Wheelchair racer who beat leukaemia attempting 7 marathons in 7 continents in 7 days

Paralympian and neuroscientist William Tan is aiming to raise $77,000 each for seven charities from his efforts. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WILLIAM TAN

SINGAPORE - A Singaporean wheelchair racer who beat leukaemia will attempt to complete seven marathons on seven continents over seven days.

Paralympian and neuroscientist William Tan, 65, will race in Antarctica, South Africa, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Brazil and the United States, covering a total of 295km on consecutive days, from Jan 31 to Feb 6.

He will race alongside close to 50 runners, with him being the only one attempting the feat in a wheelchair. He aims to raise $77,000 for each of seven charities through his efforts.

This will be the toughest challenge of his life after 50 years of wheelchair racing, he said.

“I’m older now and, after my brush with leukaemia, I know I’m not at my peak fitness level. But this challenge is on my bucket list and I want to do it now while I have the chance.”

Dr Tan was diagnosed with poliomyelitis at two years old and has been paralysed from the waist down since then.

He was introduced to wheelchair sports when he was 15, and went on to represent Singapore at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul.

He has since taken part in more than 100 races.

In 2005, he attempted to complete seven marathons on seven continents, but failed to finish the Antarctica race, as his racing chair fell apart in the extreme weather.

He tried again in 2007 and set the world record for the fastest person in a wheelchair to complete seven marathons across seven continents in 26 days.

This time, he will attempt the same feat, but in seven days.

Life threw him a curveball in 2009 when he found himself bleeding from the nose during a race in Paris. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with stage 4 leukaemia and was told he had less than a year to live.

He underwent aggressive chemotherapy, which left him feeling weak, but he wanted to continue training to maintain his fitness.

His doctors, coaches and wife were worried about his condition, pleading with him to take it easy.

“I decided that I must try to lead a normal life even while going through all of this,” he said.

“My coaches were very concerned, so I trained on my own. I just couldn’t afford to lose everything I had built up to that point.”

Dr Tan had a bone marrow transplant in 2009. His plans to go back to racing were halted, as he developed graft-versus-host disease, where his body rejected the stem cells donated by his sister.

He took a four-year break to rest and recover.

“I wanted to go back to my routine quickly. I didn’t want to adopt a ‘sick person’ or ‘cancer patient’ mentality. I wanted to go back to normal life,” said Dr Tan, whose last competitive race, a marathon, was in 2019 in Boston.

When he heard that the World Marathon Challenge – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days – was to take place in 2023, he knew it was something he wanted to conquer.

He had to decline an invitation to take part in the challenge’s 2017 edition, as he was still recovering then. “I didn’t want to be a liability to the organisers in case my body couldn’t take it. I told them I couldn’t do it, but that I would be back,” he said.

Now, he hopes to tick it off his bucket list. “The pandemic taught me that life is really fragile and anything can happen. It is better to do it now or never because I’m also getting older,” he said.

Dr Tan, who is married to a housewife and has no children, will celebrate his 66th birthday a week before the marathons. “My wife is very concerned for my health, as there is no time to rest in between the seven races,” he said.

“But she knows this is something on my bucket list and I am not the kind of person to back down. You always have to dream bigger.”

To prepare for the big challenge, he now trains three hours a day while working as a physician.

It will be his swansong as a competitive racer, he said, adding that he will still continue to stay active in his wheelchair.

Dr Tan will be racing for five local and two overseas charities.

To donate to the local charities Dr Tan is racing for, click on the links below:

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