Interviews · Singapore

Anthony Sum: How an Overweight Couch Potato Became a Boston Marathoner

by On Jan 14, 2018

Anthony Sum Yew Wah didn’t start running until he was 41.

Anthony Sum: From Couch Potato to Boston Marathoner

If you had met Anthony Sum before 2004, you wouldn’t recognise him today. Similarly, if you had met Anthony only after 2004, you wouldn’t recognise the man in his old photographs. That is how much running had changed his life.

Anthony is the real-life example that you’re never too old to start running. Even though he started running in his forties, his sheer determination propelled him to run his first full marathon in 2005 with an impressive timing of 4 hours and 8 minutes.

In this interview, Anthony shares his transformational journey from a highly unfit couch potato to a Boston Marathoner and Chief Fitness Officer at Team FatBird.

RS: How old are you?

Anthony: I will be 55 this year, qualified to get my CPF.

RS: How and when did you pick up running? What motivated you?

Anthony: I started running when I turned 41 and into somewhat of a mid-life crisis. I wanted to adopt a healthier lifestyle, after watching my father suffer from many complications of ill health. I was then grossly overweight (82kg) and smoking 25 sticks a day. Within a year of picking up running and marathoning, I lost 17kg (to reach 65kg) and kicked my 25-year smoking habit. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels went down to healthy and manageable levels.

Anthony Sum: From Couch Potato to Boston Marathoner

Blackmores Sydney Running Festival 2015

RS: When you started running, did you run alone or with friends? Which one do you prefer?

Anthony: Within 6 months of running alone, I joined the SAFRA Running Club and MR25 to give myself more motivation and challenges to sustain the good running habit with the help of running in groups and packs 🙂 Running with friends and team (FatBird) members give me lots of pleasure and motivation to go long distances. I still run alone occasionally when I need that ‘me’ time to train and do some thinking.

RS: Do you have a running coach?

Anthony: I do not have a formal running coach. I followed the advice of trainers from SAFRA RC in my initial years of running, then went on to gain knowledge to be able to coach myself and my team members and trainees at Team FatBird.

RS: How was Team FatBird (TFB) formed?

Anthony: Team FatBird was formed in 2008 when a group of us was leading runners for weekly group runs of 3-7km from the FatBird statue right in front of UOB Plaza in the City. The FatBird name was inspired by that statue (who proudly overlook the Singapore River), and also a fact that most of the initial core members were once overweight (fat) and have grown to become lightweight (like a bird) through running.

RS: Has TFB changed your life for the better? How?

Anthony: Through TFB, I have brought together many like-minded people with the passion for a healthy and active lifestyle through running/fitness. As a group, we have gone through nearly 10 years of running, training, racing in marathons locally and overseas. I have seen and been inspired by this growing running community through TFB’s tribe members who have led change for healthy lives and gained so much for us and our families.

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Through TFB, I not only have transformed myself, but have helped many of my family members (my brother to successfully quit smoking after 38 years, my wife and children to run regularly, as well as my mother who have embarked on healthy dance exercises and Taichi on a weekly basis).

TFB has touched and changed lives of many individuals and families as a Movement (Fitness & Health) for good! And I have been the biggest beneficiary of all!

RS: Do you think running is suitable for people who are overweight?

Anthony: Running is proven to be very effective for overweight people to lose and maintain healthy weight and waistlines. Highly overweight people and beginners can start by taking brisk walks, progressing to jog/walk and then running progressive distances as they lose fat which makes the running get easier. This cycle of run-lose-run has seen very good weight-loss results in the runners who have joined Team FatBird’s training and group runs.

RS: Tell us about how you became overweight, and how you lost weight.

Anthony: I was slim and trim at 60kg during my army National Service as an Infantry Officer. I began piling on weight once I entered the workforce in my mid-20s. The weight ballooned as I adopted a more sedentary lifestyle with building a family and career.

When I turned 40 and took stock of my life (mid-life crisis?), I realised I needed to change my life or risk dying young (like my father). A chanced introduction to running by a friend got me started running in 2004, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not only have I lost and sustained my weight loss, I managed to kick my 25-year 25-stick smoking habit (which was a real bonus as I have had trouble kicking the habit many times before to no avail).

Anthony Sum: From Couch Potato to Boston Marathoner

Anthony's transformation through the years

RS: What advice would you give to overweight people who want to lose weight?

Anthony:

  • Have a S.M.A.R.T. goal (fat/weight loss).
  • Start small (aim to lose 0.5Kg a week).
  • Brisk Walk (if you have not run more than 1km continuously before).
  • Run with Walk breaks (if you cannot run more than 3km continuously).
  • Run 3-4 times a week (150-200min) with rest days in between.
  • Bodyweight exercises (planks, push-ups, squats, lunges, burpees) during rest days.
  • Watch your nutrition – Cut and reduce the following from your diet:
    • High-sugared beverages like carbonated drinks, milo, beer;
    • Snacks like biscuits, cakes, kuey-kuey are laden with sugar and trans-fat;
    • Processed foods (Substitute white rice, noodles, bread with brown/whole-wheat versions).
  • Drink lots (7-8 glasses) of plain water.
  • Have sufficient sleep of 7-8 hours per night.
  • Reduce stress through fun aerobics exercises (dancing, swimming, cycling, hiking, trekking, social jogging).

RS: Do you think running is suitable for people who smoke?

