Fly without Limits

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After contemplating running another ultra in Kansas on October 27, 2018, I decided to instead enter the Good Life Halfsy in Lincoln, Nebraska, happening the following day, mainly because I hesitated committing to a minimum of twelve-hour drive out and back for the former. This event that welcomes over 6,500 participants bears the nickname “Nebraska’s funnest half marathon,” and I longed to test myself and see how fast I could run on this net-downhill course I heard so much about for years from local races. Seeing and chatting with champion ultrarunner Kaci Lickteig and her pacer again, in addition to taking part in various entertaining activities, at the Expo the day before the race unsurprisingly pumped me up and excited me for the next morning.

My impression of a “downhill course” made me visualize most of the course leading downhill, which proved inaccurate when I ran upward as frequently as I ran downward. With this initial thought, I started ambitiously fast, beginning at a low 7:00/mile pace and maintaining an 8:04/mile pace for the first few miles. I had a rough idea of the pace I needed to keep in order to destroy my personal record (PR) from slightly over a month ago, which about eight miles in I figured to be inevitable unless something drastic, like an injury, occurred. I noticed my passing many runners going up and down but occasionally being passed going flat, and I was reminded of why I missed the Georgia hills so dearly when I first moved to Kearney, Nebraska, that seemed 99% flat, in September 2015.

Nearing the finish line following a prolonged uphill on a bridge, I gathered all the energy I had left for a final sprint to the end, flying past numerous runners. I aimed to complete the run close to 1:50:00 while quietly fantasizing even more quickly on this fast course but knew I had set quite a greedy goal, making the official time of 1:47:35.7, beating my previous PR by well over five minutes, drop my jaw even lower.

I remember texting my best friend following achieving my first-ever official sub-2:00:00 13.1 miles of 1:56:55 in the summer of 2017 that I do not know if I could again replicate that performance, yet my last three half marathons, all on much tougher courses, casually smashed that seemingly amazing accomplishment at the time. I can feel my body rapidly becoming stronger and speedier, but how much more room do I have to improve? I guess I will find out soon enough. Thank You, Jesus!

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What Matters

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Beginning race day being detoured four or five times driving in the dark due to major road construction and uncertain if I could make it to the event location on time, I felt overly anxious and nervous on my way to a half marathon at the Fall Double Half Mary +5 in Valparaiso, roughly 27 miles northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 13, 2018. This event does not utilize chip timing, which implied if I arrived late, however late I arrived would be added to my finish time. Canceling the race even briefly crossed my mind, and I probably would have if I could not start with the rest of the participants. When I came to the event place with short time to spare, I felt so grateful I no longer obsessed with the pressure of performing to the best of my abilities.

According to my Garmin

I lined up at the very front for the start and kept the lead for the first mile, which felt awkward because I had never led this far in any of my previous 36 races; when the few runners who finished before I passed me, I strangely felt relieved and comfortable, almost as if thinking my level should not be winning any race. The course started off relatively flat for the first two to three miles and then carried straight uphill to the halfway turnaround. I could observe how much my endurance has improved, as I did not feel any fatigue and maintained a consistent pace to the top; yes, I do acknowledge the 36-degree temperature helped. On my way up, I became excited thinking about all the downhill I would be running on the way back.

Unsurprisingly, I secured a significant negative split the second half, crossing the finish line in 1:55:23, my second-fastest half marathon ever and which coincidentally hilariously matches my bib number of 155. Considering this event took place 100% on a trail (and mud) and 0% on the road, maybe this performance could be as impressive as my 1:53:05 personal record from the road-trail race several weeks ago. I realize performing strong and running fast should not always be my priority in races and need to remind myself of what matters, but I also cannot help but feel joyful seeing how far I have come since I picked up running just over six-and-a-half years ago. Until recently, I had only hoped for a sub-two-hour 13.1 miles; now, not achieving this on a nontechnical course disappoints me. As always, thank You, Jesus!

Two States in One

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Legends Bart Yasso and Jane Serues!

Days prior to my three-week business trip to Korea, I received a voice message stating my name was drawn for a free massage from Essentials Natural Family Health in Papillion, Nebraska, from a raffle at my most recent running event, Beat the Heat 10K. Upon my return to the United States, I sought another race around this area because I refused to drive three hours out and three hours back solely for a massage. I signed up for 13.1 miles in the Heartland Marathon, beginning and ending in Omaha, Nebraska, but taking place mostly in Iowa, on September 23, 2018, only a few days before the event. I felt slightly concerned about my only having run on the treadmill several times while away and not having fully overcome jet lag.

