Out-of-shape triathlete sheds 20kg in six months to meet 'crazy' Ironman goal
Making healthy changes in our lives is difficult, and radical transformations are rare. This month we are profiling a trio of Hongkongers who have embraced change and emerged as different people, from the inside out.
The Ironman distance triathlon is an overwhelming physical challenge. It involves a swim of 3.8km in the open water, cycling 180km, then running a marathon (42.2km).
Each leg is an epic achievement in itself, and training for the event is like a part-time job. So signing up, while unfit and tipping the scales at 116kg, signals awe-inspiring ambition. Or perhaps craziness.
But Philippe El-asmar wasn't deterred. Out of shape, but with spare time on his hands during a break from work last year, he committed to the "crazy but achievable" Ironman Busselton that would take place six months later, in Western Australia, in December 2014.
El-asmar, 40, a businessman working in finance, had dabbled in triathlon before. In 2012 the discipline helped him to shed 45kg from his then 135kg frame, but by April last year he'd gained half of that back.
"I was working crazy hours and travelling all over the world for business - a week in New York and London, as well as travelling around Asia every month," says El-asmar, who is originally from Lebanon.
With the reins of his life back in his hands, he developed a six-month training schedule with the help of the coaches from Tritons Triathlon Club, and never lost sight of his goal.
"Honestly, I never regretted signing up, and never thought it was unachievable," he says.
"Everyone has a different goal, and my goal was just to finish in time to become an Ironman."
That he did, crossing the finish in 14 hours, 36 minutes, well under the 17-hour cut-off. Despite losing 20 kilograms in the six months of training, he says he was still probably one of the heaviest there.
But no training schedule could prepare him for the unexpected. During the race, he suffered from three flat tyres on the bike course. True to his hardy nature, he took the troubles in his stride, remained positive, and ploughed through.
"When I finished the bike leg, I jumped up and down smiling. I still had a marathon to do but I didn't care. I couldn't control what happened on the bike, but I knew I could always finish the marathon, even if I had to walk."
Despite the physical transformation, it's his mindset which has changed the most, he says. "Any time you set your mind to a goal and you're willing to put in the time and effort - there are no limits. Practice makes perfect, and if you have the will, there's always a way."
Having a goal keeps you honest. I would have found it harder to lose the weight, transform into Ironman material and be as healthy as I was if I did not have the goal in mind. You need courage to fulfil your ambitions.
I trained by targeting my weaknesses. I cycled a lot during those six months, and improved my average speed from 25km to more than 30km per hour.
The weight just started to drop off, and when you lose weight, everything is better. You sleep better. You're less tired. You have more energy and you're in a better mood. I will never allow myself to gain that weight again.
I had very detailed objectives for the race. These were good, average and bad case scenarios for each leg, so I was mentally prepared. I was on track at the halfway point, then I had three consecutive punctures - and I only had two spare inner tubes. When you've trained intensively for months and you've run out of spares and need a third, it's pretty depressing. [Editor's note: a roaming official race mechanic eventually helped him.]
At the end of the day, I knew I had to stay positive and deal with what the race was throwing at me. I just had to change my objectives; it was no longer about doing the bike leg in less than six hours, it was about finishing with enough time to do the marathon.
The highlight of the day was seeing fellow tritons along the course. When you surround yourself with people who are motivated, you can't help but be lifted up by them as well.
The Ironman seems like a distant memory now, but it will always stick with me, because of the fact that I set my mind to something and achieved it. This year I'm thinking about training for a 100km running race. I also want to do the Marathon des Sables one day. Or maybe climb Mount Kilimanjaro or something in the Himalayas.