The Race of His Life
Newton's Heartbreak Hill will feel like a downhill coast to William Tan after his last amazing feat.
Thom Gilligan read the e-mail and shook his head in disbelief. Here was yet another applicant for the 2005 Last Marathon, the extraordinary race in Antarctica that Gilligan had conceived a decade ago. No surprise there; while the event had been closed out for more than a year, adventure-minded runners were still begging for a chance. The shock was that this guy, 47-year-old William Tan of Singapore, proposed to do the 26.2 miles of loose rock, glacial streams, and ice in a wheelchair - a feat never attempted, never suggested in the previous six editions of the race. "I thought, no way," Gilligan says.
Still, he was sufficiently intrigued to do an Internet search. He learned that Tan had been paralyzed in both legs by polio when he was 2. That disability had not stopped him from reeling off an impressive list of academic achievements that eventually included a PhD in neuroscience, a research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and completion of medical school in Australia. Tan had also tested the limits of his body and developed into a top-flight wheelchair marathoner. He had competed in the Boston Marathon's elite wheelchair division three times. While attending Harvard School of Public Health on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2001, Tan had done work at Children's Hospital Boston, where Gilligan's wife, Sharon, is a nurse. "It seemed that William and I had been on parallel tracks," says Gilligan, who owns Marathon Tours & Travel in Charlestown, the official travel agency for the Boston Marathon. "But our paths had never crossed."
Tan, it turned out, was interested in blazing a new path: He hoped to do Antarctica as part of an attempt at completing seven marathons on seven continents in 70 days, culminating with Boston one week from tomorrow. Each race would be a fundraiser for charities, including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund. That clinched it for Gilligan. "I called him and said, 'William, let's take a shot at Antarctica and see what happens.'"
That was in October. What would happen at the race four months later was something none of the runners, more than 200 of them, is likely to forget.
The Last Marathon is held on King George Island, just northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, the 1,200-mile tail that extends up from the Antarctic mainland. The island is the site of several international research bases and a 25-mile-long glacier. On February 26, the marathon group arrived at the island after two days' sail from South America and gathered outside the weather-beaten Russian base for the 9 a.m. start. "I was so excited," recalls Tan, who has a ready smile and a scholarly mien. "Then ... boom! It was mud, and it got worse and worse." Although he had mounted knobby, mountain-bike-type tires on his racing chair, he began to sink into the muck. It took him 15 minutes to go the first 300 yards. "I was horrified," he says. So was everyone else on the course - many of whom had become taken with the personable Tan. "I cried, watching him struggle," says Dr. Claire McGrath, the race physician. But Tan never complained. "I kept thinking: 'Things will get better.'"
Gilligan, who was driving the course on an ATV, knew better. Although Tan had come equipped with an ice ax to drag himself up the half-mile-high glacier, unusually mild weather had left the ice soft and slippery. While most of the entrants were able to clamber up and then run back down the steep glacier, Gilligan turned Tan back at its base and told him he could make up the distance at the other end of the two-loop course. Later, Tan would chuckle about his fortunes: "I was defeated by global warming!"
But more problems arose. A screw came loose in Tan's lead wheel, forcing him to abandon his racing chair for his everyday chair - a move akin to a marathoner changing from Nikes into wingtips halfway through a race. At one point, his chair sank 2 feet into quicksandlike mud. A group of runners had to drag him out. "It was scary," says Jim Lawrence, a runner from Seattle. "It seemed for a minute he was going to completely submerge into the mud."
At last year's Boston Marathon, Tan completed 26.2 miles in one hour, 59 minutes, 55 seconds. In Antarctica, it was clear he wasn't going to be able to finish the course before sunset, so race officials, including McGrath, persuaded Tan to complete the half marathon - 13.1 miles - instead. Exhausted, filthy, his gloves shredded from pushing the mud-caked wheels of his chair, he finished in five hours, 50 minutes, 41 seconds, the last of 36 official finishers in the half marathon. (Another 176 runners completed the full.)
A failure? Hardly. "I told him it was an honor to be on the same course with him," Last Marathon winner Darryn Zawitz of Pittsburgh said afterward.
"To see him going inch by inch gave me strength," another finisher, Len Gibely of Boxford, said. "It gave us all strength."
Tan, of course, gave all he could give. Although disappointed, he continued with his seven-continent quest, checking off South America just a week after Antarctica, with a 3:58.47 performance in a marathon (much of it on pebbly roads) in Ushuaia, Argentina. He saved Boston for last, he says, because "it is the marathon of marathons." After that, Tan, one of seven siblings, will return home to Singapore, where his mother still lives (his father, a pushcart operator who emigrated from mainland China in the 1950s, died a few years ago).
Although his final tally may be 61/2 marathons on seven continents, Tan, who recently turned 48, made a believer out of many, including Gilligan, who compares him to Ernest Shackleton. That famous British explorer failed in his 1914 attempt to trek across Antarctica, but through heroic efforts, he eventually brought his men back alive. "William didn't succeed in his original goal, but he . . . managed to achieve something highly significant," says Gilligan, who, like many others, will be a Tan fan on Patriots Day. "He's the first and may be the only wheelchair athlete ever to compete in Antarctica."
John Hanc, a regular contributor to Newsday and Runner's World, finished 17th in the 2005 Last Marathon in Antarctica.