By Ken Stone
Vivian Lee of Encinitas — a distance-running novice only two years ago — once said: “Any marathon race after the North Pole Marathon will be a lot easier.”
Was that true?
“Hell no,” she admits after finishing the Antarctic Ice Marathon (with 54 others) in late November to become one of fewer than 50 women globally to complete the Marathon Grand Slam — running 26.2-mile races (or longer) on all seven continents.
She noted that the North Pole race in April 2016 was her first marathon.
“That was when I knew almost nothing about marathons and absolutely nothing about ultra or staged races,” Lee said. “At that time, I had only completed several half-marathons running city blocks (and, yes, Highway 101 or Torrey Pine state park are city blocks) with well-stocked aid stations.”She’d run unencumbered on paved roads in perfect temperatures.
“Now I am really laughing at myself,” she says. “Truly I knew NOTHING when I made that statement.”
Harder, she says, were the five-stage, triple-digit-heat Marathon Des Sables (in the Sahara Desert with a 52-mile day) and the Inca Trail Marathon in Peru (starting at 8,650 feet and ending at 8,930 feet while reaching peaks of 13,800, 13,000 and 12,000 feet).
But Lee — a 47-year-old software engineer who shelled out $40,000 for entry fees and expenses to race eight times — learned the value of heart and charity in the process.
She raised more than $5,000 for Niños de Fe Children’s Home in Tijuana — “precious children” who prayed for their Beijing-born running patron.
“During a visit in March before I headed to [Africa], several girls got down to their knees, put their hands on my running shoes and prayed fervently,” Lee said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Lee said she wished she could speak Spanish.
During the summer, her church mission group interviewed the kids, and one boy was asked: “What makes your heart smile?”
Brandon’s answer melted her heart: “That Vivian is running in all the countries for us.”
Memory of the warmth had to help at the Antarctic race, which took 5 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds for her to complete.
She listed what she wore: thermal beanie, Merino wool buff plus a lighter buff (learned from a Norwegian friend so the outer buff would not slide down), goggles, wool thermal top, light fleece jacket, windbreaker, wool thermal leggings, windproof pants, wool socks, trail running shoes (Salomon Speedcross 3), toe warmers, glove liners and mittens.
Temperature on race day was minus-13 degrees, she said. “With windchill, it felt like minus-20” at Union Glacier 600 miles from the South Pole.
By finishing the last leg of her Marathon Grand Slam, she earned — a medal.“I wore that with my Antarctic Ice Marathon medal on my neck all day long like a ‘cow bell’ – as my fellow runner Frank Johansen said.”
But she’s far from the oldest to compete the challenge. Quite a few female “Grand Slammers” are older, she says.
Lee left home Nov. 18 and returned Dec. 2, but was able to Facetime with her husband and two kids daily except four days in Antarctica and three in Torres Del Paine, Chile.
Her husband, Jay, and son Andy went to LAX to pick her up.
“The first order of business was to feast on some yummy dim sum,” she said. “(Son) Laurence was on a backpacking trek that weekend, so I did not get to see him till his return the next day.”
Lee was interviewed via email:
Times of San Diego: Did you share the feelings of men’s winner Frank Johansen — sad that it was over, saying “Can I go one more lap?”
Vivian Lee: Close enough. I was thinking more about “Can I have one more race?” Out of curiosity, I conducted a quick survey among my fellow runners through the Facebook group and a majority of the runners felt the same way as Frank.For me, since it was the last race of my Grand Slam, my mind was more on the Grand Slam than on this marathon. There was a lot of emotions going through my mind during the entire race.
The journey over the past 20 months was so incredible that it completely changed me. The harder the race, the more I got to know myself. Life became simple and clear when you had nothing and could count on nothing. You face the worse, and the best of you would rise.
Did you think of the MDS during your latest race to warm you up? Where did your mind go this time?
I thought about MDS a lot – not to warm up the body, but to fire up my mind. Ask my kids how often I use the phrase “It is fine — I have done MDS!”
