Q&A with Dave Spence

Article from


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Q&A with Dave Spence

SB: You participate in tri-races locally and across the globe, directed Malaysia’s very own XTERRA Langkawi and organise introductory tri-races for kids, amongst other things. In November 2016, you had the honour of representing your country​ as part of Team GB at the ITU Cross-Triathlon World Championships. Stellar achievements one and all and you are, no doubt, an inspiration to many. What’s the journey been like so far and how did you get to where you are today?

Dave: Wow that’s a big question! Here’s my abridged response although my definition of “abridge” is still a bit wordy although hopefully entertaining…

Despite doing lots of stuff at and for my school (primarily rugby & cross-country running) my adult life was busy with work, babies and all the usual stuff. From an exercise POV though it is best described as sedentary.

In fact, the most exercise I did up until my 40th birthday after leaving school was mowing my lawn and carrying my dive tanks from the boot of my car to the dive boat, as I had discovered diving and become a British Sub Aqua Club 1st Class Diver and the Training Officer for my dive club.

This role of teaching others to do scary and technical stuff is what convinced me to come to Asia when I lost my job in 2001 at the bank I used to work for. Having become disillusioned with corporate life I chose to try and make a living as a professional trainer and coach for corporate clients and their business executives and got my first contract to do this in KL.

At this time I remember vividly that I weighed 97kg (not so heavy compared to some but as I was more Asian than Western size I looked like a typical Fat Banker or something else that rhymes with Banker ;-)) This vivid memory is thanks to my last bank executive health check when the doctor in Harley Street (who’d become a client and close friend) gave me what I now call my wakeup call. He told me that I was going to end up like my Dad who had died at the age of 40; I was 14 at that time. I didn’t want that happening to my daughters. That’s why I said something like, “*#@K! Really? How do I prevent that?”

He said, “It’s easy really, do the following 3 things: lose weight, start exercising and stop smoking.” I said, “Should I do them in that order?” and he said, “No you silly arse you must do all 3 immediately!”

He was right of course but I could not. As I’d started smoking at 11 it took me almost 7 whole years to quit cigarettes. In fact, I can still remember as if it was yesterday completing my first marathon in 2004 and having to smoke a cigarette at the finishing line to satisfy my craving and addiction!

Over the years since then I slowly started to change shape and size but it wasn’t until I discovered triathlons which is more of a lifestyle sport than anything else I have done that caused the penny to finally drop in to my rather thick skull that smoking was not helping me to “Live More”.

SB: A remarkable journey, Dave — thanks for sharing that with us. So when did you discover triathlon? I imagine you started with road races first before venturing off-road? What drew you in and what has sustained your interest all this while? Do you prefer one over the other and if so, why?

Dave: I was first introduced to triathlon in late 2008. Someone (I can’t recall who) at Powerman (a duathlon that at the time was held near Lumut, Perak) asked me if I could swim and given my affirmative response told me I should do a triathlon. This was seriously the first time I’d heard the word and rather fortuitously the following week I was working for a client in Bangkok and was talking to Dr. Hum (his doctorate was in engineering), who was one of the participants, and over dinner up popped the subject of triathlon. I mentioned the discussion in Lumut and my interest and he immediately told me that if I was serious about it then I needed to speak to his colleague and friend Sam Pritchard. He gave me Sam’s telephone number and a few weeks later I joined Sam and his seriously elite-looking friends (they call themselves the TriDorphin Elites) on a training ride which took us out along the Mex Highway at the “crack of crow” (which where I come from means before the normal sane people have even thought about waking up).

Thanks to a naive question from me (“When is the next triathlon?”) and a crafty reply by Sam and his mates (“February next year which gives you plenty of time to train”), I found myself in the water in February 2009 along with hundreds of other people, frickin terrified about what lay ahead of me, which was the full-distance Ironman in Langkawi! Allegedly the world’s third hardest Ironman event!

As they say, the rest is history, as not only did I survive, the love affair with triathlon and that “Live More” feeling began and the endorphin rush completely and utterly replaced the craving for nicotine I’d had since the age of 11 when I was first caught and caned for smoking behind, ironically, the bike shelters at school 🙂 This new addiction took over not just my physical exercise but also my social life hence my reference to triathlon being truly one of the best lifestyle sports I’d experienced and I raced as regularly as I used to go for a beer which was literally every week.

Then in mid-2010 someone asked me to be part of an adventure race (The Sabah Adventure Challenge) and I discovered the off-road version of the sport and knew that this was truly where the “Live More” moments were for me. What attracted me was the splendour of being properly outdoors in Mother Nature, as to be honest, tarmac can get a bit tedious. I also found it way more fun getting dirty as well as sweaty and the friendliness of fellow participants, who were way less fashion-conscious, a level up from the somewhat elitist world of being known as an “Ironman” which I’ve realised now that many people chase like a material possession such as a luxury car or handbag.

Needless to say you’ll have realised that I prefer the off-road genre and an Xterra race is absolutely everything I need to maximise that “Live More” feeling I love. This is not to disrespect Ironman or other road triathlons though, which I still and will continue to do from time to time.

However, other than wet or dry and a windy or still course there are not a lot changes on the roads. Also you have those metal boxes called cars to contend with and I find the variety, diversity and perhaps yes, the extra challenge that events like Xterra provide so much more appealing and attractive.

Additionally, as I’ve said just recently when people get hurt riding on the roads that whilst you can still get hurt off-road at least you are in much more control of that. As in, if it looks too scary to ride down, as it still frequently does for me, you can jump off and run down for the bit you can’t or don’t want to ride. Whereas, as we all know, when you’re in traffic not even a pedestrian is safe!

SB: Damn metal boxes! Off-road is where it’s at 🙂 Let’s talk about competition. You’re an age-group elite and the times you post remain competitive across all fields. What’s your secret/training routine?

Dave: I’m flattered at my name being put in the same sentence as the term elite. Because I seriously am not. In my eyes ‘elite’ means you are untouchable in your age group. Here in Malaysia Mohd. Razani is genuinely one of those guys. As is Rob Barel, a Dutch athlete whom I had the pleasure of racing with at the ITU Cross World Championships last year (2016). No matter how hard I train and work at getting better they will have to have a seriously bad day for me to beat them. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of what I have done, especially given where I have come from but I genuinely and seriously believe that what I have done can be done by any of us. We do not need to be special and gifted and fortunate enough to have discovered this sport as a young man as Razani and Rob both did. Maybe in due course when I have been doing this as long as them e.g. 30+ years (when I will be about the same age as the iconic Mr Yee) I will have earned the ‘elite’ label.

Therefore, I do not believe there is a secret, as I just told someone who I mentor and who asks me for guidance, there is no silver bullet for success or a secret recipe. Again not wishing to discredit triathlon coaches or the training plans that they produce at much expense I subscribe to the KISS principle and try as far as possible to keep things as simple and as basic as is possible. Over-complicating things in training and giving myself too much to think about makes training way less fun and at the end of the day I do this for that “Live More” experience and not to make a living from it like elites usually have to.

Stephen Jepson, one of my mentors and heroes (like Mr Yee in terms of Malaysian triathlon), advises to “never leave the playground” where we used our imagination to experiment and discover “stuff” about ourselves and others whilst playing. This is the best way to describe my philosophy of the training routine that works. The sad thing is that many of us end up training like pros and elites and burn out because we have forgotten how to play. This year, as well as our existing events that are expanding to 7 from 4 events, Live More Events will also be running camps and other events and all of these will have “playfulness” as their essence. It’s not a secret though but it is a lost art for many 😉

SB: “Live More” appears to be a guiding precept in both your personal and professional life. I’m getting an inkling of what it is but perhaps you could elaborate more? 

Dave: It’s simple really. It’s the feeling I get about life when I am doing events. So when I decided to get into our own events it seemed like the right thing to call this venture. We wanted to encourage and help people (particularly kids) discover how to play through sports, and we believed it would improve their quality of life like it had ours. Obviously we can’t help people live longer (that’s not something we or anyone else can control) but we can help everyone feel like they Live More.

SB: Could you tell us about the growth of XTERRA in Malaysia, from its beginnings to the present day?

Dave: I could but I feel it’s a long story and not really mine to tell. All I can say is that it’s been a real pleasure and privilege to have been a part of the story to date. Like my own country the off-road genre and particularly the Xterra race format is still very niche and struggles to exist. Malaysia, much more than my own country, is very fortunate that it has a supportive infrastructure and individuals like the current owner of the Xterra franchise who have made it possible for the race to be held here for the past 4 years. This is certainly not the case in the UK where each year it’s struggled to actually happen. I hope very much that this support can and will continue, as increasingly, as so many other places have discovered, it’s a great way to attract the new and evolving market for eco-friendly and adventure tourism.

I just pray that more Malaysians discover the same love as I have for Malaysia’s forests, jungles and rivers and become equally bored with the tedium of tarmac so that they start to venture into this genre of racing. Whilst I do not ever see it being mainstream and there being mass-participation off-road events like the SCKLM (in fact that should be avoided at all cost as the damage to the trails and the congestion would IMO be totally unacceptable), I would like more Malaysians to discover the “Live More” experience of this type of race genre for themselves.

SB: The first two editions of XTERRA were held in Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur, whilst more recent editions saw Langkawi hosting the event. Putrajaya is centrally located and more accessible; a venue that would draw a larger pool of participants, one might assume. Langkawi on the other hand provides a more scenic and adventurous setting — an attractive albeit costlier proposition, particularly for those who may wish to extend their stay. What was the rationale behind the move and how has it worked out for XTERRA, and for participants, in general? 

