One of the most visible sights in the dark outside of Hearnes Center at 5:57 Monday morning was the blinking red lights on the cyclists leading the way for William Tan at the start of the 46th Heart of America Marathon.
Two hours, 41 minutes, and 12 seconds later Tan, 48, became the first person in a wheelchair to complete the marathon, possibly setting a world record at the same time.
“I have this wishful thinking of doing the fastest time for three marathons in three cities (in consecutive days),” Tan said. “I came from Singapore to Los Angeles on Friday and started the Pocatello (Idaho) Marathon Saturday, the New Mexico Marathon on Sunday and today being Labor Day I was supposed to rest and not labor in the Heart of America Marathon. Now I can have a good rest and no more labor for me.”
Tan said that the record he was trying to break was 8 1/2 hours. In the three marathons in which he competed this weekend, Tan had a combined time of 7:13:45. Guinness World Records needs to confirm Tan’s time before it can officially become a world record.
“His accomplishment is an astonishing feat to think of someone in a wheelchair being able to handle the Heart of America Marathon course the way he did,” Joe Duncan, race director for the marathon said. “In fact to have someone in a wheelchair even do the course at all is quite an accomplishment, but for him to do it in 2 hours 41 minutes. It is simply amazing.”
Tan, who lives in Singapore, is paralyzed from the waist down. He said he did not get a Polio vaccination as a baby and contracted the disease when he was 2.
Tan competed in his first marathon when he was 18. His daily training includes 450 pushups and 10 to 15 kilometers in his wheelchair.
In order to compete in the Heart of America Marathon, Tan had to convince Duncan that he could handle the tough course.
“Dr. Tan sent me an e-mail about two months ago and I told him no,” Duncan said. “We don’t have a wheelchair division because of the difficulty of the course. We have three miles of gravel and rock and I didn’t think it could be done.”
Instead of giving up and finding another race, Tan replied with a list of his accomplishments including completing close to 60 marathons. Tan has also done marathons in every continent in a 70-day period. Tan’s personal best time is 1:53, which he did in 1990.
“After he told me all that, I said ‘We would like you to do our course.’” Duncan said.
Many consider the Heart of America to be one of the toughest in the nation, and it includes six major hills and a 3-mile stretch on the gravel surface of the MKT Trail.
“Boston will rank a little lower than this in terms of the hardness of the terrain,” Tan said. “I think the hardness of this marathon is in the closeness of the rolling hills. There are good stretches downhill, but they are also treacherous.”
Tan said he was concerned about the gravel portion of the race.
“The gravel was terrifying, I have skinny tires on my
racing chair and that stretch was quite long,” Tan said. “I was waiting for it to pop. It’s a miracle it survived that stretch.”
Immediately after the gravel part of the course ends comes what is arguably the races toughest stretch, Easley hill, where the MKT Trail meets Route N in Easley. While riding up the hill, Tan started to go backwards and one of the cyclists guiding him stopped his chair.
“I’m very grateful to the three wonderful cyclists that came along,” Tan said. “They gave me a lot of confidence as long as giving me direction. I have this habit of losing my way. I did Pocatello Marathon two days ago and lost my way three times.”
Races do not always offer guides, but when Columbia’s Cammmy Ronchetto, Fred Schmidt and Sarah Ashman heard that Tan was going to compete they jumped at the chance to help him.
“Since it’s not a closed course as far as automobiles it was really important to have more people with him for visibility and not just direction,” Ashman said.
Despite the guides’ help, Tan still had one miscue. He took a wrong turn down Eighth Street when approaching the finish at Seventh Street and Broadway.
Not only is Tan an impressive athlete, but he is also a humble man. When offered a glass of Gatorade after the race by Ashman and Ronchetto, Tan politely declined and told them they deserved it more than he did. Also, he apologized after the race to the guides for not talking to them more during the race.
“He’s so friendly and gracious,” Ashman said. “He’s a really nice man.”
Tan, who recently graduated medical school, is taking this year off from his career in order to raise money for children in Singapore and Southeast Asia that have cancer. He is also working on a book. Tan said one of his goals is to complete a marathon in each of the 50 states. So far, he has finished marathons in 10 states.
Tan isn’t going to give himself much recovery time. He said he is planning on doing an ultra marathon that covers 100 kilometers next week in Singapore.
Patrick Hanson, 20, of Columbia won Sunday’s race in 2:39:33. Hanson said he was using the event as a training run for the 2005 USA Marathon Championships in Minneapolis.
“I wasn’t planning on finishing the race, so it was a little bit of a surprise,” Hanson said.
Becky Lowrance, 48, of Branson, won the women’s division in 3:20:16.
There were 122 competitors in the race with 109 finishing. Last year there were 116 finishers.
Rick Roeber of Lee’s Summit, who ran the marathon barefoot last year, did not participate this year. Duncan said Roeber works for Sprint and is busy helping to repair phone lines in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina.