Antarctica, Mount Everest, The Great Wall of China…
…,these places of extreme terrains and/or weather conditions are usually areas that many people, even young healthy adults themselves, would never think of spending their holidays in, travelling to and conquering. Yet, Gloria Lau, at the age of 62, has completed marathons in each and every of these places.
Besides her achievements in Antarctica, Mount Everest and The Great Wall of China, she has also completed 8 other marathons in various parts of the world, ranging from Africa to New York. With such a list of accomplishments, it is no wonder that she has earned herself a place in the reputable 7 Continents Marathons Club and the Marathon Globetrotters Club for completing a marathon in 10 countries. In fact, she is also the first Singaporean woman who has completed marathons in 7 continents of the world.
Sounds like a superwoman, doesn’t she? Want to be like her?
Well, we were glad to have the chance to interview Singapore’s very own superwoman so follow me through as I reveal her secrets to be a superwoman to you!
GL: I was brought up to think that exercising had no place in my life. As the youngest girl in my family, I was taught only the things a girl should know – school, cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. I didn’t even get to learn to swim or ride a bike! It never dawned on me that exercising could be such a beneficial activity for the mind, body, and health. It provides an essential escape from the daily grind and also, a fantastic sense of achievement as I set my goals higher.
You started running only at the age of 57 and we all know how hard it can be to start a somewhat intensive sport that late. Needless to say, you were not into sports at first. So, what were the obstacles you have faced and how did you overcome them?
My obstacles were not too unique, I think anyone starting the sport would face similar challenges- the motivation, the slow progress, the initial pains from not having worked those muscles before, and also,refining the technique. It’s been one long learning experience eg, after running my first marathon in Perth whilst being drenched under the rain, I had bloody blisters on my feet and I could barely drag myself up the stairs when I got home! Yet, I knew straightaway that I was hooked onto marathons.
It has helped me in tremendous ways that I’d never imagined. Back then, the most prominent benefits are the osteoarthritis problems and pain in my joints that hindered my morning stairs. Despite a doctor saying that I may even need surgery or joint replacement, the weight bearing exercise of running alleviated the need for any medical intervention whatsoever. Now, it mainly helps keeps my energy and alertness up whilst giving me the motivation to get through the day. It also gives me the endorphins to deal with whatever life throws at me!
Who has been your greatest support and motivation all along?
Ex-Olympian bob sledder Chris Lori, my son, and Dr. William Tan a Singapore Hero. Not to forget, all the friends I’ve made along the way from around the world!
My family were supportive in the beginning, though, maybe not as much as I’d liked since nobody really thought I would take it this far. My eldest brother warned me of all the ill-fated participants who had run themselves into critical condition or worse. Once my children realized that I was in it all the way, they supported me in many ways like training with me, encouraging me and tracking my progress. At one point, they even rode a bike along to hand me drinks, keep me on pace and tell me how far I’d gone. It’s mostly a solo endeavor though.
We know that you are also a real estate business owner. With kids, business and marathons, how did you manage to cope with all of these?
My sons (2 of them) are adults. Ian, who is 32 years old, is very engaged with cycling, weight training and running and often helps me out with training. He has also ran with me in South Africa. I run my own real estate development business so I am able to schedule my activities in a flexible manner.
How is your daily workout regime like? How do you stepped up on it before a marathon?
I usually squeeze in a run when I can between everything that’s going on. The only time I schedule a run is when I need to get a long run in for the week. To maintain overall body strength and weight-bearing exercises, I like to throw in a bit of gym classes as well.
We know you were into unhealthy diet back then. How is your diet like now? Do you have cheat days?
I do my own cooking at home most of the time. Thus, I get to watch what I eat a lot better. Gone are the days of a fridge loaded with sweets and late night high-sugar snacks! The only time I load on carbs is before or after a run. The rest of my meals are usually home- grilled meat and salads. I make a lot of soups as well. I do have cheat days, mainly when I visit other countries to sample their ‘finer’ cuisine!
You are the first Singapore woman to complete the 7 continents achievement in 2012. How long have you been aiming for that? What was your first reaction upon knowing that? How have your prepared for your journey towards such an achievement?
I’m not really sure it was always a goal. It began as I just enjoyed running in different locations which is also a good way to see the world. Once I realized that the places I wanted to run in spanned across a few different continents, I thought why not, I was only 2 continents away from completing the 7 continents! I had imagined Antarctica to be the ultimate!
You have also been selected to join the 7 Continents Marathon Club. How do you feel about that?
I am very humbled and honored to become a member. It is a recognition that is very significant to me.