Dave: This is a great question. It moved for two reasons: 1) Putrajaya needed to develop as an urban city and condominium developers offer way more $$$’s to use the land than an off-road race could, and 2) Xterra and the government wanted, as mentioned above, to attract and target the growing eco-friendly adventure sector of the tourism industry.

As for how the move has worked out, well where I come from we have this daft expression (yes another one!): “What we lose on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts,” meaning that the positive and negative results of a situation or action balance themselves out. In other words as a result of moving the race to Langkawi we have dramatically increased the number of foreign racers coming in to spend their foreign currency in Malaysia and their stay is longer, as they are farther away from KLIA where it’s easy to jump back on the plane and go home.

However, we have lost the support of local racers who probably grew up visiting Langkawi and if they are going to get on a plane they want to go somewhere that, for them, is a bit more exotic than their own backyard.

SB: What can we expect for XTERRA Langkawi 2017? More of the same? Or will there be some surprises?​ ​I understand that you recently stepped down as race director but do tell us what you know.

Dave: This is another great question, though I’m really not the right person to answer this. From what I understand, and one of the reasons for me stepping down, is that there’ll be nothing new and no surprises. The course I created 2 years back will I’m told be the same (give or take a few trees that have probably fallen since last year and trails that will need new race lines carved to cope with this).

This will mean that the challenge should have the same level of severity although I am not in a position to obviously promise that anymore. This seems to be enough to attract pros and age group warriors back again and I can’t wait to be able to race it with them. I’m biased of course but it should be enough to attract many more too. Especially those that want to be crowned the Xterra Asia-Pacific Champion of their age group, like me 😉

SB: As someone who’d like to give the tri a shot some day, what can XTERRA Langkawi offer the budding triathlete? 

Dave: Again, I’m biased but a whole bunch I reckon. In fact over the last 4 years one of my most rewarding achievements is where guys and girls like Rob Plachiak, Roberto Guerra and Syikin Fariq tell me that this was their first ever triathlon and they loved it and have fallen in love with the “Live More” lifestyle that is such an integral part of it.

When I discussed this with them and others they have similar reasons as I have for loving this event genre in that being close to nature has a lot to do with it and the people are more friendly and family-orientated. They also say it’s fun and whilst it’s still a bit scary, it’s way less intimidating than being with all the Lycra-clad hunks and speedsters you see in an Ironman transition when you rack your bike, which I can really relate to.

SB: Can you describe some of the more significant challenges you’ve faced as race director over the years? Any memorable moments when you thought it was all going to hell? (but didn’t — or did!)

Dave: There are two standouts for me. The first was in 2013, our first year, where we had a university (that will remain nameless) near Putrajaya promise us 100 volunteers and they didn’t show or answer our calls to advise us where they were or why they didn’t show. As a consequence, we had only a handful of volunteers to do what we thought would need many more.

Following the principles of any performance, not just those in the world of theatre, the show had to go on though and on it went, amazingly smoothly, despite me thinking we were doomed. This proved to me that quality reigns over quantity any and every day of the week in everything we do including event management for a race. It is truly amazing what we have put on since with only a few good men and women and I’m truly and deeply indebted to these people.

The second came in the second year at Putrajaya when, having created a new course that got great reviews from everyone the previous year, I and many of my friends (some of those good men and women mentioned above) spent the next year nurturing, tweaking and developing the trails so that they were less raw and more well-established. One particular section of the run course came down and through a rubber plantation and we’d got this section really spectacular in term of its look and the way it flowed. In short I was super-proud of this and could not wait for what I expected would be positive reactions from the racers.

Sadly with only a few days to go until the race the plantation was bulldozed and the trails smashed to pieces with the area in and around it looking like a war zone. It transpired that the land had been earmarked by the town planners but in keeping with bureaucracies the world over the right arm did not know what the left arm was doing and as a consequence no one in town planning had informed the sports department, who we were dealing with, of this.

Having become a bit of an eco-warrior I was pretty upset about this and to compound these personal feelings I was convinced that participants would not be best pleased with having to pick their way through, over and under the resulting carnage. Thankfully, I was proved completely wrong again as we had no complaints and actually were praised for the way we had adapted and coped with the situation.​​

SB: Wow — haha! So that’s why you left Putrajaya, really 🙂 Tell us about the current state of triathlon in Malaysia​, Dave​ and what does the future hold? 

Dave: Another Biggie 🙂 As a foreigner, it’s not my place to comment nor is it fair to compare. What I’m willing to say is it’s growing and evolving and its future is not only assured but bright as there are as many things to feel positive about as there are negative things to moan about.

