Tengku Zafrul is the Group Chief Executive Officer of CIMB Group and the Chief Executive Officer of CIMB Bank

As many people know, running and cycling are my passions outside work and family. Two days ago, in my attempt to nail the six Abbot World Marathon Majors, I completed the Boston Marathon 2017, my fourth after Tokyo, London and Berlin. Taking part in the world’s oldest annual marathon and running this course for 42km through the beautiful suburban streets in Massachusetts and into the heart of downtown Boston is on the bucket list of many runners, including mine.

I’ve always managed to record a personal best timing at every marathon. I knew Boston would be a tough one but I thought I would, at the very least, do better than Tokyo, my first marathon. In my mind, Boston would be my fourth marathon, how hard could it be? Boy, was I wrong! I finally crossed the finish line in Boylston Street only after 5 hours and 42 minutes, which was worse than my Tokyo timing of 5 hours 11 minutes and about an hour slower than my personal best. It was not just the hilly course – with aptly-monikered milestones like Burn Hill and Heartbreak Hill – but also the heat that totally threw me off course.

As I was waiting for my flight home, very much nursing both my sore limbs (and a slightly bruised ego), I reflected on the lessons learnt from my own experience of the ‘killer’ Boston Marathon, and the many parallels between training for one and achieving a professional goal:

1. There’s no such thing as being over-prepared for a challenge

My first 22km was a breeze. I stuck to my plan, kept to my target heart rate and paced myself. However, between 23km and 31km, I felt more tired than usual, which rather surprised me. The hills were killing my legs and the heat didn't help. The first stab of pain hit my left calf as I passed the 32-km mark. I knew if I pushed harder the pain would be worse so I started to jog slowly. As I reached the thirty-third kilometre, my left leg started cramping up so I stopped to stretch a bit before continuing to walk while hydrating and gel-feeding myself.

I realised then how poorly prepared I was for the Boston Marathon. Truth be told, I just could not find enough training time to run 2 - 3 times on weekdays to cumulate a total of 30 km, and run a full 20-25 km run on weekends (perhaps too much cycling). It didn't help that I was injured and took three weeks to recover several weeks prior. I could only train again about four weeks before the Boston Marathon.

Accepting fully that I should have prepared better, World Keirin Champion Azizulhasni Awang’s words – from our exchange of text earlier – came into my thoughts: “Since you lack training, just go out there and enjoy it”, interspersed with screams of blue murder by my over-exhausted limbs!

I’m glad to note that unlike my Boston Marathon experience, CIMB was much better prepared for the challenges of 2016. Thankfully, we were not thrown off course by unexpected surprises like Brexit, Trump’s Presidential win and volatility in various markets, because we did all the necessary recalibration that we needed to do in 2015, and our solid financial results for 2016 spoke well of the Group’s preparedness in facing unexpected headwinds.

2. Keeping your eye on the goal keeps you going

Anyone who has done any long distance running/swimming/cycling or similar sports would be very familiar with the term “mental block”. This is when your body is beat, and the only thing that keeps you going is your mind, except that that too is slowly failing. I hit this block at the 32-km mark in Boston, when my left calf started hurting. I slowed down and once I felt better I started to run again, gradually building up speed and compensating for the pain in my left calf by using my right leg more. Alas, this was but a brief relief because my right calf started hurting as I ran down Heartbreak Hill. The twitch in my right calf was a clear sign that a cramp was on its way, so, reluctantly, I sought treatment at a medic camp.

Despite not preparing as well as I should have, my primary objective was to complete and focus on completing the six majors. It took so much mental strength to tell myself over and over again: “You have come all the way to Boston for this. Giving up is not an option! Crawl if you must but finish this run!” So, I trudged on until I reached the 39-km mark, when the soreness and ache in my calves burned their way to such unbearable agony that I started to shuffle. More gels, more salt tablets – but all these did little to alleviate the crippling discomfort in my legs, which already felt like jelly.

After shuffling for what seemed like forever, I looked at my Garmin watch, which told me I had only two more kilometres to go. Feeling encouraged, I started to jog, hoping to make it to the finish line in time. I tried to ignore the excruciating agony and focused instead on meeting the yellow line at the Boston Public Library. Admittedly, at this stage, completing the run was easier said than done, but staying focused on my goal to finish it (and not disappoint my family, donors, friends and colleagues) kept me going, one foot after the other, until I crossed the finish line, physically suffering but elated.

I am sure our CIMB ambassadors, squash queen Nicol David and world Keirin champion Azizulhasni Awang, also face the same thought process as they strive for No 1 positions in their respective sports. In fact, Azizulhasni’s words from our text exchanges also kept ringing in my head during the grueling final 10km of the race: “…it all starts from self-belief. Then we just need to put in our effort to make it happen…the rest will follow.”

In the same vein, maintaining focus on the end-goal is important for us to overcome setbacks and challenges. In whichever discipline or craft, hard work and determination aside, sustained focus on the end-goal enhances our chances of “finishing the race” successfully. For CIMB, our end-goal is to be the leading ASEAN Bank, and as all of us in #teamCIMB keep reminding each other to keep our eyes on this goal, I am confident our determined focus will keep us going to help us achieve this goal together.

3. It’s easier to achieve success via teamwork

Throughout the last 10km of the run, gripping pain forced me to walk or at best, jog slowly. My instincts told me that if I hadn’t done this, the cramp would be so crippling that I would not be able to walk at all, effectively extinguishing all hopes of completing the Boston marathon. This was also what compelled me to visit the medic tent four times in those last 10km! Those medics were really helpful and encouraging. The crowd, too, was fantastic! They could tell I was in considerable pain, and cheered me on, which kept my spirits up. When I finally crossed the finish line, I could barely walk but the feeling of having completed the world-famous Boston Marathon, despite all my injuries and setbacks, was truly amazing. I was so happy that for a moment, all the pain was forgotten.

I am extremely lucky to have the loving support of my family, friends and colleagues in my fitness pursuits. Running mates and colleagues support and encourage me during marathon preps, when we constantly push and motivate each other. During the race, the medics and the spectators also spurred me on. Collectively, they were all part of “my team”, and my success in completing the Boston Marathon is as much theirs as it is mine.

Similarly, teamwork has been the crucial ingredient in ensuring the success that CIMB has achieved in the last two years, despite a challenging operating environment. I have been blessed with a great team, supported by highly capable leaders who manage their respective business pillars independently and collaboratively. With so many moving parts to our regional operation, nothing short of excellent teamwork could have made us achieve the solid financial results that we did for 2016. By applying our #teamCIMB spirit and motivating each other, we are united in moving towards the same objective, which is to provide our 12 million customers with innovative products and services that will, in turn, help them achieve their goals, dreams and ambitions.

On a final note, my promise to self is to be better prepared for the New York Marathon, for which I am determined to achieve my personal best! Four Marathon Majors, check! Two to go!

It’s been two days since my completion of the Boston Marathon, and gripping pain is still a loyal companion. Was it worth it? Yes, definitely, for each step and every milestone of that run will remain etched in my psyche as the toughest odds I have ever overcome and the most humbling marathon I have completed in my running journey.

Tengku Zafrul is looking forward to racing 35-kilometres in the New Straits Times C-Cycle Challenge this weekend.

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