Local ultra-runner is first American woman to complete Mount Everest extreme race

Vivian Lee, 48, poses near the starting line of the Mount Everest Extreme Ultra race on May 29.
Vivian Lee, 48, poses near the starting line of the Mount Everest Extreme Ultra race on May 29.

Most of the time, Vivian Lee is a soft-spoken but driven software developer, as well as a wife and mom. But three or four times a year, she becomes a self-described “bad-ass.”

Lee, 48, is one of just 32 women in the world inducted into the Marathon Grand Slam club, having run marathons on all seven continents plus at the North Pole. This has included finishing races known as the world’s toughest foot race in Morocco, the world’s hardest one-day race in Peru and the world’s hardest marathon in Antarctica.

But the Encinitas resident is far from finished. On May 30, Lee became the first American woman to complete the Mount Everest Extreme Ultra, billed as the world’s highest ultra-running event. The two-day, 60-kilometer race starts at Everest base camp at 17,600 feet and traverses through five mountain passes to its finish line in Namche, Nepal. That doesn’t include the 11 days before the race the runners spent hiking up to Everest base camp and acclimating to the oxygen-deprived environment.

Lee said the views she had of Mount Everest and the surrounding Himalayan peaks were breathtaking and she made several “friends for life” with other ultra runners, including Temecula resident Tony Briant. But the 8-year-old Extreme Ultra race was disorganized, poorly staffed, under-supplied and, at times, dangerous. Briant nearly died when he was abandoned by his “pacer” guide and became lost in the freezing wilderness overnight.

I wouldn’t say this was the hardest race I’ve ever run. Some parts were quite enjoyable. But it was the most challenging in terms of support and logistics,” Lee said.

Ultra-runner Vivian Lee of Encinitas recently completed the Everest Extreme Ultra, a 60-kilometer race that begins at Mount Everest base camp in Nepal.
Ultra-runner Vivian Lee of Encinitas recently completed the Everest Extreme Ultra, a 60-kilometer race that begins at Mount Everest base camp in Nepal.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune

Lee grew up in Beijing and moved to the U.S. to attend college. She now works in software design for the marketing division of Acushnet, the golf club and apparel company in Carlsbad. She lives in Encinitas with her husband, Jay Yu, and their teenage sons Andy and Laurence, who all enjoy and support her racing career.

While she has always been active and fit, Lee said she was driven to take on more ambitious endurance sports five years ago as a challenge to her younger self. As a schoolgirl in China, she was always the last one picked for schoolyard teams.

“I am not going to lie, but since I was not good at sports, I always pretended that I didn’t care. But I do,” she said. “That is why when I realized that an ordinary person like me can run a marathon or complete the Marathon Grand Slam, I jumped on the band wagon immediately. Bad-ass is a perfect word for me.”

The very first long-distance race she tried in 2014 was a marathon and she surprised herself by completing it with ease. She’s been pushing the limits of her endurance ever since at races all over the world.

At the North Pole Marathon, she slogged through knee-deep snow and a -40-degree wind chill to cross the finish line. At the Inca Trail marathon in Peru, she endured muscle cramps, an elevation gain and loss of 10,000 feet and extremely rocky terrain. And at the Antarctic Ice Marathon, she faced sub-freezing 32-knot headwinds.

But the most punishing race of all was the Marathon des Sable, when she ran the equivalent of six marathons in six days across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. She ran in temperatures of 120 degrees, carrying all of her food, water, clothing and sleeping gear on her back while struggling with heat exhaustion, muscle fatigue and foot injuries.

Lee said the most difficult physical challenge of the Everest Extreme Ultra was dealing with the high altitude.

“Even the smallest exertion, like turning over too quickly in my sleep, caused my heart to feel like it was pumping out of my chest. You’re so desperate to get air that you can start to panic,” she said. “Because you’re always short of breath, you have to keep pushing yourself to keep going. I tried never to look up when we were climbing because it was too depressing.”

The Extreme Ultra — launched in 2013 as one of two side races to the Everest Marathon — had just 26 entrants this year. Twenty-five finished. All three races begin at Everest Base Camp at the end of the mountain-climbing season. Because base camp is on a glacier, the terrain is ever-changing and extremely rocky, so it’s impossible to do anything but walk and climb when the races begin. On the trails further out, the racers could run, but only with hiking poles to avoid falling if they tripped over rocks. Temperatures were relatively mild, ranging from 30 degrees overnight to the mid-60s during the day, she said.

After several miles, the Ultra course veered away from the much-better-maintained marathon course and that’s where the problems began, Lee said. Six of the 11 promised aid stations in the mountain villages were not staffed, so some racers ran out of water, and the lodge where her group of runners was supposed to stay overnight was closed. With the help of her pacer, Lee’s group found an available lodge in a village a few hours away.

Briant wasn’t so lucky. His guide left him alone and when he found the promised lodge closed for the night, he tried to keep going but became lost in the dense fog and darkness. He ended up crawling under a rock with an emergency blanket to spend the night in freezing temperatures. At daylight, he stumbled into the next village and met up with Lee and the other racers.

With no cellphone access and rescue impossible in the remote mountain passes, Lee and two other runners from Italy and India stayed with Briant and together helped him make it to the finish line. Lee was the only woman to finish the race this year and is just the eighth woman to complete the race since it started.

Despite her frustration with the Everest race, Lee said she’s not deterred from doing more international ultra events.

Her No. 1 goal is to do the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), based in Chamonix, France. It combines seven trail races totaling 106 miles and a total elevation gain of 32,940 feet in the mountains of France, Switzerland and Italy. Just 2,500 racers earn a coveted slot in the race each year by first accumulating points in other races and then taking their chances in a lottery.

Lee earned the points required for this summer’s UTMB, but didn’t win a spot in the lottery. She’ll try again next year and the year after that until she’s chosen.

Also on her bucket list? Skiing to the South Pole. “Why do I do it? I really like adventures,” she said. “I love the landscape and being out there to admire God’s creation.”

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune