With her 70th birthday fast approaching, Chau Smith signed up for a truly amazing race: seven marathons in seven consecutive days on seven continents.
The Triple 7 Quest is an impossible challenge for most people on the planet. But for this 5-foot-tall Kansas City grandmother, a Vietnamese immigrant who survived war, divorce, poverty and years as a single mother in a foreign country, it was just another challenge she would overcome one step at a time.
In late January, she closed her Independence alterations shop for a week and hopped a flight to Perth, Australia, where she joined up with a group of seven other runners, some half her age.
Over the next seven days, Smith ran more than 183 miles, through the streets of Cairo, around a frozen lake in Amsterdam and along a rocky beach on an island in Antarctica. She crossed finish lines in Singapore, New York and Chile. Nothing could stop her: Not 100-degree heat, bone-chilling cold or a bad fall that left her lip bloody and her leg swollen and bruised.
She ran every race proudly wearing a pink “pussyhat” crocheted by her daughter.
“I didn’t want to make a political statement,” Smith said earlier this month as she sat on the steps leading up to the Liberty Memorial, her favorite training spot. “But as a mother, as a grandmother … I wanted to run to represent women.”
“They call me ‘old woman,’ ” she says with a smile.
All the stories relayed the same message: If she can do it, anyone can. But her superhuman strength and determination are far from ordinary.
Smith’s story starts in 1947, during Vietnam’s First Indochina War. Her father was killed by French forces five months before she was born. Because of the war, her mother didn’t get her birth certificate until Smith was 3 — which is why her legal age is three years younger than her actual age.
The smell of smoke, the sight of planes flying overhead and the sound of distant gunfire and rocket blasts permeate Smith’s earliest memories.
She was 8 at the start of the Second Indochina War — what Americans call the Vietnam War — and about 13 when the fighting hit home.
One minute, she was walking toward her grandmother’s house holding a banana in each hand. And then, boom — she was on the ground staring up at burning trees, smoke in her lungs and blood streaming down her right leg. She’d been hit by shrapnel from an errant rocket.
She cried out for help, but her grandmother told her to keep moving: “Get up and run.”
Smith’s physical wounds eventually healed, but the memories and shrapnel stayed. To this day, she tenses up when she hears the chop of helicopter blades.
She stopped school after the fifth grade but dreamed of getting an education and traveling the world. Smith was particularly fascinated by the Great Wall of China. But to her, getting there was about as likely as walking on the moon.
“Impossible,” she told herself.
She got a job cleaning rooms for the Air Force and met an American Army soldier. They married and moved to Missouri with Smith’s two daughters, Thy and Tina. But the relationship didn’t last, and soon Smith found herself a young, single mom in a foreign country during a time when anti-Vietnamese sentiment was everywhere.
“This was before being Asian-American was anything anybody would be proud of,” says her eldest, Thy Tran. “People would spit on us. It was a hard time.”
Smith knew little English, but she was a hard worker who took jobs as a restaurant hostess, an assembly line worker and a tailor at a department store. She stretched every dollar to make sure her girls were educated and fed.
A typical meal was a 25-cent frozen pot pie, but occasionally, Smith would splurge on an Almond Joy and split it with Thy.
“We both love coconut, nuts and chocolate,” Thy says.
Thy’s half of the candy bar would be gone in two bites, but Smith nibbled on hers for hours. Eventually, she would give the remainder to her daughter.
“Even as a child I remember understanding, in a limited way, that she was strong in a way that I was not,” Thy says.
The long hours were hard on Smith, and so was the crushing guilt that came with spending so much time away from her girls. What she didn’t know then was that the self-sufficiency that Thy and Tina learned would pave the way to successful careers.
At 8, Thy was cooking dinner for her family. Now she’s a professional chef in San Francisco and travels the world to write about food.
Both Thy and Tina developed a love of reading because they spent so much time at the library. On Saturdays, Smith would drop the girls off on her way to work and pick them up hours later.
“It was magical, plopping down in the middle of an aisle, reading books and flipping through the card catalog,” Tina Aspegren says. “I never realized until I was much older that my mom felt terrible leaving us at the library all day.”
Tina went on to be an English teacher and now works as a marketing specialist at Black & Veatch. She passed her love of books on to 17-year-old daughter Mallory Kirk, who wants to study English in college.
Mallory also inherited her grandmother’s quiet determination.
“She knows she’s only limited by herself,” Tina says.
In 1983, Smith married Michael Smith, now her husband of 34 years. He worked as a network engineer and loved to run.
“That’s a boring sport,” she remembers thinking.
The year she remarried, she opened her own alterations shop near the intersection of Missouri 291 and Gudgell Road in Independence. She still worked long hours, but it was empowering to be her own boss.
After work, she took English classes and studied for the GED test, which she eventually passed. At the shop, new customers became loyal friends who often stopped by to chat.
“We used to talk about her family in Vietnam,” says Joyce Nilson of Independence. “If my tailoring bill was $25, I’d slip her another $5 for her to send to them.”
In the late 1980s, after years hunched over a sewing machine, Smith developed back problems that made it hard to get out of bed some days. One doctor recommended surgery; another told her she needed to stretch.
Smith took the latter advice and started exercising. At first, she rode her bike behind her husband as he ran. Then, she walked. Eventually, she was jogging by his side.
Running cured her back problems and melted her stress. Life taught her that when things get hard, you push through and keep going. Running gave her a way to test the unshakeable strength and endurance she’d built up over the years.
