While many consider running a marathon (42.2 km/26.2 miles) a great achievement at any age, it’s virtually a warmup for 73-year-old Oliver Ker, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Oliver’ to his fellow runners in Malaysia. This former executive for Standard Chartered Bank regularly competes in ultra-marathons of 50-100 km, and recently attempted a 200 km. Whatever the distance, he always has a smile as he provides encouragement and inspiration to runners of all ages. Since 2010, he has completed 30 full marathons and 24 ultra-marathons.
Ker is originally from Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. For many years there, he participated in the Hash House Harriers, an international running and social club that does a weekly trail run of about five miles. Ker always enjoyed the Hash, but the trails of Borneo are rough and steep, and he began to suffer from knee problems.
That was when he decided to try longer distances. Going at a slower pace on smoother roads and trails was much easier on his knees. Now retired, he now spends much of his time with his daughter in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where long distance races are popular. He enjoys the time spent on the road and the camaraderie of other runners at the events. Ker particularly enjoys race events at marathon distance and above. At these distances, endurance often wins over speed. Ker isn’t chasing a podium finish and he takes these races slowly, at a quick walking pace.
“I race to complete, not to compete,” he says.
Completing an ultra is a tough challenge, involving up to 30 hours on the road. Still, Ker always looks as though he’s thoroughly enjoying himself, even in the late stages of a race when much younger runners are exhausted. Seeing him helps spur them on to the finish line. They tell him: “If you can keep going, Uncle, we have to keep on too.”
Ker’s favorite ultra-distance event is the 12 Hour International Walk, in which he has participated three times. In this race-walk event, the fact that no running is allowed plays to Ker’s strengths. In his best performance, he completed 79 km (49 miles) and finished in 11th place overall.
The longest distance at which he has competed successfully has been 100 km, but he hopes to eventually complete 100 miles or longer. In his three attempts at 100-mile-plus races, he has stopped shortly after 100 km. His next attempt at 100 miles will be in Singapore this September. With a cut-off time of 32 hours, he has a good chance of completing.
Ker trains every day, walking about 5-10 km depending on his schedule. In addition to running, he enjoys frequent travel and spending time with family and friends (he and his wife have another son and daughter, and two grandchildren). Local media often request interviews about his amazing accomplishments, but he refuses, preferring to keep a low profile. He doesn’t think there’s anything remarkable about what he does; he’s just participating in an activity he loves. That doesn’t keep him from being a legend, recognized and applauded at any Malaysian running event.
By Susan Swier, a freelance writer, blogger and herself an ultra-runner based in Taiwan.
Ker photo courtesy Running Kaki Malaysia.