CLIFTON PARK — Phileas Fogg these days isn’t a 19th-century Englishman in top hat and white gloves floating across the planet in the basket of a hot air balloon.
She is a charming, elfin 72-year-old woman from Taipei, Taiwan, in black running tights and a teal-and-yellow nylon adidas jacket that anyone who has been to the Boston Marathon would recognize in a heartbeat.
Roaming the hallways of the bustling Clifton Park YMCA on Monday afternoon, she seems to know everyone there, and they seem to know her.
She holds the world in her hand, and it holds her.
Dangling from Lichu Sloan’s fingers, the oval medal depicts all the continents and oceans of the globe as backdrop to two silhouetted marathon runners. The words across the top read “Seven Continents,” and the word across the bottom says “Finisher.”
Sloan isn’t finished. Not even close, although she did cancel a trip to run marathons in Korea, Saipan and Guam out of concern that she would be stuck in quarantine due to the coronavirus. She was supposed to have left on Thursday for that. She can’t bear the thought of being stuck. Instead, she’ll look forward to a marathon on the Cook Islands later this month, a return home to her husband, Paul, in Clifton Park, then a race in Kathmandu, Nepal, in April.
This week, though, was a time to reflect back on a milestone race she ran in Split, Croatia, two Sundays ago.
That was a special one because it marked the 100th country in which Sloan has completed a marathon, putting her in the exclusive company of just 15 people in recorded history — and just three women, one from Hungary and another from the U.S. — to have achieved that.
It was just the latest in a string of her feats that make your head swim, including Sloan having run marathons on all seven continents. Twice. This means she checked the Antarctica box. Twice. One of those seven-continent, seven-marathon excursions, in 2008, was knocked out in a span of seven weeks.
The numbers are a wonder to behold: 242 total marathons since she ran her first at the age of 52; marathons in all 50 states (and twice in Washington, D.C.); total marathon mileage (6,340.4) that gets you from New York City to San Francisco and back, with a few hundred to spare; and, of course, the 100 countries across seven continents.
But beyond those details, Sloan has become a de facto ambassador of and to the world, reflecting back the good cheer, humor, humanity and shared experience of her grueling sport.
“I’m very lucky. I met a lot of good people,” she says. “People are very welcoming, very hospitable. They have a lot of respect for runners and are very happy to see that we came so far to their country.
“They don’t have as much money as we have here, but when you go there, they’re very generous. Even like, in Costa Rica, which is very poor … they knew my age. And they knew I came all the way there to run a marathon. And they want to take you out to lunch, buy you a gift, take you to the mall to shop for the coffee and chocolate.”
There was a time when Sloan, a dual U.S.-Taiwan citizen and retired state worker, craved the things her well-paying job allowed her to acquire.
She didn’t take up running until the age of 49, intrigued by the exploits of her runner husband. At 52, she tried the 2000 Mohawk Hudson River Marathon from Schenectady to Albany. To say that her world expanded from there would be a gross understatement.
The 100 list includes the biggies, in terms of race prestige — London, Tokyo, Berlin — as well as the full spectrum based on population, obscurity and remoteness.
Reykjavik, Iceland. Massai, Kenya. Tenby, Wales. Ushuaia, Argentina, regarded as the southernmost city in the world. She’s run nine times in Taiwan, where her 92-year-old mother still lives.
Istanbul, Stockholm, Marrakesh, Prague, Dubai, Machu Picchu, Dublin, Bucharest, Beirut, Belgrade …
Ho Chi Minh City and Vatican City …
Bosnia and Herzegovina, St. Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos Islands. Galapagos Islands.
Just keeping the travel arrangements and expenses above your shoulders alone would take Atlas to perform, but Sloan is making these trips not to just passively sight-see and soak in the local culture (she does all that, too), but to subject herself to the grinding pursuit of 26.2 miles on foot that traces back to the ancient Greeks. (Yes, of course she’s run the Athens Marathon.)
“I have a book keeping track, but I cannot tell you,” she says, laughing.
“I feel like I’m getting back more than the money I spent. I could be staying home spending money on a lot of unnecessary things, being bored and depressed, out eating. Material things. I think I learned what’s important and what’s not.”
An organization called the Country Marathon Club, founded in 2007, documents the exploits of runners who finish sanctioned marathons in multiple countries, which are defined as those eligible to compete in the Olympics, soccer World Cup or Commonwealth Games.
At 180 nations, Brent Weigner of the U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the Country Club, and Sloan is 15th, and the latest to join the 100 club. She wants to increase her total of 242 marathons to 300 by her 80th birthday.
At Split, Croatia on Feb. 23, Sloan finished in 6:11:17 while running with a hand-made sign pinned to the back of her shirt that said “Age 72,” “242 Marathon” and “100 Countries.”
She dedicated the race to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who had died in a helicopter crash less than a month earlier. Their basketball jersey numbers were 24 and 2.
“It’s very symbolic,” Sloan says. “[During a race] I think about people in my life who died so young. They keep me going. There are times when I feel very tired from lack of sleep, and I want to curl up and go to sleep on the street. But I think, ‘No, I’ve got to keep going. I have to run in the memory of those people.'”
Sloan does her best to avoid sugar, oil and salt in her diet, and the only injuries of note are a broken shoulder when she tripped on a tree branch during a race, and a recently pulled oblique muscle … while stretching her 5-foot frame up to get a suitcase out of an airplane overhead bin.
Her current favorite marathon is her last one, because it was supremely well-organized and personally monumental, but also because it reunited her with Croats she had met at a 2017 marathon in Bhutan.
As comfortably as she moves about the Clifton Park Y, Sloan can get post-race lunch and a beer with friends who live on the Balkan Peninsula, with whom she first crossed paths in a Buddhist kingdom hard by the Himalayas.
“It gives me a lot of appreciation,” she says. “I feel I have … how do you say … I feel I have more self-worth. And self-esteem. And all the little problems seem insignificant. Here, we are always in a hurry and are so competitive. And people are not happy. They don’t take time to say their appreciation.
“When I run a marathon, I don’t wear a headset. I like to be able to be aware of my environment and engage with the volunteers, the policeman. I always say ‘Thank you.’ Hey, it’s the universal language … ‘Hello’ … ‘Thank you.’
“People in all the world understand ‘Thank you.'”
Phileas Fogg went around the world in 80 days and may as well have been a barnacle compared to Lichu Sloan and her durably curious human spirit.
You interview her, but she has questions for you, too, and before you know it, enough time has passed for Eliud Kipchoge to have broken the marathon world record and gotten a massage at the med tent.
And in that time she has taken you around the world and back.
Try to keep up.
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