After I came back from Marathon Des Sables, I would purposely bring a piece of MDS with me to the races. I wore my MDS bracelet to Inca Trail Marathon and to Chicago Marathon. It could not fit over three layers of clothing at the Antarctic Ice Marathon, so I was wearing the MDS buff instead.
During the Antarctic Ice Marathon, I reflected a lot on my Marathon Grand Slam journey. It was still hard to believe that it would be finished in a matter of several hours. This is something that I had never heard about two years ago.
I surprised myself big time since I still remembered the days when I struggled to meet school PE requirements. I was never known to be athletic, and I certainly did not consider myself to be athletic.
But that did not stop me from accomplishing the Marathon Grand Slam. I cannot help but start wondering: What else in life have I not tried but might have missed the chance to achieve? Did I automatically write something off because it was outside my comfort zone? If I am willing to suck it up as much as I did during the MDS, what else could I do?
Did you know many or any of the fellow racers well? How did you help each other?
I knew two runners very well before the race already. Victor Consunji from Philippines and Frank Johanson from Denmark. Victor and I were among the group of runners who got stuck at the North Pole in 2016 because of the crack on the ice runway.I knew Frank from a mutual friend, and he provided a lot of useful advice during my MDS preparation. And I shared with Frank my gear selection from the North Pole Marathon – that is why we were wearing the same style of windbreakers in different colors during the race.
I made many awesome friends! When a group of maniacs who are crazy enough to run the southernmost marathon in Antarctica get together, you can only imagine the fun we were about to have.
We were hanging around in the dining tent, chatting constantly about anything and everything, cracking jokes, playing football (called soccer at home) and having a blast during our “Spring Break in Antarctica”! It is dangerous to be around fellow runners and getting inspiration about future races to run – the calendar could fill out quickly.
We really did not feel like we were purposely helping each other – it was such a wonderful group that you felt like a family and things just happened naturally. Pal Skyrud from Norway gave me a very good tip on how to prevent the face buff from sliding around, Gulay Varan from Turkey took my sweat-soaked jacket to the drying tent, and I helped Djalma Moura from Brazil to fix his bib.
There were so many other small things we did automatically to each other, as we would to our siblings.
After the race, we still had so many opportunities to see each other. A large group that were still in Punta Arenas had postrace dinner together, and several of us headed to Torres Del Paine (Frank, Leigh Burton) and met in the park (Jill Jamieson), in the bus station (Gertjan Verdickt) or in the airport (Peter and Megan Lind).
I also created a Facebook group for Antarctic Ice Marathon’s “Class of 2017” to make it easier to stay in touch. People are already discussing 2018 race schedules.
What are your racing plans now? How will you challenge yourself?
My next goal is to qualify and complete Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France. UTMB is daunting because of the huge elevation gain, the tough terrain and the unpredictable weather. The 103-mile course traverses three countries, 400 summits, and has more than 30,000 feet of climbing.
UTMB is probably the most prestigious ultra race and requires 15 points to qualify for a chance in the lottery (the odds this year are about 1 to 2.5). As hard a race as MDS was, it earned me only 6 points.
I need 9 more points from two races. That means I cannot do a bunch of easy races with 1 or 2 points each and qualify for UTMB. And marathons do not even earn any points – it has to be ultra races.
The points will expire after two years, meaning that I might have to keep earning points if I do not get in the first time I apply. Once I earn all the points and am lucky enough to get in, the finish rate is about 50 percent for UTMB. So this will keep me busy for a couple of years.
The next race I have signed up for is the Black Canyon 100K (62 miles), a 4-point [Arizona] race in February. I still have to complete a 5-point race before December 2018 to apply for UTMB 2019.
What kinds of mental, physical or other challenges did you overcome to finish this latest marathon?
The headwind at 32 knots (about 37 mph) was hard, and I knew immediately that I was ill-prepared for it. By then, I had run in extremely cold and extremely hot conditions, in high altitude, in uneven terrain — but not with wind.
