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Health and wellness

How a Jersey girl at Harvard caught the marathon bug running Boston Marathon, and hasn’t stopped since

  • Hong Kong-based working mum Ming Chen runs marathons for fun, averaging more than two a year for the past 30 years
  • She’s run 18 with her twin sister, and says running one with her daughter would be special. In training for her 65th marathon, she thinks she’ll stop at 88
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 7:06pm

Sixty-four completed marathons and counting. Meet serial marathoner Ming Chen, who has averaged more than two marathons a year for the past 30 years. Neither a competitive runner nor an elite athlete, Chen has a full-time corporate job, is married and a mother to three young children. Running helps her find peace in a busy, sometimes stressful life juggling work and family.

Chen started running in 1989 as a first-year student at Harvard, when two of her college girlfriends, who were planning to run the Boston Marathon, casually asked if she would like to join them.

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“I had no idea what training for and running a marathon was like. I thought, What’s the big deal? and said yes,” Chen recalls. “We trained for six months, running along the Charles River while chatting. It was fun. For me it was a way to hang out with my friends,” says the 47-year-old, who grew up in New Jersey, played tennis in school, and hated track and field sports.

Chen says it was good that she was clueless about her first marathon, as the course was hilly and tough. “I was sore for a week after but recovered fast. Being 18 helped. I loved the experience and signed up for the New York marathon next and convinced my twin sister to run with me,” she says. Since then she has run 18 marathons with her identical twin, Wah Chen, with whom she has also co-authored two children’s books (Sassparilla’s New Shoes and Ling Ling Looked in the Mirror).

Chen says she loves the training process. It gives her life structure and focus. “The crowd support and the energy from the runners is amazing in a race. There is something wonderful about running with thousands of people, of varying ages, ethnicities and athletic abilities, all focused on finishing 26.2 miles (42.19km). Running is such an open and humbling sport,” says Chen, who lives in Hong Kong and is chief culture officer responsible for global marketing at EF Education First, a global education company that focuses on teaching languages, academics and educational travel.

Chen is not obsessed with her times and likes to run at a pace that she feels comfortable with. She could probably improve her race times with more intense training, but wants running to be fun and not feel like boot camp.

“I think of marathons more as long runs rather than races. For me the process of training is as much fun as the race, if not more. And keeping it fun has sustained my interest in running,” says Chen, who is also an ambassador for Sweaty Betty, a yoga and running gear brand.

Chen trains first thing in the morning at 5.45. She has a group of running buddies and on most days one of them joins her for an hour-long run of 8km to 10km at a conversational pace. On weekends Chen goes for a long run, usually 16km.

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“Being out in nature is invigorating and energises me. I love running on Bowen Road, around The Peak, Black’s Link and on Mount Butler,” says Chen, who has been living in Hong Kong since 2000.

Training in the lead-up to a marathon changes little, other than to increase the distance of her weekly long run. “After 64 marathons, my body is marathon trained,” she says. She also swims every week and plays tennis occasionally.

She hasn’t had to make any major sacrifices to keep up with her running. “I’ve had to make do with less sleep at times, though. And if you ask my husband, he would point to less time with him,” she says.

Whine all you want but get out there and put one foot in front of the other faster than walking pace. Voilà, you are running
Ming Chen

The main change in her lifestyle has been going to bed early to get enough rest. “I don’t drink alcohol and I eat healthily, which helps I suppose.”

Chen’s three children think running marathons is super easy, because their mother does it. “All of them are sporty,” says Chen. “My oldest Emma, 15, swims for the Ladies Recreation Club (LRC), a sports and recreation club on Hong Kong Island, Charlotte, 13 plays for the Hong Kong under-15s football team and Tommy, 11, plays tennis for the LRC.

“Charlotte says she wants to run a marathon. I am waiting to run one with her,” says Chen. When she does, that might be her most special marathon, she adds.

She credits weekly Pilates practice and yoga three times a week with keeping her mostly injury-free. “Aside from the benefits of strength and flexibility, yoga has helped me focus on my breathing, which relaxes me while running.”

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Chen says anyone can run a marathon. “Running is a lifestyle sport, not an elite sport,” she says. Her top three tips? Invest in a pair of well-cushioned shoes so that you don’t put pressure on your knees while running; lose weight if you need to before you start running, to protect your knees; and find a friend to run with.

“You are more likely to go for a run when you know someone is waiting for you. Whine all you want but get out there and put one foot in front of the other faster than walking pace. Voilà, you are running,” she says.

While Chen has given a lot to her running, running has given back a lot to her as well. “It has calmed me,” she says. “It is like meditating and clears my mind. With work, travel and the kids, I have a hectic schedule. Running helps me detach from it all, at least for a while,” says Chen. “Over the years I find I have more energy.

I have travelled the world to run races. The two best things about running have been the friendships that I have made, and feeling the runner’s high. At one point my goal was to run more marathons than my age. With that behind me, I think 88 has an auspicious and even ring to it.”

Only once has she failed to finish a marathon – in Seoul, South Korea, due to leg cramps. Other events were challenging, including an extremely hot run in Singapore, despite its midnight start time, a rainstorm that held all through a Beijing run, and a cold, stormy run in New Jersey.

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Chen’s most recent run was in the Brooklyn marathon in October, where she finished first in her age category in four hours and 38 seconds.

“Had I known how close I was to finishing under four hours, I would have shaved off those extra seconds,” she says. Still, she found solace in that run after losing her sister-in-law, who died in September at the age of 45 after a 12-year battle with brain cancer.

Chen is certainly on her way to her goal of running 88 marathons; she is getting ready to run her 65th, the China Coast in Hong Kong, in January.

Nine fast facts about Chen’s running career

1. Marathons run: 64 in 28 cities (21 in Hong Kong, 4 in Macau, Boston and New York, 2 in Singapore, Bangkok and Beijing)

2. Favourite marathons: Hong Kong’s China Coast, Brooklyn

3. Fastest marathon time: 3.31, Marine Corps DC (1997)

4. Last marathon: Brooklyn, Oct 2018; 4:00:38, placed first in age category.

5. Next marathons: China Coast (Jan 2019), Rotterdam (April 2019)

6. Regular pre-marathon meal: crunchy peanut butter on wheat toast

7. Favourite post-marathon snack: tortilla chips

8. Also ran: 100km Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker twice and the 64km Hong Kong Round the Island Race

9. Favourite books on running: Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall; Ultramarathon Man, by Dean Karnazes; and Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight