Doubt never crept into the mind of Christie Tjong Clemons as she traced the expansive hills of the Huangya Pass during the Great Wall Marathon in China — considered one of the hardest organized races in the world. Triple-digit heat, poor air quality and the sheer magnitude of the wall’s rocky steps and extreme inclines and declines fought against the 35-year-old San Luis Obispo resident.
But Clemons kept pushing forward, enjoying stretches on the Great Wall where no other competitors were in sight, fueled by the spirit of her father, who died nearly three years ago. She was alone in body, but never in spirit.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Clemons said. “It was surreal.”
Just completing the 18th annual event last month wasn’t enough for Clemons, sales manager at Fidelity National Title for the Central Coast and one of The Tribune’s Top 20 Under 40 honorees in February. She wanted to be the first American to cross the finish line.
Clemons officially came close, finishing fourth overall in the women’s full marathon in 4 hours, 41 minutes, 20 seconds. This year’s comprehensive field included more than 2,000 runners from 60 countries around the world.
‘Someone was watching over me’
If it weren’t for a chance encounter during last year’s SLO Marathon, there’s a possibility Clemons, who is half Chinese, never would have considered the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
A friend thought Clemons might be interested in the race — one of five events put on by Albatros Adventure Marathons each year — but it was something else that grabbed her attention and refused to let go.
“I’m not a huge traveler, nor had I ever been to China,” Clemons said. “So, I looked it up, and it was on my dad’s birthday — May 20.”
Clemons’ father, Michael Sakian Tjong, died of a massive stroke on July 4, 2014.
He had always been supportive of Clemons’ athletic pursuits. When she learned the race was on his birthday and in his native country, the decision was made.
“This would be the best way to honor my father, and if I could do well, it would be even better,” Clemons said.
Clemons and her sister, Carrie Metz, who also made the trip to China, had a feeling it would be a special week when they received their racing bibs — Nos. 22 and 23, respectively — which each have significant meanings to their family.
“My parents got married on the 22nd, my mom’s birthday is the 22nd, everything is 22,” Clemons said. “My sister’s favorite number is 23. She got married on the 23rd, engaged on the 23rd, everything.”
The hotel rooms they stayed in that week even had some variation of the No. 23.
“It was like, ‘Dad’s here. This is odd,’ ” Clemons said.
Maybe it was his memory that kept Clemons going as she reached the infamously steep 2,296-foot drop called “Goat Track.” Or the 21-mile mark when everyone was wheezing “like you smoked a pack of cigarettes.”
Even when she got sick before leaving China and slept every minute of the 15-hour flight back to San Francisco, there seemed to be a divine element to the whole experience.
“Everyone got super sunburned being out there and it was like no shade,” Clemons said. “I was definitely like, ‘My dad was watching.’ I didn’t even get sunburned. I didn’t wear sunscreen. We’re like, ‘What happened?’ ”
“Someone was watching over me.”
An athlete’s fortitude
Clemons wasn’t always a runner, but the toughness needed to thrive in that world has always been present.
Growing up in Palos Verdes, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, Clemons traveled the country on the youth tennis circuit and earned a Division I scholarship offer from Cal Poly.
A major lung operation the summer before her freshman year nearly derailed Clemons’ college career before it began. But despite doctor’s estimates it would be at least a year before Clemons could return to the court, she was playing No. 1 doubles two months after the operation.
Other injuries would eventually end Clemons’ tennis career, and her focus shifted to working for local real estate agent Hal Sweasey and her volunteer efforts with AmeriCorps. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in communicational theory and rhetoric in 2004 and has been working at Fidelity National Title for 13 years this month.
“I hated running in college, actually,” Clemons said. “I had my lung operation, so I was always excused from running. I didn’t run (competitively) until I was probably 28.’”
Fast forward to today, and Clemons has about 10 ultramarathons under her belt. Those races often cover distances longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathons.
Perhaps most impressive: Clemons finished second at the SLO Marathon on April 30, and 20 days later she traversed all 5,164 stairs included in the Great Wall Marathon under extreme conditions.
Clemons and her sister got a taste of what to expect during the pre-race inspection day, which is described in the Runner’s Guide as “key to mental preparation for the challenges that await you on race day.”
“(Organizers) were super nervous about everybody in the heat and the air quality,” Clemons said. “So, we do the inspection, which I have to tell you I’m really glad we did, because my sister didn’t make it. She had an asthma attack and the heat exhaustion. She was going to participate in the 5-mile walk, which she never ended up doing.”
Her sister would recover, and the race went off without a hitch for Clemons, though many racers were taken off on stretchers after collapsing in the 102-degree heat.
Another Great goal?
So, how does Clemons plan to follow this up?
It was barely 24 hours after the race when she was back online looking at other adventure marathons. She’s interested in the Big Five Marathon in South Africa, and the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland sounds exciting but would require cold-weather training that the Central Coast can’t provide.
For now, she’ll stick to the local favorites: Johnson Ranch Trail, Madonna Mountain and Poly Canyon, among others. The scenery back home in Palos Verdes is hard to beat, too.
Before her dad passed away, they talked about running the Boston Marathon (she qualified two months before his death) and chasing a three-hour marathon, something she would like to achieve here in SLO County.
“He was always like, ‘You could do it,’ ” Clemons said. “So, that would be a goal of mine.”