decades) younger than his age – his skin is taut and smooth, his muscle tone is apparent and he moves quickly and with much grace, getting in and out of his seat without any effort.
“I never used to run or do any exercise at all when I was younger. In fact, I was quite fat then but I’ve lost about five or six kilos since I started running,” he says.
Although he is a member of the Pacesetters Athletic Club (a recreational running club that was founded in 1984) and joins the group for runs, Hooi prefers to train alone.
His usual training route takes him from his home to Bukit Jalil and back. Sometimes he’s just happy to run around his neighbourhood, unbothered by traffic, the dimly-lit streets or potholes. He doesn’t fit himself with any of the modern gadgets of training – not even and mp3 player for music.
“I just carry my bottle of water and put on my shoes and run. I don’t favour any particular running shoe. Any shoe that’s comfortable and affordable will do,” he says.
In the hall of his double-storey terrace house is a three-tiered clear-glass display case with the hundreds of finisher medals he’s amassed over the last three decades which hang neatly on a line.
Two of his most prized medals, he says, are from the Melbourne Marathon in Australia where he won a “special medal” for runners over 70 who completed the marathon within the stipulated time.
Hooi has no coach nor does he have a special diet. His only supplement is the multi-vitamin pill which he takes, without fail, daily. He suffers from no knee or joint aches – only the occasional muscle soreness that comes with training.
“What’s my secret? I don’t have a secret. I just keep running. If I am tired, I rest but mostly if my legs are sore I just run the soreness off. I run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. On Mondays Wednesdays and Saturdays, I go for walks with my wife and do some light weight-training at home.
“When I was younger I used to do fartlek (speed) training as I was eager to improve my performance and timing. But I don’t go for speed anymore. As long as I finish the race, I’m happy,” says Hooi.
This year, he will be running the Standard Chartered International Marathon in September and the Penang Bridge International Marathon in November. In between, he will be racing in shorter runs as part of his training.
“Running is a lot easier now, actually. I take it easy and take my time to enjoy the run. I’m not in competition with anyone anymore,” he says.
Although he is “taking it easy”, Hooi still completes a marathon in under five-hours, which many younger runners find hard to do.
Hooi explains that it probably helps that he is of slight built – weighing only 50kg and standing at 160cm, he is lean.
“People always ask about my knees but so far, so good. Maybe because I am quite light, I don’t have these issues but I also make sure I rest in between my runs and stretch before and after training. I also go to sleep early and wake up early,” he says.
Hooi admits that he’s had to change his lifestyle to accommodate his running. No late nights for him and his missus.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice actually … for both me and my wife who is really quite supportive of my running. Because I sleep at 9pm every day, I don’t get to watch movies or go out for dinner parties.
“Of course, there are exceptions on special occasions, but it doesn’t happen very often. And because of me, my wife also sleeps rather early,” says Hooi who says he unwinds by tending to his garden and reading the newspapers at home.
The couple also travel to visit their children who are currently residing in Australia and Oman (sometimes these trips coincide with a run that Hooi has signed up for).
The real secret for anyone who wants to run is consistency, says Hooi.
“You just have to keep running. If you don’t run regularly, your performance will suffer and you will struggle. Mental strength is important – I never let myself feel lazy. I just get up and go. You have to if you want to be a runner,” he says, as a matter of fact.
Although she doesn’t share her husband’s passion for running, Phong is undeniably proud of her husband’s grit.
“This old man is still running,” she says. “Everyone says he looks so young, like he’s in his 60s. I look like his mother.”
Apart from running, Hooi also enjoys trekking and mountain climbing. He’s hiked in Nepal more than six times, been to the Torres del Paine in Chile, South America and also completed the Milford Track in New Zealand. He has climbed 10 mountains above 2133m including Gunung Kinabalu, Gunung Tahan and Mount Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia and is eager to do more.
Although he has tested his mettle at ultra marathons (a run that’s longer than the traditional marathon) and trail runs, Hooi finds them a little too exhausting at his age. He reckons he will stick to marathon distances.
“I took part in a 50km trail run in Borneo but it was really challenging and exhausting and I had to stop at 30km because I wasn’t able to meet the cut-off time for the full race.
“I’ll keep on doing marathons, though. I’ll keep running for as long as I can,” he says.