I arrived in Omaha a day early for the Expo, where I met many inspirational runners, including legends Bart Yasso and Jane Serues, guest speakers, and an elderly man who had completed 405 marathons, seven times in all 50 states. Come race day, I had no expectations but simply hoped to score another sub-two-hour half marathon in this beautiful weather for running. I also did not anticipate to run mainly uphill the first three to four miles, at which point I dropped any desire for a strong performance. Nevertheless, as the course, comprising both roads and trails, flattened out on mile five, my body swiftly recovered and I increased the pace and stayed near the 1:55 pacers, which told me I could still potentially break my personal record (PR) of 1:56:55 from over a year ago on a far-less technical and slightly-shorter course. 8 miles in, still full of energy, I passed the pacers and did not see them again until post-race; a new PR seemed almost inevitable.

With a mile to go, I climbed my way up on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that divides Nebraska and Iowa from the Iowa side, which, maybe due to chugging water right before, made me feel nauseous; approaching the finish line, I came close to throwing up four or five times, which prompted me to pray to God dearly not to let me vomit in front of all these individuals cheering. Especially considering the consistent hills and my just having come back from a lengthy overseas trip, I was pleasantly surprised with the new mammoth PR of 1:53:05, beating the previous by three minutes and fifty seconds and enough for 54th place out of 248 runners. I wonder how I would have performed on a less difficult course, whether I would have run faster or I deal with hills efficiently. Thank You, Jesus!

Wow

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Recovered surprisingly quickly from the 50K in Wichita, Kansas, two weeks ago, I registered for a 10K at the Beat the Heat, where I set a half-marathon personal record (PR) last year, taking place in Bellevue, Nebraska, on August 11, 2018. Having already run one 50K, four half marathons, and one 10K this year, I initially planned to give my body well-deserved rest for a while, but my upcoming three-week business trip to Korea that will likely prevent me from running regularly and this event’s providing an additional medal for returning runners motivated me to squeeze in one more race prior to flying to my native country. I for a moment debated running another 13.1, but I did not want to overwhelm my body and potentially cause an overuse injury, which has occurred in the past. I had in mind to attempt to break my PR of 00:51:44.82 from a couple of years ago, but that performance amazed me and I was uncertain if I could replicate that.

After my three consecutive races in horrific conditions, the weather finally cooperated for this second annual Beat the Heat. The course remained entirely flat, and I knew from the first mile based on how my body felt this would be a successful run. Rather than slowing down, I for the most part consistently gradually increased my speed, resulting in a negative split the second half. I did not worry about struggling in the last section carrying this unprecedented pace, understanding I would be done soon regardless; in an ultramarathon, this mentality obviously does not work as easily. I went from thinking of simply beating my PR to running a sub-fifty-minute to finishing at a sub-8-minute-mile pace, the last of which I thought to be possible with 2.5 miles to go. When the finish line came into sight, I could not contain my excitement and screamed, “Yes!” and celebrated reading the time and sprinting to the end.

Official time 00:48:42.8, 8th place out of 51 participants, I smashed my previous impressive (for me) PR by over three minutes. (This 7:50/mile pace would have replaced my 5K PR as well, but I have not entered a 5K event in over five years.) Not even remotely exhausted or breathing heavily, I wondered if I could have run faster, but how could I be disappointed? Driven by faith in my Father, I constantly prayed as I ran, and I have no doubt He gifted me with this performance. Thank You, Jesus.

No Room for Pessimism

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Once I committed to my fourth (and first road) ultramarathon with the inaugural UrbanICT, beginning at 9:00 PM on July 27, 2018, in Wichita, Kansas, because I no longer had easy access to the gym or pool, I based my training solely on running. I for the first time ever ran all seven days a week, which tensed up my left hip and lower back and reassured me I must cross-train for major races as I always had. The event commenced over ten degrees higher, on top of irritating humidity, than the Weather Channel predicted for weeks, but at least I did not have to deal with the sunlight, the only reason I considered an ultra in the summer. With this 50K being my 34th race, I hardly become nervous or even anxious before a running event anymore. A friend who participated in the 25K here asked me multiple times before the start, “Are you nervous?” and my answer being “No” each time in a way made me nervous.