I was blaming myself for not thinking about it during my training. After all, Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent. When I was going against the headwind, it was hard to breathe. If I opened my mouth, it hurt even with the buff on.
If I closed my mouth, I was short of air. It was a constant struggle that my jaw joints were so sore after the race. Still, it did not bother me too much since I knew that I would be done in several hours.
What lessons from the North Pole Marathon did you apply to this one? How was it easier or different?
I have learned what to wear and how to cover my face better – the buff did not freeze over my face this time as it did in North Pole. The temperature during the race was -18.9 centigrade (minus-2 Fahrenheit) with windchill. It was cold by any standard, just not as cold as the North Pole Marathon.
How many aid stations were there? How did you take advantage of them?
There were two aid stations on the loop, so I had access to aid stations eight times during the marathon. I was not dehydrated, but felt quite hungry – which is normal in cold climate since we burn more calories just to keep our body temperature in such conditions.
I tried to stop at the aid station only when I had to. It was tricky to take food/drink at the aid station in such a cold weather – the bananas got frozen 2 hours into the race, and the water was either too hot or too cold depending on how long it had been poured out. But at least it was possible to avoid going indoors completely unlike the North Pole Marathon, where it was impossible to set up outdoor aid stations.
What shorter races are you interested in running?
There are quite a few: Volcano Marathon, Great Wall Marathon, Mount Everest Marathon and Comrades Marathon (this one is a double marathon).
Why do you give dual national affiliations — China and U.S.?
Because the five-star red flag has not shown in the Grand Slam Club yet. According to the U.N.’s list of member states, there is one China. Flagwise, according to IOC’s participating country/region list, there are three choices: People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong China and Chinese Taipei. I want the five-star red flag to be represented as a female athlete. That is the flag I saluted when I was a Girl Scout, and it means a lot to me.
Any contact with Chinese media?
No. I have not been back to China for a long time. But the story is going around in the Chinese-American community here.
Among all your finishes, which one felt the best — most grateful for finishing or relieved to be done?
Definitely Marathon des Sables. It pushed me to a point that there was nothing left in the tank. I still relive the long stage in my mind a lot, when I was on the verge of passing out during the pre-dawn hours but somehow managed to move forward step by step as if the legs belonged to someone else.
I remembered the struggle to put on the shoes due to fluid retention but kept telling myself that “once I start moving, the feet will be numb very soon and all the discomfort will be gone.”
The happiness after the suffering was unexpected but intense. I raced more than 21 hours straight, yet was too excited to go to sleep once I finished that stage. I was waiting outside the medical tent to patch up my poor feet with a big smile on my face. It is hard to describe and hard to believe – but it was true.
What do you take the most pride in — your marathon accomplishments, family or career?
My running accomplishments for sure. Do not get me wrong — I am very proud of my family and my career. However, those areas have built-in certainties. I knew that I would be a professional or a scholar since my elementary school days — it would be just a matter of what field.
I knew — or at least expected — how my family would turn out referencing from the families we came from, and even our siblings’ families. We have close family ties, believe in hard work, and emphasize education and learning.
I am not surprised that I am a computer professional today; nor will I be surprised that my kids earn their postgraduate degrees someday in the future.
By contrast, I am truly surprised that I have completed the Marathon Grand Slam among so few people in the world. I was not athletic at all throughout my school years. I struggled to meet PE requirement most of the time since I skipped two grades during elementary school and ended up being two years younger than my classmates in middle school and high school.
I was always the last one left during any schoolyard pick for any games – big dent to my little ego during teenager years.
Ever since I started running, the thought that “Life is an endurance race” always comes to my mind. Yes, some people had a better pace for the first five miles, but that does not mean I would not pass them at mile 20.
That said, the race is not even close to being over. If I let go at any point, I will get a DNF. And I am not just talking about running. This really applies to everything in life.
To challenge yourself, to be a better person, to make an impact in the world – it is never too late no matter how unequipped you feel. Just do not let it go and settle to be “lived.”
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