In 1996, when she was 48, she ran her first 26.2-mile race, the Cape Cod Marathon in Falmouth, Mass. Crossing the finish line was only the beginning.
In 2003, she surprised her husband on his 60th birthday with a trip to Athens, Greece — the birthplace of the marathon.
With their kids grown up, the Smiths had a little more disposable income, and they spent much of it traveling to races all over the world: at the foot of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, by the Sydney Opera House in Australia and even on the Great Wall of China.
To train for the Great Wall of China Marathon in 2005, they spent endless hours running up and down the stairs at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, even in the snow and ice. Once, they climbed 8,500 steps — and then jogged up and down Hospital Hill 10 times.
She says that sometimes, when she’s running stairs, the shrapnel in her right thigh starts to ache as though it’s trying to work its way out.
“You just live through it and don’t think about it,” she says.
During races, Smith doesn’t distract herself by wearing headphones or a watch. She says she likes to feel free and in the moment. If she gets hot, she imagines waterfalls, cold showers and clear streams trickling over smooth pebbles. If she gets tired, she thinks about her family in Vietnam — especially her brother, a great soccer player who was partially paralyzed by a stroke.
“I just think how lucky I am,” she says, “to move, to see, to smell.”
While running on the Great Wall, she thought about the hundreds of thousands of laborers who died building one of the world’s wonders. How she never expected to see it in her lifetime — let alone run on it. She crossed the finish line with a huge smile.
In 2013, Smith qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon at the age of 66, which was no easy feat. She was less than half a mile from the finish line when the bombs went off.
She didn’t want to stop running but knew she had to when police told her what had happened. She was flooded with memories of the attack she survived more than 50 years earlier. Fear didn’t stop her from returning to Boston in 2014 to finish the race she’d started.
“I shake my head when I think about all that she’s accomplished,” says her husband, who has had to cut back on running over the past few years because of knee problems. “I admire her a lot.”
The couple have had to make sacrifices to afford their running-related travels. Recently they downsized from a five-bedroom home on 10 acres in Oak Grove to a 700-square-foot condo in south Kansas City.
“I’m still living out of boxes,” Smith says, but she has no regrets about the move because without it, she couldn’t have done the Triple 7 Quest.
When she called Thy to tell her about the race, she apologized for “spending her inheritance.” But Thy was happy to see her mom following her dream.
“After all the sacrifices she made for our education, lives, well-being, she can do whatever she freakin’ wants with her money,” Thy says.
Training for the Triple 7 Quest was almost as hard as completing it. After closing her shop for the day, Smith would log 10 to 14 miles solo on cold, dark nights.
“People are asleep, and I’m still out there,” she says.
On Saturday mornings, she would train with a Kansas City club called The Runner’s Edge, and then head out for more miles after work. She spent so many hours running stairs at the World War I Museum that she made friends with the security guards. Her stamina was fueled by a steady diet of sweet potatoes, rice, fish, tofu, hummus, fresh veggies and coconut water.
Her family and friends watched in awe.
“She’s kind of a machine, mentally and physically,” Tina says.
Says longtime friend Carol Lehr: “Chau makes you a better person through knowing her.”
By Jan. 25, Smith was ready for the Triple 7 Quest. The first race in Australia was the hardest because she got burned by the sun and triple-digit temperatures. Singapore was humid, like Kansas in July. In Cairo, a travel delay left no time for breakfast. Luckily, Smith made friends with two American runners who bought her a steaming-hot sweet potato from a street vendor. She ate it while running, and it was one of the most delicious meals she can remember.
On the way to the marathon in Amsterdam, she tripped and fell flat on her face. She hid her busted lip and swollen leg from the other runners so they wouldn’t try to stop her from competing.
“She’s tough,” says Steve Hibbs, who organized the Triple 7 Quest through his company Marathon Adventures. “A lot of people with lesser injuries would’ve dropped out.”
She finished the Amsterdam marathon in 6 hours and 25 minutes, and beat that time by three minutes the next day in New York.
In Chile and Antarctica, Smith, who weighs just over 100 pounds, pushed hard against strong winds. When she finally crossed the finish line on the White Continent’s King George Island, she proudly posed for a photo wearing her pink hat and eight medals — one for every marathon and one for completing the Triple 7 Quest. Smith is the oldest woman to complete the challenge to date.
Before heading back to the United States from Chile, Smith ran one more marathon — just for fun.
“At this point, I’m not surprised by anything she wants to do,” Thy says.
Smith already has a new goal: She wants to run marathons in all 50 states, and is about halfway there. That’s not all.
Recently, she found out that Hibbs, who organized the Triple 7 Quest, is planning a Triple 8 Quest for 2018. That’s eight marathons in eight consecutive days on eight continents, including a newly discovered continent called Zealandia. Most of Zealandia is submerged under the ocean, but part of it protrudes to form New Zealand.
She hasn’t committed to the Triple 8 Quest yet, but she has kept up with her training, just in case. Last month, she and her husband ran back-to-back races in Ohio and Michigan. After returning, she was back in her alterations shop, greeting customers and mending garments.
He wants her to retire, but she has a hard time slowing down — especially because there are so many adventures she wants to save up for.
Her daughters often laugh at what they call their mom’s crazy ideas. But they love to see her happy — especially after years of putting herself last.
“It’s definitely a joy to see her being kind of selfish,” Tina says.
“This is her time.”