Anthony: Smokers cannot enjoy running because their stamina and lung-capacity are at a disadvantage. It is challenging for their aerobic capacity to sustain longer distance running. Smoking will also impede any progress in speed and endurance for runners who wish to aim for Personal Bests and Boston Qualifiers.

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RS: Tell us about your old smoking habit, and how you quit smoking.

Anthony: I picked up the unhealthy habit of smoking when I was 15, and continued to smoke up to 25 sticks a day through my adult years. I tried to quit a couple of times after I had children, but each time I just went back to smoking at an even higher dosage (more sticks). It was only when I started distance running that I decided that I had to quit smoking if I were to continue to pursue my love of running marathons.

I cut down the number of sticks a day as I increased running mileage (slow runs). I went cold turkey (cutting off completely) within 2 weeks, and never looked back since. I didn’t experience any side-effects or felt sick when I quit. I attribute it to my running that alleviated these typical symptoms and difficulties that non-running smokers had when they tried to quit. I finally managed quit my 25-year smoking habit, and I have remained smoke-free since 2004.

RS: What advice would you give to people who smoke but want to quit?

Anthony:

  • Smoking is an unhealthy habit which can be replaced with another habit, albeit a healthy one like running.
  • Have a solid reason(s) and goal to quit.
  • Commit to family and friends your decision and time frame to quit.
  • Start an exercise/running routine – Running long distances especially will give you the Endorphins and ‘Runner’s High’ which can replace the effects of the ‘Nicotine High’.
  • Start small (reduce by 10% a week). You can go cold turkey (cut off immediately) after 2-3 weeks when your new Running/Exercise routine is in place. That’s what I did.
  • Whenever the urge (for smoking) comes, go out for a run/jog/brisk walk to sweat out the toxins and get relief with an Endorphin fix instead.
  • Drink lots of plain water to aid with the detox.
  • Spend less time with smoker friends in the initial period to avoid temptations. You should be spending most of your time with your Running/Exercise kakis by then 🙂 .
  • Have sufficient sleep of 7-8 hours.
  • Avoid stressful situations.

RS: When was your first Boston Marathon? How many times have you completed Boston?

Anthony: I first qualified for Boston Marathon in 2015 at the Sydney Marathon. Thereafter, I re-qualified a couple more times within 2015-2016. I ran my first Boston Marathon in April 2016. I qualified for Boston Marathon 2017 but did register for a slot as I wanted a break.

Last year, I qualified for Boston Marathon 2018 at the Gold Coast Marathon 2017 and will be racing my second Boston Marathon in April 2018. Most recently, I qualified for Boston Marathon 2019 at the local Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon.

Anthony Sum: From Couch Potato to Boston Marathoner

Boston Marathon 2016

RS: How many World Marathon Majors (WMM) races have you participated?

Anthony: I have yet to do any WMM races other than Boston. I hope to do at least one WMM a year from 2018 if I can get race slots for them.

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RS: Tell us about your favourite races!

Anthony: My favourite race of all time is the Gold Coast Marathon (GCM) where I have raced in more than 5 years, across 10km, HM and FM categories. The GCM is also where I scored many of my PBs and two of my recent Boston Qualifiers (BQ).

My other favourite race would be the ChunCheon Marathon in Korea (2008) where I first raced in cool weather overseas.  I scored a marathon PB then as well.

RS: Are you into ultramarathons? Why?

Anthony: Not really. I have not been doing Ultra races in the recent 5 years as I would like to train for and complete the WMM first, while I still have some speed endurance left in me.

RS: What ultra-races have you joined?

Anthony: I have completed a number of Ultramarathons, including the inaugural Sundown Ultramarathon (84km) and MR25 Trail UltraMarathon (an event that challenges how many rounds of MacRitchie Reservoir you can do in 12 hours, from 7am-7pm).

RS: Are you into other types of races, like obstacle races, vertical races or triathlons? Tell us about it.

Anthony: I have done the Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon under the sponsorship of Team NTUC in 2007, and the occasional Vertical Races locally. Otherwise, I prefer to stick to road marathons most of the time.

RS: Do you train/run every day?

Anthony: I run 4-5 times weekly and up to 6 days when I am training for an important marathon race.

RS: Besides running, do you do other sports?

Anthony: I did soccer and squash when I was younger. I only do running once I reached 40 years of age.

Anthony Sum: From Couch Potato to Boston Marathoner

Gold Coast Marathon 2017

RS: Now that you are the so-called "fit runner" what is the motivation that keeps you running?

Anthony: Being able to maintain and even improve on my timings as I age motivates me to pace myself and continue to run for as long as I can.

RS: What are your goals in the near future and far future?

Anthony: My running bucket list will be to complete the World Marathon Majors series, and then a marathon in every continent, and possibly some special races like Bhutan, Pyongyang, Everest Marathon. I hope to be able to run and maintain good health into my retirement years and old age.

RS: Are your family members runners as well?

Anthony: My wife, brother, daughter have also caught the running bug and are serious runners now.

RS: What's your proudest achievement in running and in TFB?

Anthony: My proudest achievement in running is qualifying for and completing The Boston Marathon in 2016. My proudest achievement in TFB is the creation and maintenance of more than 1,500 members who have trained by TFB’s programs and have gone on to achieve their personal bests in running.

Do you agree that life begins at 40?

Eva is a casual runner who has been hooked on marathons since her first race in 2011. She’s content to spend her weekends only on running. She is also a hiking enthusiast and traveling addict. When she’s not doing outdoor activities, she indulges in reading.

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