The ultimate test of mettle

After giving up sport to pursue his career, Martin Lieberz returned to triathlons and now represents Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 9:35am

Growing up in a small village in Cologne, Germany, Martin Lieberz fell in love with sport at an early age.

At 16, he entered a cycling race on a whim and finished first. Veteran cyclists, impressed by the teen's athletic prowess, persuaded Lieberz to join a triathlon club. By 19, Lieberz got so good at the sport - which consists of swimming, cycling, and running - he represented Germany's youth team.

A year later, in 1997, the 20-year-old was offered a gig as an international salesman for a Hong Kong-based watch company, Madison New York. He faced a tough decision: take the jet-setting, exciting job with high earning potential, or stay in Germany to chase his dream of being a professional triathlete?

He took the Madison job. "It was the safer route," he says.

Lieberz fell in love with the bright lights of Hong Kong immediately. Over the next decade or so, he bounced back and forth between Hong Kong and Grünwald, a municipality in Munich. As in sports, Lieberz's rise in the company was swift: he was promoted to management level in 2004, and two years later became managing director.

But there was always a tiny, but nagging, regret inside his head: "Did I give up sports too easily?"

About three years ago, he decided to jump back into triathlon. "It was tough," he says. "The first few sessions left my whole body aching."

But he kept at it, and soon that feeling of invincibility he felt as a young athlete returned. He set his sights on the big one: the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii - a triathlon that consists of a 3.8-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and 42.2-kilometre run.

In May last year, he took the first step in chasing the dream by participating in a Kona-qualifying event in the Spanish island of Lanzarote. Suffering stomach cramps on the run leg, he ended up walking and finishing the race in 180th position - a long way from qualification.

He tried again six months later at another event at Panama City Beach in Florida. This time, fully fit, he finished 37th out of 2,580 participants, and earned his ticket to Kona, held on October 12 this year. The best part? He'll be representing Hong Kong - his adopted home.


How often and how long do you train?

I train two hours on weekdays, one session before work and one after. At the weekend I do two to three hours a day. I train anywhere between 12 to 20 hours a week. I would love to train every single day if I could, but you only build better endurance and stronger muscles during rest, so I take one day to recover.


Is it tougher to train now than when you were in your teens?

I don't think so. I understand that logic for an explosive sport, like basketball. But for endurance sports, I'd say it's never too late to participate. I feel like between 30 and 40 is a good age to train, because competing in a triathlon doesn't take just physical prowess but mental toughness too. And I think we're all stronger mentally in our 30s than when we were 17.


What goes on in your head during the race?

At the starting point, it's pure excitement. During the race, I don't think much, I'm just concentrating on breathing and keeping hydrated. Near the end, it becomes a battle with yourself, because at that point, your entire body is past the point of exhaustion, but you have to fight it off. I start projecting this mental image of finishing the race and hugging my family and eating a burger.


How do you motivate yourself to work out?

It's easy in the morning because my son has to go to school so he wakes me up. At night? The city of Hong Kong motivates me. It's such a fast-paced city, it's always moving.


Are you going to push your son to participate in triathlons?

I won't make him do anything he doesn't want to do. I'd be supportive if he participated in any sports. Sports, to me, are like a metaphor for life. My whole business career, going through up and downs … you have to keep going, keep pushing, and not let obstacles stop you.