You have inspired Yvonne Chee to do the same. How do you feel about yourself as an inspiration for others? What do you wish to inspire in them?
I would like to share my story particularly for people who are older, and who feel that they are too old to engage in running. I truly believe that there is nothing but good to come out of this activity. One can start with walking (as I did) and then move on to jogging. Eventually, one will then be able to take part in short races and marathons.
With such an achievement, is there any stereotypes you want to debunk? (Like running is not good for older people or older people cannot run as well as the younger ones.)
Absolutely! First and foremost, from my own experience, running has been the best thing for my joints that I could have ever imagined. The weight bearing exercises helped me deal with what most aging Asian women deal with- bone density. As for those who run themselves into the ground, I do have a bit of advice – run to your ability, not anyone else’s! Listen to your body. If your heart and lungs are having a hard time keeping that pace you want, take it down a few notches.
Young people are always going to have an easier time making the gains in performance than older people. Yet, that’s no reason not to go for it! Running is a solo sport after all. I have met several runners during my travels that started running at the late age of 65 years old! Yet, they all do enjoy the experiences they have gained.
You run about a marathon per year and at the maximum, 2 to 3 of them per year. Do you pick the marathons you want to participate and if you do, how do you pick them?
I pick the country I like to visit and check if the event is well organized. I often turn to the marathonguide.com website to read the reviews of the events before I decide.
There is nothing better than to participate in a marathon where the streets are closed just for the event, as in the case of New York, one gets to run along the 5 boroughs –Staten Island – Bronx-Queens-Brooklyn-Manhattan. What a better way to visit New York!
Do you train overseas since your marathons are largely around the world?
Not really. I usually reach the destination a couple of days before the race. Mostly, I’m just acclimatizing to the different time zone, though I might do a short jog just to keep my legs from stiffening up. This is with the exception of The Antarctica, where I actually trained for a week in Furano, Japan to experience running in cold and snow. I generally do all my training in Perth. I will also participate in quite a few half-marathons as part of my training and also do the Swissotel Vertical Marathon in Singapore.
How is your preparation like for an overseas marathon? (From air tickets to packing itinerary and transport to race venue)
I try to get to the location at least 3-4 days before the race, mainly to overcome the jet lag. I try to keep my packing to minimal like keeping all the items for the race in my carry -on bag.
For both weather conditions, you have to break your packing into 3 parts- pre race, race day and post race. Dress for comfort, not for fashion! As for your running shoes, use the ones that you have trained in. As for running attire, pack them all in your hand carry in case your luggage gets lost or you don’t get them by race day. Don’t forget to include the race bib, timing chips, sun glasses and all medications. I would pack any gels taken during running and also, the morning meal on the day of the race. You don’t want to try anything new on that day and you may not get what you need overseas!
For cold weather, layering is the best. You can tie them around your waist as you feel warmer. Unless you are running in -10C, I would just bring an old sweater that you can toss aside before the race starts as they are collected and donated to shelters. Wear thin running gloves if your hands tend to freeze.
Out of all the overseas marathons you have participated, which one is the most memorable one and why?
The Antarctica Ice marathon. It is the only marathon that runs on mainland Antarctica. It takes place at 80 South, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole in the interior of the Antarctica. Conditions are harsh. The air is dry and bitterly cold with a temperature of about -20C. Competitors are ferried by a large Russian Ilyushian aircraft from Punta Arenas, Chile to the Union Glacier that has an altitude of 700m. The aircraft can land on the blue-ice runway only if there is good visibility so we were delayed getting there.
The most difficult one was definitely the Mount Everest Base Camp. The experience starts with a hair -raising flight from Kathmandu to Lukla Airport – noted as the most extreme and dangerous airport in the world. The airport does not have a control tower, navigation or radar so the pilot can only depend on what they see from the cockpit. You start the ordeal by trekking for 65 km for 10 days to acclimatize, and when you finally reach base camp, you realise that you will run the marathon the next day – 42.2km from the Everest Base Camp (5,364m/17,598ft) and finish at Namche Bazaar (3,446m/11306ft).
A close second would have to be Beijing at the Great Wall! The weather and the stairs, were just a killer. It added over 2 hours to my normal marathon completion timing. Just making it up those stairs required every last bit of my determination and focus, and if it weren’t for the encouragement of other runners around me, I may have not made it at all. When I finally reached the finish line after 7 hours, I literally collapsed into the medal giver’s arms!
Have you met anyone that inspired you a lot during your races? Who is your inspiration all along?
Dr . William Tan, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to polio. He is undoubtedly a Singapore Hero who has completed the Antarctica and North Pole Marathon in a wheelchair, and 60 ultra marathons around the world, raising almost $16m for charities. You can read his story here or watch this very inspirational video clip.
Do you have any advice for beginners who want to take part in an overseas marathon?
Choose a location you like to visit so it becomes a motivation. Most importantly, choose a flat course e.g. Berlin Marathon, one of the fastest marathons with pancake flat roads.
Make sure you’ve tested everything you’re going to do and need. As tempting it is to get caught up in all the “atmosphere”, avoid any strange foods, sleep patterns or activities until you’re done with the marathon. Stick with exactly what works, and take into account the differences in weather conditions and elevation. Don’t underestimate what these will do to your pace and stamina.
I think keeping yourself mobile is the key. Keeping determination and not succumbing to the injury are probably the crucial factors for any sport injury. Listen to your doctors and physiotherapist. Stick with whatever regime they suggest. For exercise, I basically started slowly with upper body strength training by using free weights.
What is the best exercise for one to do during recovery process?
It really depends on what you are recovering from as some injuries will be much more limiting than others. Although I cannot swim, I have been advised that swimming is one of the best activities. Massage therapy and stretching are great in accelerating recovery process too! The free weights and static exercises such as yoga will probably help a lot to maintain muscle mass, strength and flexibility.
You are aiming for North Pole Marathon soon. How have you prepared for it? What are your expectations?
I would do the same training as I did for the Antarctica, ie. running on the beach. This can be extremely challenging, especially in deep sand. Sand, like soft snow, gives in with every step. Your leg muscles need to be accustomed to run on a soft surface. Those interested in the North Pole marathon can click here to learn more about the event.
Any inspirational quotes to share with us that have kept you going till now? -“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.” – Dean Karnazes (the Ultramarathon man) – If you fail to plan, you plan to fail! – Running is more about the journey than the destination, training is just as crucial, if not more important than the race itself. Gloria, thank you for your time and insight! Before we go, is there anything else you would like the share with the running community of JustRunLah? – Humans were designed for long distance running – and walking. There are fossil evidence that shows that ancient men ran long distances. Humans were born to run, and covering long distances was a survival activity, and our body and mind are designed to adapt to regular walking and running. – When people find out that I am a runner, they inevitably warn me of joint health. Running does not predispose joints to arthritis. Prior to my running activities, I used to have tremendous arthritis pain on my knees and my back, and would have to sit up on the bed for a few minutes before I can bring myself up. I do not have that problem anymore! I believe that joint nourishment is entirely based upon keeping joints in motion. – I don’t see marathon runners having more joint injuries than sedentary people. Simply put, active people have less joint injury. Therefore I believe running or jogging does not increase the risk of osteoarthritis even though traditionally we thought it was a disease of wear and tear. More research has demonstrated that the notion that inactivity was once thought to prevent arthritis and protect fragile arthritic joints from further damage does not hold up.
Any inspirational quotes to share with us that have kept you going till now?
-“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.” – Dean Karnazes (the Ultramarathon man)
– If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
– Running is more about the journey than the destination, training is just as crucial, if not more important than the race itself.
Gloria, thank you for your time and insight! Before we go, is there anything else you would like the share with the running community of JustRunLah?
– Humans were designed for long distance running – and walking. There are fossil evidence that shows that ancient men ran long distances. Humans were born to run, and covering long distances was a survival activity, and our body and mind are designed to adapt to regular walking and running.
– When people find out that I am a runner, they inevitably warn me of joint health. Running does not predispose joints to arthritis. Prior to my running activities, I used to have tremendous arthritis pain on my knees and my back, and would have to sit up on the bed for a few minutes before I can bring myself up. I do not have that problem anymore! I believe that joint nourishment is entirely based upon keeping joints in motion.
– I don’t see marathon runners having more joint injuries than sedentary people. Simply put, active people have less joint injury. Therefore I believe running or jogging does not increase the risk of osteoarthritis even though traditionally we thought it was a disease of wear and tear. More research has demonstrated that the notion that inactivity was once thought to prevent arthritis and protect fragile arthritic joints from further damage does not hold up.
I hope this will add more insight and encourage senior Singaporeans to put on their shoes and JUST DO IT!!
Inspiring, isn’t it? It is hard to not feel motivated to start a healthy regime, to start running and to sign up for a race after reading Gloria’s story.
Well, stop hesitating! Like what Gloria has said, “One can start with walking (as I did) and then move on to jogging. Eventually, one will then be able to take part in short races and marathons.”
We were born to run, it’s never too late to start!
Gloria is happy to answer any of your questions, so leave a comment using the form below.