Fitness Instructor | Ironman | Former Gymnast
Women in the fitness industry is not something you hear about every day, especially if you live in an asian society or come from an asian family. It is not easy charting out a career in fitness, let alone finding time and getting motivated enough to train yourself for gruelling races like the ironman. Karen is one inspirational fitness entrepreneur who has given up the comforts, security & recognition of a 9-5 desk job to become a personal trainer with a mission to make Malaysians fitter one session at a time. She walks the talk and motivates and trains herself for races and triathlons, including the Ironman. She does it all with a big smile, a sustainable pace, and a friendly wholesome attitude – despite the daily setbacks, tears and pain from injuries and harsh malaysian sun.
“I actually think our society is quite progressive, and would not hesitate to commend a woman on her abilities and qualifications.”
We had the privilege to speak to personal fitness coach and founder of Kia Kaha Fitness on what is like to start young in the running scene, the joys and challenges of women in the fitness scene, and also how she manages training with her equally fit fiance! Even when she is told, ‘you’re fit and fast … for a girl’, she smiles, acknowledges she runs like a girl, but will probably finish faster than most of the boys we know in any marathon.
You’re a fitness instructor, Iron woman and a former gymnast – with all these fitness qualifications under your belt, is there NOTHING you can do? Tell us, whats your next quest after the Ironman? What keeps you going, especially when you are tired, unwell and would just rather eat ice cream and watch TV in bed?
haha…there are still many many more stones to flip over in my opinion, but since Ironman, I’m going to take my time. This year my focus is on recuperating, rejuvenating and just reinventing myself. My road to Ironman was a challenging one, and my body (not the strongest, unfortunately) sustained quite a lot of wear and tear from. I can feel it in my joints and my overall well-being (i.e. i get tired so easily these days, that I feel like I have aged 10 years). So I’m rebuilding myself from scratch, working on my flexibility, my strength, and basically all the minor details. I still maintain my triathlon endeavours just to keep them in check, so hopefully next year, I will come back stronger. What keeps me going? Haha, people like you guys!! People like Hui Mathews, like the whole ash be nimble team, the people who believe in me, who know I am built for better and greater things, I feel like I owe it to them to be better and greater myself!
We understand that your next achievement at hand, is literally your hand in marriage to your fiance, Gary. Tell us, is he equally as into fitness as you are? What are the challenges of being a fit couple? How would you motivate couples wanting to get fit together?
He is, yes! As a matter of fact, he is an even more disciplined athlete than I ever was. And that is sometimes the biggest challenge ever! Many people think that because we are both into the same sport, that everything falls into place, and we don’t have things to argue about. Wrong! We have different sport personalities, he likes systematic training programs, I prefer going with the flow, and trying new methods of training. He works better with a coach, he needs feedback in numbers, statistics, the whole works, I prefer training on my own, and feeling my own rhythm. I don’t always need a watch to tell me what pace I am doing, I can feel it pretty well. So there is, in fact, plenty of room for argument, but just like any other couple, we work through it and grow a stronger relationship through each storm we weather. 🙂 I think that it is pretty special, though, when a couple decides to motivate each other to get fitter and healthier together. It’s the best gift you can gift your spouse/partner, in my opinion. So, think about it as a journey together, a road trip, or an adventure. It’s always more fun when you do it hand in hand.
“I’m not pro, I shouldn’t wear things like that!”.
There aren’t that many female personal trainers around. Whats the biggest challenge as a personal trainer, and whether there are specific challenges as a female one?
The fitness industry is a very volatile industry, so that itself is challenging. Things move at a very fast pace, and the majority of people like new trends and get bored easily. Also, people still don’t regard PTs as professionals. They can justify paying a doctor consultation fees, but they still can’t justify paying a trainer their fees. As a female PT, I think it is trusting people and gaining trust in return, which I think is difficult. Because as women, we’re still vulnerable to risks of being alone with a stranger. At the beginning of my career, I was very gungho, and would agree to meet any tom,dick & harry who sends me a text or email, enquiring about PT. I soon realise not all these requests are genuine, and though I have been lucky to be unhurt, I have had encounters with not so genuine people with ill-intentions. So now I am very weary. Apart form that, I think our society no longer thinks of women PTs as weaker, or not fit for the job, I actually think our society is quite progressive, and would not hesitate to commend a woman on her abilities and qualifications.
“I had to bite back tears from the pain I felt in my feet, and swallow my ego.”
Training for an Ironman is not easy, I’m sure emotionally, mentally and physically it is extremely demanding, not just on race day but so much more during training. One woman to another, what have been the most challenging moments and also the most hilarious ones?
To me the most challenging times were when Gary was away for work. As much as we argued, he was very much my rock in the whole journey, and with him being away, it always took extra effort to train. Another challenge was deciding what to prioritise every day, work, training, or family time? In the thick of my training, all these aspects blurred into a massive grey area, and I had a tough time juggling time to meet every one of them. Hilarious ones? Haha, not too many, but there was one time I was so tired, I actually fell asleep while training my client, while standing upright. I almost fell down, which I saved by dropping into a lunge and covered up by saying “this is what you’re going to do next!” Phew! haha…
You’ve recently shot with us around Kuala Lumpur – As a KL girl, in the KL running / triathlon scene, how has the running scene changed since then? What were some memorable races, iconic spots in town you’ve trained at or raced at?
I started running at aged 13, and like a Milo tin, the running scene has definitely changed over the years. People used to wear baggy cotton t shirts, and any sort of shorts with any sort of shoes. Those who wore running shorts and running singlets were the “pros” back then, and I’d always say “I’m not pro, I shouldn’t wear things like that!”. Nowadays, every runner is dressed in the latest high tech gears, from dri-fit laser tech fabrics, to sport wearables. I’d say KL marathon will always be memorable. I ran my first ever marathon there, and remember telling people my target time of 4.5 hours, and getting laughed at by many. at the 30 km mark, with an elapsed time of 3.5 hours, I knew there was no way I was going to finish the next 12.195 km in 1 hour. I had to bite back tears from the pain I felt in my feet, and swallow my ego. I finished in 4 hours 56 minutes in the end…nobody likes their first heartbreak.
If you could change one thing in Malaysia’s fitness industry what would it be?
Can I say the climate?! hahah I kid. I wish more companies in Malaysia would encourage healthy living actually! So many times the excuse is “I’ve got work, I’ve got no time”. But your health is so much more important, without health, you can’t work! I think corporate companies play a HUGE role in encouraging fitness, if at least 5% more companies decide to put their foot down and make their employees exercise, fitness instructors around the country would be regarded more professionally. Right now, the awareness is still pretty low.
In a sentence, can you tell us how you #gotheextramile?
I #gotheextramile by sharing my life on social media, with hopes that it will encourage and inspire others to get up and do the same!