With Hong Kong's can-do spirit as our guide, we should all strive to better our best

Walter Cheung says his achievement in running 50 marathons shows the value of never giving up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 11:00pm

My first foray into running - a 100-metre race at my high school at the age of 13 - was a setback. I came last in the first round of heats.

Three decades later, aged 44 and inspired after reading Richard Branson's autobiography, I signed up for my first full marathon. Battling painful foot cramps from about halfway into the race, I limped across the line to finish just 10 minutes before the time limit of five hours.

Last month, at the age of 57, I completed my 50th full marathon. I have run marathons on five continents over the past 13 years, including the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, which is recognised as the highest-altitude marathon in the world. Last year saw me reach the quite literally dizzying height of 6,300 metres in Aconcagua in Argentina.

I certainly didn't begin with any master plan for beating the odds. I am just your average Hong Kong citizen. But I have learned the value of pushing beyond my boundaries and of always striving to do better.

In this respect, I have been fortunate to receive encouragement from a diverse range of people. This group of everyday cheerleaders and guides includes a passenger on a bus that was taking me back from school to my squatter home in Chai Wan one day. As a junior student disheartened by my poor English, I was considering giving up on formal education and looking for work. Without knowing my plan, the middle-aged stranger sitting by my side turned to me and with a stern voice told me to study hard, lamenting that his lack of education had prevented him from getting a good job.

With new resolve, I put greater energy into my studies and managed to secure a place at university years later. Tertiary education was not easy and I graduated close to the bottom of my class with a third-class honours degree. But I had proved to myself that, with determination and dedication, I could achieve goals that I once would have thought impossible.

Looking back, I can see that I developed the "marathon spirit" well before my first 42km road race. I may not be among the "elite performers", but I am willing to put in the extra hours to get the job done - and get it done as well as possible.

One major influence in the art of dogged determination was my first boss as a junior reporter at the South China Morning Post. The formidably energetic news editor Kevin Sinclair always told us we should never take "no" for an answer.

To forge ahead, we need to feed on positive energy. In his book The Champion's Mind, leading sports psychologist Dr Jim Afremow tells the tale of two wolves. A man explains to his warrior grandson that there are two wolves within each of us: One wolf is positive and beneficial, while the other wolf is negative and destructive. These two wolves fight for control over us. The grandson asks, "Which wolf will win?" The grandfather replies, "The one you feed."

Ever since those early days at the Post, I have set myself numerous mini career goals, but it wasn't until my mid-40s that I realised I should step out of my comfort zone outside work.

My first 10km race led to my first half marathon, and a full marathon in Hong Kong a year later. I completed my first 42km race outside Hong Kong in Beijing and then set my sights beyond Asia.

The feeling of joy when I finished my 50th marathon near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris last month is still difficult to describe. My friends have called me a role model for middle-aged office workers and several of my staff have caught the running bug, including my secretary, who has completed 10 long-distance races.

As someone who was born and brought up in Hong Kong, I truly believe in the "Hong Kong spirit", the drive that has given our city economic influence at an international level.

It is this spirit that has also enabled individuals such as Olympic bronze-medallist Sarah Lee Wai-sze to achieve great things. When her coach suggested she give up on her cycling ambitions after an injury, Lee told herself she could bounce back from the injury and kept going - an attitude that led her to great success.

Entrepreneur Allan Zeman said it was the city's can-do spirit that convinced him to move to Hong Kong more than 40 years ago. Through "incredible highs" and "crushing lows", the community spirit of Hong Kong has "carried us through it all", he said.

Irrespective of our stage of life or social background, we should work to break through our presumed limits and make the very best of our innate - and often untapped - potential.

We must always keep trying, even in the face of failure. In the now-famous words of basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games … I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeeded."

To quote Dr Afremow: "All of us can acquire a champion's mindset … Every one of us can be peak performers in the game of life by achieving our own personal best."

Walter Cheung is head of communications and corporate sustainability at Hang Seng Bank