It's less than five years since Pearl Tam became a triathlete, but the 42-year-old is now one of the sport's keenest advocates in Hong Kong.
The physical transformation aside (her waistline is notably slimmer, she says), this regime of swimming, cycling and running has had a host of health benefits, too. 'I used to have back problems, little health issues were creeping up as I grew older,' she says. These days, she no longer has those aches and pains, and is rarely ill.
Before her foray into multisport, she used to run just for fun in gyms or outdoors around Sha Tin. Then, in 2007, she joined Titan Triathlon Club and, for the first time, had a proper training programme to follow. 'I grew more focused. I worked out harder,' she says. 'I work harder in my office, too, as I'm more focused and goal-oriented.'
Tam, who lives in Tai Lam, enjoys working out on the trails and riding around the country park in that area. 'In a gym, you can run and run, but you're going nowhere. In the countryside, there's a goal in sight, a beginning, middle and end. You feel like you've accomplished something after every run or ride.' Did triathlon seem overwhelming in the beginning, especially since you came to it so late?
Maybe, but I'm one of those people who want to meet a challenge head on. When I decided I was going to work out harder, stronger and better, I didn't let anything stop me. It's both a mental and physical challenge, in equal measure. For some people, getting up early to work out is hard as they don't want to get out of bed. I usually train at night because of my day job [at a toy factory] and busy mornings. So even when I'm tired after work, I say to myself: 'It doesn't matter; I must work out.' And then I take the 10-minute drive to the location, change and go for it.
What's been the biggest challenge?
The hardest part for me was the swimming. I didn't know how to swim front crawl before I joined the triathlon club. The coach gave me some exercises and taught me techniques to conquer the discipline. Now I'm a bit more relaxed about it. I always ran in the past, so that was no problem, and biking is always enjoyable. I used to bike for fun before; now it's more strenuous, of course.
Can anyone do this?
Yes, I think anybody can do this. You don't need an expensive gym membership, huge personal trainer fees or designer workout wear - just the will to do it. The most expensive part of this is probably getting a good, light bike, but that's a one-off expense. You can get a cheap bike, too, if you can't commit to the sport and just want to try it first. When you're sure, you'll feel self-motivated to get the best equipment. For running and swimming, your body is the best equipment.
Did you ever hit the proverbial wall and think you can't do this any more?
Sometimes I have that feeling, but I say to myself: 'It's all or nothing.' When I work, I work harder when I feel I'm getting tired; I tell myself to. When I feel bad during a swim, I say to myself: 'Keep going.' The body won't fail you first. It's your mind playing tricks on you.
Do you have a role model?
Daniel Lee Chi-wo, the former Hong Kong triathlon champion who was one of Asia's best. I don't think he competes any more, but he remains in great shape. He has a bike shop, and when I went there to get my bike, I kept stealing glances at him.
Is there a particular goal in mind?
I want to do more competitions, like the Kam Sheung Road Duathlon organised by Titan Triathlon two Sundays ago. In Hong Kong, I'm always looking for races I can compete in. The purpose isn't to come first or second, but just to participate. I encourage my friends to just try it. That's another goal, to get more people involved.
How would you encourage others to join the sport?
I'd tell them that it's not just for health and fitness reasons, it's a lifestyle choice. And somehow, being a triathlete also makes you do better at everything else, too. It clears your mind and keeps you physically fit. You'll work better no matter what your job is. If you skateboard, do rowing or ride a bike, you'll do those things better, too.
Is it an individualistic sport?
It can be. I train by myself and with friends. It's up to the individual. I found it a great way to meet people. It's a very social sport. I have made a lot of new friends. When we see one another running, swimming or riding we always encourage each other. The competitive streak only comes out during races.While we're training we want everyone to do better. We discuss future competitions, common goals and the many amusing things that have happened during races.