Long before 64-year-old Steven Lee of Sembcorp Industries set about making running part of his professional and personal life, Confucius said,
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential…these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
Mr Lee’s a living example of this philosophy as his influence extends far beyond making sure that Sembcorp stays profitable: He serves as a corporate fitness guru and inspiration, organising and encouraging employees to get and stay healthy by running. Lee is a living example of the positive effects running has on the aging body and if he has his druthers, he plans to keep going for decades more and in the company of the people he calls his work and running colleagues.
RS: When and why did you take up running?
Lee: During my school years, I engaged in sports like the long jump, javelin and running. But it wasn’t until after national service that I began to focus on running as a way to condition my body so I could compete in marathons.
RS: Will this be the first time you have run the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge with your Sembcorp colleagues?
Lee: It’s my third time. I signed up for this event to encourage employees to run with me and to set an example: Age is no barrier when it comes to the sport of running to stay fit and healthy.
RS: How many Sembcorp colleagues will be joining you for this event on April 23rd?
Lee: At this point, we will be 140 runners strong!
RS: When you’re not competing in an event like the JP Morgan Challenge, do you and Sembcorp make other efforts to keep employees engaged in running?
Lee: First, we have a strong sports and fitness culture at Sembcorp, including our Sembcorp Recreation Club. The Club is invaluable; it organises sports activities year-round, including runs such as the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge. Meanwhile, a dedicated group of employee-runners arrange training runs throughout the week. We leave the office at 6 p.m. every Wednesday and run between 7 and 12 kilometres. Our route takes us from the Parliament House along the Singapore River and to the Marina Barrage. We pass lots of iconic landmarks. We also gather at the MacRitchie Reservoir at 7 a.m. to run 8 to 25 kilometres together on other days.
RS: It’s easy to see that your company is truly committed to running! Is there more?
Lee: There is. To encourage Sembcorp colleagues and their families to run, I organise quarterly fun runs. All participants can win lucky draw prizes, like new running shoes. Our Sembcorp family loves these events.
RS: Personally, how often do you train and in what other sports do you engage to stay fit?
Lee: I try to run three times a week; once on weekdays (10 kilometres) and twice over the weekends (20 kilometres each on Saturday and Sunday). My schedule’s tight, so I don’t have time for other athletic pursuits.
RS: You and Sembcorp are a model for responsible and compassionate companies. You understand that taking time for exercise is hard for working people and respect that. To what do you attribute your dedication?
Lee: I must give kudos to Singapore. We live in a country that prioritises health and fitness, so there is no shortage of places for people to exercise. We have some of the best stadiums, parks and park connectors anywhere, plus indoor gyms and swimming pools. There’s no excuse not to exercise in our country!
RS: It takes more than facilities to get people moving! What advice do you have for working people who can’t seem to get started on the road to physical fitness?
Lee: First, acknowledge the fact that finding time to exercise can be challenging at first. Allocating personal time for exercise is the first step. I recommend gradually building up to a regular routine. For example, commit to exercising just 30 minutes, once a week. Gradually increase your time and frequency until it becomes habit and you love it so much, you wouldn’t think of skipping your run!
RS: It sounds like you’ve thought through the work-fitness-life balance conundrum. What’s your secret?
Lee: I wish I could say that there is a secret or a formula that would solve this dilemma given the hectic pace at which life moves these days. Everyone needs to make time to work out and that, in turn, improves life and work because we are more energetic and don’t get fatigued as fast. Staying fit keeps illnesses and sickness at bay. I last saw a doctor around 40 years ago! Fitness builds resiliency in all of us.
RS: You run a corporation, run a good race and run around in your personal life—is it true you also run a club?
Lee: I do! I’m the president of the MR25 Running Club which was launched in 1976 by Dr. Siak Chong Leng. He was inspired by the running culture he saw on a U.S. visit and returned home asking, “Why don’t we run for sport?” To start the trend, he organised the club. I joined in 1983 and became president in 1987.
RS: How is the MR25 Running Club different from other clubs in Singapore?
Lee: We have a unique history and an admirable founding father. We are the only Singapore running club requiring a time trial to gain membership. To qualify, candidates must complete a five kilometre run around MacRitchie Reservoir in 25 minutes or less. When a new MR25 member puts on that club vest, he or she shows the world that membership has been earned, not given.
RS: How many runners are currently on the MR25 club roster?
Lee: At present, we number about 300 active members, but over time, more than 3,000 runners have qualified. They run everywhere in Singapore, especially MacRitchie and Upper Peirce Reservoirs to avoid road traffic.
RS: Do you ever run together as a club?
Lee: We do; on the first Sunday of each month and every other month (e.g., January, March, May, etc.), we stage progressive runs. Distances are increased by 5 kilometres each time. Time trials for members are held on even months (February, April, etc.) so every member can gauge his or her improvement. We also test people interested in becoming members on even months.
RS: What about open-to-the-public events?
Lee: Our two big sponsored events are the MR25 X-Country Marathon and the MR25 Ultramarathon, a 12-hour (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) race. Both are open to the public.
RS: On the subject of ultramarathons, is it true that you participated in the 250km Great Kalahari Desert ultramarathon for the first time at age 62? How did you prepare?
Lee: I went to South Africa as a member of a Sembcorp-sponsored, four person team. We ran the Kalahari Extreme to raise funds for a charity hospital. Since I train regularly, I felt fit, but I had to up my game to prepare for this one. It’s a multi-stage event requiring competitors to cover between 25 and 80 kilometres daily while carrying a 15-kilogram backpack filled with supplies. My ability to physically endure was tested, but it was the mental endurance and fluctuating temperatures (from 45 degrees Celsius during the day to 0 degrees Celsius at night) that confirmed our team’s mettle. In addition to the Kalahari Ultra, we’ve participated in countless 20-kilometre runs and a 50-kilometre overnight run at MacRitchie Reservoir.
RS: Was one race more memorable than others?
Lee: Yes. The 1990 Singapore International Marathon. I ran my best full marathon time of three hours, 17 minutes, 50 seconds. This victory reinforced my personal belief that there are no shortcuts in life or in running. Exercise can keep the body fit, but it’s my passion for staying healthy that keeps me going.
RS: Have you set running goals for the rest of 2015?
Lee: I have. My plan is to go for another ultramarathon this year—either a 200-kilometre race in Bhutan or the 250-kilometre Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in South Africa for a second time. Feel free to check back in with me next year to see if I survived a second go!
There’s no denying that we live in a youth-obsessed society, but the wisdom of people like Mr. Steven Lee prove that age is no barrier to getting and staying healthy when one possesses focus, passion and enthusiasm for running. Can you see yourself keeping up a running regimen when you reach your 60s and beyond? If your answer is yes, what personal attributes do you see in yourself that will help you reach your goal?
Want to meet and talk to Steven Lee to find out more about his secret of maintaining a work-life balance, or maybe you are interested to join MR25 Running Club? Catch him in action with his colleagues in Sembcorp racing tees during the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge 2015 on 23 April at Esplanade Bridge in Singapore.