Runner goes the added distance in ultramarathons

November 4, 2008

By Jim Feehan

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Seng-Lai ‘Thomas’ Tan is all smiles as he competes in the Sept. 28 Vermont 50-mile Ultra Run.Seng-Lai ‘Thomas’ Tan is all smiles as he competes in the Sept. 28 Vermont 50-mile Ultra Run.

Three years ago, Seng-Lai “Thomas” Tan hated running. He’d jog a short distance, run out of breath and call it quits. But there is no quit in him today.

The Newcastle resident has run the New York and Boston marathons. If running 26 miles was not enough, Tan is now competing in ultramarathons of 50 miles.

On Sept. 28, he competed in the Vermont 50-mile Ultra Run. The course is challenging, alternating between gravel, dirt roads and a nearly 9,000-foot vertical climb.

If that were not enough, Tan was stung three times by bees on the course. 

“One nailed my right shin and two on my left thigh,” he said. “They hurt as hell. I spent a great deal of the time worrying if I would develop anaphylactic reaction and be forced to drop out from the race.”

Bee stings aside, Tan was also concerned about finishing under 12 hours, a cut-off time strictly enforced by the Vermont race officials. 

“I felt undertrained and felt unprepared for my third 50-miler,” he said.

He hadn’t run consistently since participating in the Aug. 9 Headlands 50-mile endurance run near Sausalito, Calif. But Tan was scheduled to be in Boston for business meetings the day after the race and it was only a two-hour drive to Vermont.

Tan took up running following the death of his grandmother. He began by jogging a few miles, slowly building up to running 8 miles, then 10 and more. Now, he routinely runs 30 to 40 miles, training for marathons and ultramarathons across the U.S. and Canada. 

Tan grew up in Malaysia and received his doctorate in microbiology from the University of Washington. He’s a molecular biologist researching cancer drugs at Amgen, a biotech company. 

The toughest part of the Vermont race occurred between miles 35 and 37, where there were endless switchbacks, he said.  

“I actually thought about quitting and taking my first did not finish,” said Tan, who completed the course in 11 hours, 19 minutes. “Instead, I found myself shuffling forward as I always do. Relentless forward motion never fails.”

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