A little over three years ago, Encinitas software engineer Vivian Lee decided to take up running as a hobby. Last month, she became only the 21st woman in the world inducted into the Marathon Grand Slam Club.
The elite club — with just 104 members from more than 30 countries — is for elite runners who have completed marathons on all seven continents and at the North Pole.
Lee, a 47-year-old married mother of two, completed her marathon circuit in just 19 months, beginning with the North Pole Marathon in April 2016 and finishing Nov. 24 with the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
Along the way, she endured 120-degree temperatures and near-organ failure in the Sahara Desert, 32-knot headwinds near the South Pole, crippling muscle cramps in the Andes Mountains and the threat of marauding polar bears over the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Lee said she was driven to complete her quest because she’s a Type-A competitor who’s highly goal-oriented. But the reason she persevered in conditions that nearly killed her in Morocco last spring dates back to her childhood.
Raised in Beijing, China, Lee excelled in academics, skipping two grades in elementary school. But in school athletics, she was younger than all her classmates and was always the last one picked for schoolyard teams.
“I am not going to lie, but since I was not good at sports, I always pretended that I didn’t care. But I do,” she said. “That is why when I realized that an ordinary person like me can run a marathon or complete the Marathon Grand Slam, I jumped on the band wagon immediately. Bad-ass is a perfect word for me.”
Lee lives in Encinitas with her husband, Jay Yu, and their two sons Andy, 14, and Laurence, 11. Over the past year and a half, they’ve supported her quest by traveling to some of the race locations and cheering her on from afar via live video linkup.
She started running in 2014 when she joined a friend to run the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and became hooked on long-distance running. The following year, she completed the “triple crown” of San Diego-area half marathons.
Looking for a greater challenge, she signed up for the North Pole Marathon, where she slogged through knee-deep snow and a -40-degree wind chill to cross the finish line. Race conditions there are so grueling and unpredictable that fewer than 500 people have finished the North Pole Marathon since 1992.
At that race, she met many other ultra athletes who were aiming to complete the Marathon Grand Slam. With her family’s blessing, she signed on as well, picking marathons on each continent that tested the limits of her endurance.
In July 2016, she checked off the Australian continent by running the Cairns Marathon in Queensland. On her birthday in November 2016, she ran in the footsteps of the original marathoners at the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece. Then in December 2016, she ran the ChiangMai Marathon in Thailand.
Last April, she faced her toughest-ever challenge, the Marathon des Sables, which is billed as “the world’s toughest foot race.” In the skin-blistering heat, she ran the equivalent of six marathons in six days across sand dunes, trails and mountains in Morocco’s Sahara Desert, carrying all of her food, water, clothing and sleeping gear on her back.
After surviving that race, the remaining marathons were relatively easy by comparison. Last summer, she crossed South America off her list by finishing the Inca Trail 26.2 Mile Marathon in Peru.
It’s also considered one of the world’s hardest one-day races because the runners must deal with high altitude, an elevation gain and loss of 10,000 feet, and extremely rocky terrain.
Despite two months of preparation for running at high altitude, including a family trip to Peru’s high-mountain Lake Titicaca, she wasn’t prepared for how much the thin air sapped her energy and how the mountain-climbing cramped her hamstrings.
Still she pushed through, earning second place among the women competitors, and her family greeted her at the finish line. What kept her going, she said, was the Marathon des Sables bracelet she wears on her wrist.
“I looked at it as a reminder … (telling myself) ‘It’s fine, I’ve done MdS,’ ” she said.
For the North America leg of the Grand Slam, she ran the Chicago Marathon in October. Then she symbolically closed the loop she began at the top of the world with last month’s trip to Union Glacier Camp in Antarctica. Just 50 to 55 people complete the race each year.
The temperature on race day was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, which meant every inch of her skin and eyes had to be covered to avoid frostbite and snow blindness. She was prepared for the cold but not the fierce winds.
“When I was going against the headwind, it was hard to breath. If I opened my mouth, it hurt even with the Buff (face covering) on. If I closed my mouth, I was short of air. It was a constant struggle that my jaw joints were so tired during the race,” she said.
With that race complete, Lee became not only the 21st woman in the Marathon Grand Slam club, she’s also the third American woman and the first Chinese-American.
Her next goal is to qualify for the 2019 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France. The 103-mile course traverses three countries, 400 summits and involves more than 30,000 feet of climbing over six days. It will take her more than a year of racing to qualify for the UTMB. First up, the Black Canyon 100K race in Arizona on Feb. 17.
Lee said achieving the Marathon Grand Slam accomplished two goals for her. First, she used the quest to raise several thousand dollars for the Ninos De Fe Children’s Home, a shelter for abused, abandoned and orphaned children in Tijuana. And second, she learned a lot about herself.
“Running, especially running ultra, has pushed me to dip into my tank that I never knew I had,” she said. “The harder it got, the more I got to know myself. I have learned that I am able to quiet the little voice in my head telling me to stop. I became more fearless about a lot of the unknowns.”