Encinitas runner finishes ‘world’s toughest foot race’

Vivian Lee of Encintias, 46, recently completed the Marathon de Sables in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The six-day ultra-marathon in April 2017 was the fifth of seven marathons on seven continents that Lee plans to have complete in just 18 months.
(Pam Kragen/San Diego U-T)

Three years ago, Encinitas software consultant Vivian Lee took up running as a hobby. By mid-October, she could join just 92 people in the world who’ve run marathons on all seven continents and at the North Pole.

Last month, Lee, 46, completed the Marathon des Sables, which is billed as “the world’s toughest foot race.” In temperatures up to 120 degrees, 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.

It was the fifth of eight marathons she must complete to join the Marathon Grand Slam Club. Since she ran the grueling North Pole Marathon in April 2016, she has finished races in Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa. She plans to finish the remaining three - in South America, North America and Antarctica - by mid-November.

“I’m Type A for sure,” Lee said, of her single-minded drive. “When I see a goal that’s tempting and challenging, I nail it down and go for it.”

Lee grew up in Beijing and moved to the U.S. to attend college. She now works in software design at a company in Carlsbad. She and her husband, Jay Yu, have two sons, ages 10 and 13. She loves to travel and exercise (Pilates, barre, swimming and tennis) and enjoys pushing herself to the extreme.

In 2014, 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. Now she’s taking on the world.

Lee said she got the idea to shoot for the Marathon Grand Slam when she did the North Pole Marathon over the frozen Arctic Ocean last year. During that race, competitors slogged through knee-deep snow, a -40-degree wind chill and the threat of polar bears. Only about 500 people have finished the North Pole race since 1992.

The elite group has bonded over Facebook, where they encourage each other and team up to run other ultra-marathons. One of her fellow North Pole runners last year was Michel Ribet of La Jolla, 80, who has run marathons on all seven continents.

“In running extreme marathons, 20 percent of it is physical and 80 percent is mental,” Ribet said. “I’m not superman. It’s all about taking care of yourself.”

With the encourage of Ribet and her fellow runners, and the support of her husband, she decided to go for the grand slam.

“I drank the Kool-Aid. I saw that other people were doing it and even though it seemed hard, I decided to tackle it,” she said.

Last July, she checked off the Australian continent by running the Cairns Marathon in Queensland. On her birthday last November, she ran in the footsteps of the original marathoners at the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece. Then over the Christmas holidays, she ran the ChiangMai Marathon in Thailand. In April, she ran the Marathon des Sables, which was the hardest physical challenge yet.

To prepare for the race, Lee ramped up her distance running, especially in beach sand, took hot yoga classes, videotaped herself packing her backpack, did overnight tests with her sleeping bag and even gained a few pounds to bulk up her slim frame. But nothing prepared her for the rigors of the Sahara.

The 156-mile Marathon des Sables, which opens each day’s run with a recording of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” is considered the toughest staged run in the world. There’s an insurance policy for corpse repatriation, all runners must carry snake and scorpion anti-venin and three runners have died since the race was launched in 1986. Participants have to pass stringent health checks and wear equipment like a GPS tracker, cooling sleeves, compression socks, large hats and “shoe gators,” Velcro-lined wraps that keep sand out of their running shoes.

Lee said running in the ultra-fine Sahara sand felt like jogging in water, but the biggest challenge of the race was dehydration. Runners take salt tablets to retain water and avoid kidney failure. For the first two days, Lee said she struggled with heat and fatigue. But by day three, salt-related water retention caused her legs and feet to swell to the point she had a hard time pulling on her shoes. This swelling occurred during the hardest stage of the race, a 53-mile section that must be completed in 35 hours.

Because her shoes were so tight, she developed blisters on the tops and bottoms of her toes and on her ankles. Then when the sun went down, her head lamp was so dim she couldn’t see more than few feet in front of her as she ran by herself in the desert.

“Racing alone at night was scary. I had to stop every 10 to 15 feet to figure out if I was still on course. I prayed a lot,” she said.

Fortunately, around 8 p.m., a trio of French runners - two men and one woman - came along behind her, saw her struggling in the dark and invited her to join them. They all agreed to run through the night without stopping to rest. By 3 a.m., they were so exhausted they started calling out each others’ names to push each other on.

Lee said she almost passed out right before dawn, but as the sun rose she and the others caught their second wind. The quartet finished the stage in 21.5 hours and ended it with a burst of energy, running full out together for the final 100 yards. To celebrate, Lee went to the French trio’s tent and shared all of her freeze-dried ice cream with them.

“Food is the most precious thing you have out there because you have to carry it all with you. Being able to share this with them that morning was a wonderful experience,” she said.

Lee finished the Marathon des Sables on April 14 (her husband and friends watched her cross the finish line via online web cameras). By the end, her feet were a mass of blisters, her legs were so swollen she couldn’t get her compression stockings off and she’d lost nearly six pounds.

Despite the challenges, Lee said she never considered quitting because she had a cause to support. She is running the Marathon Grand Slam to raise money for the Ninos De Fe Children’s Home, a shelter for abused, abandoned and orphaned children in Tijuana. Because of the challenges these children face, she feels she has it easy by comparison.

“I never thought of quitting but sometimes I cursed myself,” she said. “I kept telling myself when things got bad, it could be worse. I wasn’t dying after all, so I’d say ‘you have no reason to quit. There’s no organ failure yet.’ ”

Next on her list for the Grand Slam tour is the Inca Trail 26.2 Mile Marathon in Peru. Because of its high altitude - runners start at 8,000 feet, climb to “dead woman’s pass” at 13,779 feet, then drop back down into the ruins of Machu Picchu - it’s considered the world’s most difficult marathon. After that, she’ll run the Chicago Marathon in October and finish up at the Antarctic Ice Marathon in November.

When she’s finished, Lee said she plans to seek out more multi-day staged races like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a weeklong, 103-mile race through the Alps in France, Italy and Switzerland. Not only does she like the physical test, she also likes the intellectual challenge of training and planning for each unique stage of the journey and problem-solving when things go wrong.

“I don’t see the point of doing the same course over again. Running a new course is like a first date,” she said. “I like the surprise element.”