She stared down elephants. Passed baboons. Eyed guards with guns who served to protect not only everyday athletes like her but elite world-class runners from Ethiopia and Kenya in their joint 26.2-mile pursuit.
In June 2017, Michelle Vanden Bosch accomplished a feat that only a few hundred people have ever done—she completed her seventh marathon on seven continents at the Econet Victoria Falls Marathon in Zimbabwe. As a globetrotter with passport stamps from more than 47 countries to her name, it was the perfect way for the former Chico State basketball star to cross the finish line of her long-distance running adventure.
“I guess there are only a few of us who are nutty enough to go to Antarctica and run,” she said. “But why not? You only live once.”
It was that same adventurous mindset that landed Vanden Bosch (BS, Health Science, ’98) her first job after college. Three days after graduation, she started working on a cruise ship that coursed the inside passage of Alaska. The experience whet her appetite for travel, and after a short stint selling insurance, she became a flight attendant.
To stay fit, she started running between flights, from 5K fun-runs and half marathons in Portugal and Scotland to marathons in Dublin and Budapest. Now based out of Denver, working for Southwest Airlines, she always packs her running shoes for overnight stays and tackles the road with the same energy and enthusiasm she once showed on the court.
“I always attribute who I am and where I am to basketball,” Vanden Bosch, who played for the Wildcats from 1993 to 1997, is the women’s team’s career all-time leader in rebounds, and is in the Chico State Athletics Hall of Fame.
“One can’t play a college sport and not have some kind of grit. It takes your time. It strips away your soul because it’s hard and it’s grueling and it’s tough,” she added. “But it really shows you who you are and what you are made of.”
She walked away from her time on the court with a firm belief that she could accomplish anything. When she woke up one morning in 2005 and set her sights on running seven marathons on seven continents, she never doubted she would complete the dream.
For North America, she counted the first marathon she ever ran—the Chicago International Marathon—with fellow basketball alum LeeAnn Bright Baker. It took four years until she conquered her next continent—Europe— in Athens, Greece, an emotional experience as she pounded pavement at the site of the first known marathon more than 2,500 years ago.
Two years later, in 2011, she ran the next in Sydney, Australia, to cross her third continent off the list. It was there, helping senior citizens navigate on and off tour buses, she knew her marathon endeavor to was a worthy one.
“I thought, why do we wait until we are 60 or 65 to travel? Why do we work 30 or 35 years to do the things we want to do when we are retired?” she said. “I want to work hard and hustle, but I want to play hard. It really made me think, ‘I am going to go after this.’”
In 2015, she crossed Asia off her list with a marathon on the Great Wall of China, which challenged her not only with blistering temperatures but 5,000 stairs and countless calculated footsteps along the narrow undulating wall.
Then, this year, she had the opportunity to tackle the final three continents on her list. In short order, she completed marathons at King George Island, Antarctica; Punto Arenas, Chile; and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
In Antarctica, she flew in on a plane in her running clothes, was briefed sternly about leaving literally no trace, and walked two miles to the start line with not a soul present to cheer her or the 45 other runners along their way. Temperatures were just below freezing as she ran an out-and-back course along a rocky path eight times, passing nothing but the occasional participant and penguin.
Four days later in South America, she set a new personal record—4 hours, 1 minute, which was a far cry from the 5 hours, 25 minutes she had just run on the coldest continent. Her Africa conquest was less glamorous, however gratifying, as she suffered heatstroke and walked the last few miles to a 4 hour, 40 minute finish.
“The things you want the most don’t come easy,” she said. “You prepare for it, you plan for it, you train for it, and it’s just a grind.”
Pride for the significance of her achievement didn’t hit her until weeks later when she was home in Colorado. A plaque for the 7 Continents Club arrived in the mail, noting she had certifiably conquered her quest on June 18, 2017.
“It was a crazy goal and so many people along the way were so encouraging,” she said. “I had been thinking about it for so many years. When I crossed, all I could feel was I was just grateful to be done.”
For those dipping their toes into racing, whether the goal is a 5K or a marathon, Vanden Bosch’s advice is the same: Find a great training program, get fitted for good shoes, and then commit to it and pay the registration fee. Picking a destination and making an adventure out of it can make the endeavor that much more fun.
“Nobody says you have to PR. If you have to walk, walk. And have fun,” she said. “In the beginning, I was always after time. But now, in the end, I’m slapping all of the kids’ hands and just enjoying myself.”
Above all else, she encourages everyone to actively pursue whatever goal, trip, or class they’ve been putting off.
“Don’t wait,” Vanden Bosch said. “We make the mistake of thinking we all have time. … A comfort zone is great, but nothing ever grows there. Start by saying yes!”
This story first appeared in Chico Statements.