Being an eternal optimist I am totally focused on these positive feelings and I think the main ones are the kids that are embracing the sport, some of whom have some amazing talent in terms of speed and for those that haven’t the speed yet they all show amazing resilience and determination and this can only be a good thing for them and the country in terms of how they get on in life outside of sport. Many parents are telling me that because of triathlon their child’s focus and concentration has increased and this is paying dividends for them academically too! As a result, I think Triathlon has a great future here.

SB: ​I don’t think where you’re from matters — as ​someone who has contributed to the development of tri through your involvement in XTERRA and through your work with youngsters, you occupy a unique position and are more than qualified to comment. From what you’ve described though, we’ve a lot to look forward to. On a similar note, ​Malaysian hope Riki Shinozuka is one to watch at the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur this year (2017). Can you tell us about him or of other up-and-coming triathletes whose progress you’ve followed in recent years? 

Dave: He is indeed and I think you should interview him. He is a lovely lad as well as a very fast one. His whole family are wonderful in fact and they are a model for the “Live More” lifestyle I keep talking about and of the resilience and determination mentioned above. There are too many others to single out though as there are some amazing stories and it would be totally unfair of me to pick out one or two of them and put pressure on them to become the next Riki. I try as best I can follow them all and I am proud to say that all of them, including Riki, have and still are regulars when time permits at our Live More Kids Triathlon events, even if these days Riki only comes along to help us present the awards. His influence on the other youngsters is very visible and back to my earlier comments the future of Malaysian triathlon is a rosy one.

SB: In 2016, you introduced your tri-series for kids. How was it received and what plans do you have for the future? 

Dave: It was received wonderfully. We had 4 events last year with over 1250 participants representing 27 different nationalities. We are truly excited about having not 4 events in this Series in 2017 but 7 events, with lots of other exciting things that will be linked to this to help everyone find ways to play and “Live More”.

SB: Is it fair to say that the cost of entry and continued involvement in triathlon is a tad prohibitive — be it for adults or kids? Is it simply the nature of the sport — from the equipment, to the training, to the event that makes it the preserve of the relatively privileged? 

Dave: It’s fair for you to say that, yes. Generally speaking it’s a tad prohibitive but so is paying almost MYR200 for a bike ride and in excess of MYR100 for a relatively short run. As you say therefore there’s a good case that can be made, given the complexity with 3 disciplines and a transition area, that of all sports events, triathlons are very fairly and reasonably priced compared to the relative simplicity of putting on a running event.

That said, I think there is also a case to see triathlon as not just privileged but elitist too. This observation is not directed at Malaysia though. It is a global problem as it’s my opinion materialism has crept into the sport.

Firstly, organisations that put on the majority of triathlons around the world have shareholders to report to and lots of customers whose expectations are to be pampered like they would be at a high-class hotel or restaurant. As a result, branded events like Ironman cost you a thousand plus ringgit simply to register.

The money-making machine called a marketing department of the run, bike and swim gear manufacturers and all other related companies in the triathlon food chain such as nutrition, hydration, apparel and coaching services, etc., has then got on the band wagon and overcomplicated life and the gears required. Novice and experienced triathletes alike have been hoodwinked into believing they can’t do any race or will look like a complete #rick unless they have the latest P5X Cervelo and Zipp wheels.

This is a extreme example and it’s right to ask what’s wrong with doing this if you can afford to. The answer is, nothing! What is wrong though in my opinion is that it leaves you and many, many other people deciding not to take up the sport because they think it’s beyond them financially. In its purest sense it is definitely not the nature of the sport that requires you to financially cripple yourself to do it.

In the same sense, you can take up golf, computer gaming or photography relatively cheaply and easily if you want to too. The only difference with triathlon is that it is way, way better for you than golf, computer gaming or photography 😉

SB: So, not as costly as one might suppose then. What can organisers or sports bodies do to make triathlons more accessible for everyone? 

Dave: It’s not for me to tell other organisers or sports bodies what to do. My life would get very complicated if I started doing that, and as I’ve said, I like to keep things simple. That’s why up to now we have been charging as low as MYR40 for participation in one of our Live More Events for the U6’s, MYR50 for every other child and MYR70 for adult participants. If people were willing to forgo finishing medals and T-shirts we’d charge less but we tried that and in all fairness they want these things and I get that totally, especially for the kids. This year we’ll have to increase prices just like everything else but we are also going to increase what you get, and up to now we have used manual timing, but we have now got to the stage where we have to automate things and use chips, which comes at a price. We’ll be announcing these prices and new races soon but what I can tell you for now is that as an organiser we will be definitely doing our bit to make this awesome “Live More” sport they call triathlon accessible to everyone.

SB: Thanks Dave, and all the best for 2017!