“I did not even dare to talk to many people about it as I thought it sounded ludicrous” – Yvonne Chee, who has finished 7 marathons on 7 continents

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yvonne chee antartic ice marathon
Yvonne Chee finished her quest when she completed the Antactic Ice Marathon in November 2013. (Photo 1 courtesy of Yvonne Chee)

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Yvonne Elizabeth Chee, 34, ran seven marathons on seven continents to raise money for the elderly who are cared for by the Tsao Foundation in Singapore. Yvonne ran in memory of her late grandmother who brought her up.

“The advocacy for old age is a dear cause to me as my late grandmother who brought me up was a determined and strong lady and she imparted these values to me through her strict discipline. Without her, I would not be who I am today,” said Yvonne.

Before 2013, Yvonne completed 10 full marathons on four continents – North America (ING New York Marathon, November 2008), Asia (Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, December 2009), Australia (Blackmores Sydney Marathon, September 2010) and Europe (Paris Marathon, April 2012). At the Paris Marathon, Yvonne established a then new personal best (PB) timing of 4 hours 1 minute 33 seconds. She went on to set a new PB of 3:54:08 at the Marrakech Marathon in January, 2013.

In 2013, Yvonne finished her quest when she completed three marathons on the continents of Africa (International Marathon of Marrakech in Morocco, January 2013), South America (Rio de Janeiro Marathon in Brazil, July 2013) and the Antarctic (Antarctic Ice Marathon, November 2013).

The Antarctic Ice Marathon is the only marathon held in the interior of the Antarctic, 80 degrees south, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. The organisers of the race describe it as a “a truly formidable and genuine Antarctic challenge with underfoot conditions comprising snow and ice throughout, an average windchill temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius and the possibility of strong Katabatic winds to contend with. Furthermore, the event takes place at an altitude of 700 metres.”

Yvonne shares her story with us in an interview.

Les Tan: When did the idea first come to you? And what was the motivation?
Yvonne Chee: The idea of running seven marathons on seven continents was first conceived after I’d completed my second marathon, the New York City Marathon, in late 2008. I didn’t know if it had been done before nor was I sure how I would go about doing it. I did not even dare to talk to many people about it as I thought it sounded ludicrous! Then, I chanced upon a quote by Mark Twain:

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

That convinced me to go pursue my dream. A sense of adventure, curiosity, keenness to push my limits coupled with determination continually pushed me towards realising the dream, step by step. I always knew that I would dedicate this effort to my late grandmother.

What are the memorable moments of your quest? The good, the bad, the funny.
Yvonne: Wow, way too many moments to list down. The good or should I say, the best was being at the start/finish line of the Antarctic Ice Marathon on November 20, 2013 – both waiting to start the race and crossing the finish line after completing the 42.195km. Standing at the start line of the Antarctic Ice Marathon, I knew this would be the seventh continent marathon and certainly the most challenging marathon I’d ever run. I was fearful of the unknown and yet so excited about being able to run the Antarctic Ice Marathon. Crossing the finish line, I raised my hands in happiness and sheer jubilation as I was living the one moment that I had been imagining over and over again the past year!

Physically, I was exhausted and my body was freezing. Mentally, I was overwhelmed with joy as I thought about my late grandma to whom I’ve dedicated this quest to, and those who have supported me through their kind words, support and their donations made to help the elderly under the care of the Tsao Foundation.

The bad moments were almost always logistics-related problems. Travelling to seven continents to run marathons meant flying a lot. With a limited budget, I had to choose the most economical flights which usually meant more transit stops and waiting time. For the last marathon in Antarctica, runners had to gather at Punta Arenas, a city at the Southern tip of Chile, before departing for Antarctica. Getting there was a test in and of itself and I believe no other runners encountered as many mishaps as I did just to get to Punta Arenas.

Due to cost considerations, I had to take four flights to arrive in Punta Arenas. 

Prior to getting on the first flight, I fell sick in the car and as my husband puts it, I turned “white”. My husband almost didn’t want to let me board the plane as he was worried that I would get sick in the plane while I was all alone.

The second flight which was supposed to land in Buenos Aires was diverted to Montevideo instead as the runway in Buenos Aires airport was closed. We ended up waiting in Montevideo and wasn’t sure if we would get to go to Buenos Aires. After about 1.5 hours, the plane eventually left for Buenos Aires.

