Extreme endurance racer Yee Sze Mun used to believe that attitude was everything and age was just a number. If he wanted to do something, nothing would stand in his way, least of all his advancing years.
Yee has defied many age-related stereotypes. Instead of slowing down after retirement, he ran marathons and triathlons. He completed his first full marathon when he was 52. He was 58 when he took part in his first Ironman (long-distance triathlon) race in Hawaii, 1995.
Fourteen years later, he clocked his personal best time of 14 hours 46 minutes 48 seconds at the Ironman Langkawi race. He was 72. Yee seemed to be getting better and better with age.
Now at 81, he’s preparing for his 17th full Ironman race in Langkawi in November, though he admits he’s not performing as well as before. He has the mind of a young man, eager for new challenges and to push the boundaries of his performance, but his body…
“I am now fighting the battle on many fronts,” Yee admits. “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.”
Nevertheless, Yee is not giving in to the ravages of time. He knows there are few who have raced past the age of 70, and there’s therefore little knowledge of older athletes’ endurance.
“There are only a few stubborn old fools like me who continue to push the boundaries. And we’re going in blindly groping in the dark because there are no books or coaches who have the experience or knowledge to train 80-year-old racers,” Yee laments. “You need to have raced past 70 to be able to know what an ageing body experiences, and we don’t have coaches with that kind of knowledge.”
So, Yee reads extensively to figure out ways to better train and overcome new obstacles brought on by age.
“It’s trial and error. When I face a problem in a race, I come back and crack my head over how to fix it and work towards a solution. Then I wait for my next race to test it out. Most of the time, it doesn’t work and I have to go back to the drawing board.
“This is frustrating but also exciting because there’s always something to work towards,” shares Yee, who realised he was slowing down at his 10th Ironman Langkawi race in 2010.
“As I saw the finishing line, I was excited. When I crossed the finish, I was expecting my old lady to give me a hug and congratulate me on completing my 15th Ironman race in as many years. Instead, I got an earful. She asked me what took me so long.
“I was shocked, but then I looked at the clock and realised that I’d taken over 16 hours. It was my worst outing in Langkawi,” he recalls, chuckling over the incident.
No stopping him
Though Yee has accepted the inevitable effects of ageing on his weathered body, he is determined to keep going.
“If you tell me to stop now, that will really kill me. I love to race. I’ve had to change my expectations though. I used to be able to make it within the qualifying time without much trouble, with at least 25% of the pack behind me. Now, if I can complete the race, it’s an achievement. If I make the cut off time, that’s the icing,” he says.
“Why do I still do it? Because I still believe that I can do better, relatively speaking, of course. Nothing is impossible if you believe you can, and I believe I can. If the day comes when I think I’m useless and can’t do it anymore, when it isn’t fun anymore, I will stop. But I still want to try.”
Yee, who has competed in 150 triathlons and was the first inductee into the Ironman Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2015, has written a book about his exploits. The Bumble Bee In Me: Living The Ironman Dream shares his stories in the hopes of inspiring others to believe in themselves.
At the Bintan half-Ironman race last year, MetaSport CEO and event promoter Nathalie Marquet recognised the Kuala-Lumpur born octogenarian as possibly the oldest triathlete in Asia.
“The blood, sweat and tears is something people don’t see. 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,” Yee says.
Endurance racing isn’t for the weak. Yee has had his share of mishaps over the years. A bike accident some time ago left him with a chronic neck injury that means he lives with pain. He can’t turn his head much, which limits his performance.
“My doctor has told me there is no cure for my condition. I can’t eliminate the pain but have to manage it. I’ve been advised to slow down and I have. Instead of six races a year, I do four.
“My family and friends have advised me to take up golfing or go for morning walks instead of racing. Are you kidding me? I will never go for a morning walk. Instead of doing me good, it will demoralise me,” says Yee, his eyes filling with horror at the thought of retiring from racing.
It’s surprising then to learn that the exuberant athlete was once a sedentary couch potato right into his 50s. What got him moving was a doctor’s warning that he wouldn’t make it past 60. He didn’t just heed that wake-up call – he ran with it.
Getting to the finish line
Yee isn’t foolhardy. He has undergone a full medical check for the race in November. Apart from his neck injury, Yee proudly proclaims he is “in perfect health”. He has also enlisted the help of physical therapists and sports trainers.
“I’ve tried everything from traditional medicine, sports doctors, and even kung-fu practitioners to help me get ready. They all told me I was too old,” he says.
“But I found a group of physiotherapists and trainers who were are willing to take me on. They were surprised when I told them I wanted their help to finish the Ironman, but they agreed to try and that’s enough for me. I’m not gunning for speed or to better my time. I just want to finish.”
Kate Lai Pei Xuan, who founded Dynamique Sports Rehab Centre with former national discus thrower Karen Yap, says that she was inspired by Yee’s strong fighting spirit.
Says Lai, “Our team consists of former national athletes who focus on sports recovery and training and so we understand the enthusiasm and passion in every sports person. Completing the Ironman is Uncle Yee’s passion and we wanted to be a part of his journey.”