SINGAPORE — He has already overcome paralysis after a serious cycling accident. Now, Dr Zac Leow is aiming to put his name into the Guinness World Records at next month's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM).
The 37-year-old - who had already beaten the odds once by coming back from that 2013 accident in Perth to clinch a silver medal in the men's 1,500m (T37) event at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games - now wants to break the world record for the fastest marathon in the CI1 (men) para-classification. This means he has to run below 5hr 30min for the 42.195km race to set the mark.
It is a daunting challenge even for able-bodied runners, but Leow has a powerful motivation: his daughter Mika, whose second birthday falls perfectly on the day of the SCSM race on 3 December.
"I had read about (tennis star) Novak Djokovic saying, 'I used to win Grand Slams for myself, but now I want to win them for my daughters, now that they are old enough to understand.' And I can really relate to him now that I have a daughter too," he told Yahoo Southeast Asia earlier this month.
"I don't want to brag about my achievements to her. So I'm hoping that, if I could set the record, I could hold on to the record for a long enough time, to the point that my daughter will be old enough to understand.
"It will be great if she discovers the record by herself and go, 'Wait, my dad is a world record holder?'"
Defying advice in order to run a marathon again
Such is Leow's optimism and never-say-die attitude that he was able to defy physiotherapists who told him to "stop being greedy" when he said he wanted to run a marathon again after his arduous rehabilitation from full paralysis.
He had first taken to endurance running in 2011 to prove to one of his classmates that he could easily beat his personal-best marathon mark. That challenge eventually became a passion, as he relished pushing himself to the limit to lower his timings. With the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore looming then, he was among the contenders to represent the city-state in the marathon race.
Then came that fateful day in November 2013, when his bicycle's front wheel got caught in a drain at Shenton Park in Perth, where he was doing his undergraduate studies in sports science at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He hit his head after flipping over his bike, and the impact caused a fracture in his third cervical cord, as well as damage to his spinal cord.
Doctors told Leow that he might not be able to walk again, but that again stoked the desire in him to prove others wrong. Throwing himself into rehabilitation, he was able to stand up and walk again by Chinese New Year in 2014.
Yet, his physiotherapist told him to "give up" on his ambition to run a marathon again, after seeing him struggle to walk 50 metres during his therapy session.
"That was the only time I felt really depressed and shattered," Leow recalled. "But after dwelling on her words for three or four days, I had a moment when I thought, 'If I'm really in the pits like what she said, then I have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.'
"I used my sports science knowledge to plan a workout regimen to slowly get me back. And I kept at it, kept doing it. Eventually, I managed to do the Perth Marathon in June 2014 with my then-fiancee Shina."
Aiming for the world record for young daughter
Ambition achieved, what was next for Leow? After a long discussion with his coach Grant Landers in end-2014, he decided to take the plunge into para-athletics and compete in Para Games.
Within a year, he was standing proudly on the podium at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games in Singapore, winning a silver medal in the men’s 1,500m (T37) race, celebrating his comeback from the terrible bike accident with his family and friends.
He continued taking part in para-athletics and endurance races while earning his PhD degree at UWA. However, he has yet to do another marathon since completing the Perth Marathon in 2014 - until he was hit by a reality check in April this year.
"I've been having sudden back pains during my runs early this year, and have been wondering how long more my body can last," he said. "Doctors have advised me that maybe I shouldn't run this much, and I might actually go back to being in a wheelchair if I keep pushing my body this way. That got me thinking, if I were to go for one last marathon, what do I want to achieve?"
After settling on trying to set a world record time, Leow had options to find the ideal location for his final marathon. He thought of doing it in a top-class event such as the Berlin Marathon. He thought of doing it at the Gold Coast Marathon, where he could get strong support from his sponsor Asics. He thought of doing it at the Kobe Marathon - the race where he first clocked under three hours.
Eventually, the SCSM won out, even though it would be tougher for Leow to run due to the Singapore race's humidity and heat. The first reason: this year's finishing point is at the National Stadium - the same place where he won his ASEAN Para Games silver medal eight years ago.
The second reason is, of course, Mika. "I cannot bear the thought of doing my final marathon without my daughter with me as I prepare for the race," he said.
"I hope to see her at the finishing line, and hopefully celebrate my record with her, and let her know that: to achieve something you want, you have to give everything you have, even though there are a lot of sacrifices and no guarantees. This what I hope to convey to her through my whole running career."
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