Due to the closure of the runway in Buenos Aires airport in the morning, all flights were postponed so my third flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago was postponed by six hours. That also meant that my fourth flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas had to be postponed and I eventually only reached Punta Arenas at 5.30am as opposed to 1.30am.

After getting to the hotel in Punta Arenas, all I wanted to do after travelling for 40 hours was to lie down in bed but I was told upon arrival that there was an electricity cut and there was no backup generator so there was no way for me to take the lift to my room or use the key card to enter the room. I spent another two hours waiting in the lobby. I told myself to look on the bright side as I had my checked-in luggage with me after all the flights. 

To my shock and horror, I realised subsequently that my luggage had been broken into after I’d checked it in for my fourth flight and some cold weather gear had been stolen. I broke down in tears at that stage as it seemed that everything and anything that could possibly go wrong went wrong on the way to Punta Arenas. Nevertheless, I tried to look on the bright side and told myself that after such a horrendous start, the trip can only get better and it did!

Another bad moment occurred during the sixth continent marathon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July 2013. The thought of not completing a marathon was very real when I was running the Rio de Janeiro marathon. Due to a long and unexpected flight delay – 9 hours which involved an overnight stay near the airport – I had only 15 hours between my arrival in Rio de Janeiro and the start of the marathon.

The sweltering heat – reaching 30 degrees Celsius early on in the race at the 10km mark – without much shelter, pain, cramps and fatigue hit me hard and I was struggling from the 11km mark. I cried while running and wasn’t sure how I would finish the marathon. Looking back, I dug deep to push myself to finish the marathon and was physically completely depleted after completing the race.

The funny moments of the quest occurred actually after the realisation of the dream in Antarctica. Due to poor weather conditions, our departure from Antarctica was delayed by five days. Unlike our modern city living, we were devoid of modern means of communication as we had no email access nor ready access to the telephone. Calls could only be made via satellite phone at USD$1 per minute and there were only three telephone sets for the 50+ runners.

That actually meant that we had only one another for company and the days spent stranded in Antarctica actually helped us to get to know one another better. Some reckoned the post-Antarctic Ice Marathon stay in Antarctica as a marathon in and of itself. Many jokes, hilarious stories and funny moments were shared during the five days together and I think the 50+ runners left Antarctica with a special bond. A funny and very sweet memory.

When did you start running marathons?
Yvonne: I only started running more often in 2007 and back then, running was still a means to an end – an escape as well as an outlet for my frustrations and troubles. Then I decided that since I was running three times a week, I might as well set a goal of training for and running my first marathon. So that was it. I trained for 18 weeks and ran my first marathon in Brussels, Belgium on October 14, 2007.

The first marathon would always be a special one for a runner and looking back, I must say it was a mix of joy, excitement, curiosity and pain. Yes, running the marathon was painful but as I crossed the finish line in 4h 45min, the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment got me hooked and I was immediately thinking of running my next marathon.

Did you play sports in school? What sports and which schools?
Yvonne: I have always enjoyed sports and had competed in gymnastics, netball, track and field and bowling events in my school days in Singapore in Nanyang Girls’ High School, Anglo-Chinese Junior College and the National University of Singapore.

What’s your occupation and how did you juggle work and training?
I’m a civil servant. Apart from work and training (around 5 to 6 days a week), I have to also find time to manage my website and to reach out to as many people as possible to ask them to consider making donations to the elderly under the care of the Tsao Foundation. Doing all the above meant a serious loss of social life as most of my time outside of work is devoted to marathon-related activities.

My husband’s main complaints are that I do not get enough sleep as I sleep about five hours a day and that I wake up too early (around 5.30-6am daily) and make too much noise getting ready. The above notwithstanding, I did all this with a great sense of joy and satisfaction as I knew that I was working towards fulfilling a dream and more importantly, I was able to give something back to society by helping the elderly while pursuing my dream.

Yvonne Elizabeth Chee Bio
Date of birth: November 19, 1979
Age: 34
Favorite food: No particular favourite and am always game for anything
Hobbies: Running, cultural events (museums, theatre, etc) and travelling

Website: http://www.yvonne7marathons7continents.com/
Donation link: http://www.yvonne7marathons7continents.com/charity
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Yvonne7marathons7continents

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