SINGAPORE – Calves stinging as he crossed the finish line in Miami Beach, wheelchair racer William Tan unclenched his teeth and threw his hands up in celebration.
After a gruelling journey around the world in seven days, the Paralympian and neuroscientist on Feb 6 became the first person to complete seven marathons across seven continents in as many days in a wheelchair.
The 66-year-old Singaporean raced alongside 48 participants in the 2023 World Marathon Challenge, which had circuits in Antarctica, South Africa, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Brazil and the United States from Jan 31 to Feb 6.
The week was one of trials and tribulations for both the able-bodied and disabled. For Tan, the toughest challenge was when the front wheel of his racing wheelchair broke during the fifth marathon in Spain.
Tan contemplated giving up, saying: “I felt a sense of defeat that moment. I thought my dream would be killed, but the resilient part of me told me to hang on and find a solution.”
He completed the last two marathons in Fortaleza, Brazil, and Miami in his everyday wheelchair. It took him five hours to compete each race instead of the usual two.
His racing wheelchair, which has a single front wheel and two at the rear, allows Tan to be in a horizontal position to reduce wind resistance. It also has larger wheels and a lighter frame than an everyday wheelchair.
He said: “The wheelchair is upright and is not aerodynamic, causes so much wind resistance and I had to use a different set of muscles. There was so much use of my rotated calves it really hurt pushing for 42.2km.”
Covering a total distance of 295km within a week was physically challenging for Tan, as he spent most nights in the plane and struggled with jet lag.
He also had to race through harsh weather conditions, with the temperature in Antarctica dipping to minus-20 deg C as he battled head winds of 97kmh.
But the physician, who was diagnosed with stage 4 leukemia in 2009, was determined to tick this off his bucket list.
Tan, who represented Singapore in the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, has been wheelchair racing for 50 years. He has competed in over 100 races, with the previous in Boston in 2019. He also raced in the Singapore Standard Chartered Marathon in 2018.
In 2007, he set the world record for the fastest person in a wheelchair to complete seven marathons across seven continents in 26 days.
With this latest record-breaking feat, he aims to raise $77,000 for seven charities – five local and two overseas.
“I felt a sense of responsibility and accountability to complete the challenge because I promised to raise funds for charity and that was a push factor for me,” he told The Straits Times.
“A lot of people back at home are counting on me – the donors and receivers, and those who are planning to make a donation.”
The 2023 challenge is his last record-breaking attempt, but he plans to continue participating in marathons to keep active.
Tan said: “It’s nice to be first in the world, but I want the record to be meaningful. My next lap is to nurture the next generation of para-athletes and give back to disability sports.”
To donate to the local charities Tan raced for, visit:
The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund: https://str.sg/wyEP
National University Health System Fund: https://str.sg/wyEW
Singapore Disability Sports Council: https://str.sg/wyEm
Filos Community Services: https://str.sg/wyEs
ART:DIS, Arts & Disability Singapore: https://str.sg/wyEe