PC: Mile 90 Photography

I opened up the first two miles running side by side and chatting with a former NCAA D1 runner, but I knew, although less boring, following the pace of this elite much longer would be a foolish strategy and let her go. I ran most of the first half nonstop and forced myself to slow down around 11 miles in, as I had not run an ultra or even a marathon since the 102-miler in April 2017 and was taking on this daunting challenge in the summer at night without sleep and after having driven nearly five hours from Nebraska the same day. Unaware the course comprised consistent hills and took place on concrete, I knew my legs’ pounding the ground more heavily than on a trail could cause me to fatigue earlier than in my previous ultramarathons. The event hosted over 500 runners in five distances, but not many participants signed up for the 50K; therefore, I ran alone in the dark for much of the race, making me vulnerable to boredom, drowsiness, and lack of motivation to push as hard as I physically could. Because I began to struggle slightly in the first half, mainly due to a stomachache from shoving in too much fluid, I initially thought my finish time would be a disaster of verging on eight hours. Being in solitude did allow me to focus more easily on praying to my only Source of strength, and unsurprisingly I felt revivified just past 20 miles to be back in the game. I thought of mostly walking for a mile or two around mile 23 prior to encountering a fellow 50K participant named Ruth. I asked her, “Are you a Christian? Ruth is one of my favorite books in the Bible,” and we exchanged testimonies and both noticed time flew for these two miles.

PC: Mile 90 Photography

Seven miles to go, I realized I could actually set a personal record (PR) in the 50K, bearing in mind a couple of hours previously I was worried about finishing in an embarrassing time, and repeatedly did math in my head to figure out how strongly I had to push and how many more walk breaks I could afford to materialize this goal. Furthermore, walking strangely felt more painful than running at times, likely psychological due to my Garmin moving extra slowly for the former. At the final aid station three miles behind the finish line, I knew I had this PR in the bag. The volunteer told me he would check my result to see if I fulfilled this objective, and I half-jokingly replied, “Pressure!” and took off.

PC: Mile 90 Photography

Assuming due to a combination of humidity and lack of sleep, I hallucinated five or six times, all involving seeing a person or people not actually present. This for real, I turned my headlamp to my right in the woods and spotted two bright red eyes that seemed to be of a cat sitting on a stump staring at me, and I instinctively assumed I witnessed a mountain lion, which concerned me for a couple of seconds until I reminded myself I had God.

I crossed the finish line of slightly over 50K, 31.35 miles according to my Garmin, in 6:39:06, smashing my previous time from over three years ago by nearly 16 minutes. I had never experienced feeling so negatively about my performance and then shattering my expectations in the same race, and one runner commented that defines an ultrarunner, coming back from adversity, with which I agree. When I run, especially an ultramarathon, all petty pessimistic thoughts disappear for the moment and I wonder, “Why was I so worked up over these?” I really enjoy the physical-spiritual journey I undergo with my Father and how easily I am humbled, as I acknowledge I cannot do any of these without Him; specifically when I feel I am done and then become completely rejuvenated physically, I have no other explanation than His providing me with strength. Nobody forces me to run; I just love overcoming challenges that involve all the physical, mental, and spiritual, and I have not yet found a better way to do so.

H3: Hot, Humid, and Hilly

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Committing to my fourth ultramarathon and second 50K in Kansas on July 27-28, 2018, I sought one more 13.1-mile race early in the same month as part of training. Seeing the Brownville Freedom Run as the only option on the Fourth of July, I signed up for the event for the second consecutive year, initially hesitant because I did not want to drive a minimum of seven hours out and back for a half marathon. Again, the temperature was projected to significantly peak on race day, but, having run multiple times in the 90s and 100s in training, I presumed my body would be accustomed to heat by now.

This 9-year-old girl ran 13.5+ miles in these brutal conditions!

Remembering the course from a year ago as mostly flat on a combination of road and trail, I did not prepare for hills. Nevertheless, before the start, the race director announced that the crew had to alter the first/last one-mile section of the course with hills and a bridge due to the flood on the original, and a runner next to me said, “I do not like hills.” Because I was conversing with other participants and missed this information, I asked, “How big are the hills?” somewhat implying, “How hilly could this possibly be?” The race commenced, and I thought emphatically, “What the heck is this?” as the first half a mile led straight uphill with the pinnacle hardly visible due to steepness and then the next half a mile straight back down; runners would repeat this in reverse order to the finish. Around mile seven, the clouds moved away from the sun, taking the feels-like temperature to the mid-90s; I felt I was running in the sauna and that I may have to vomit with all the fluid bouncing around in my stomach.

One lady passed me on my way back up the brutal hill towards the end, and then I passed her on the way down. Here, she really pushed herself to try to pass me again and finish before I, and, wherever the energy came from, I probably ran the fastest pace here out of the entire race as if being chased by a bear. As soon as I crossed the finish line of 13.54 miles (although some GPS watches read closer to 13.7) in 2:20:04, I barely held myself from vomiting, simultaneously thinking, “I cannot puke in front of all these people.” (I did so big time twice on my way back to my disgusting hotel.) Seeing this terrible time place 24th out of 63 runners, I realized others were just as negatively affected by these conditions as I. I actually often feel excited and grateful when I struggle so much in the heat, as the more I do so the more I am reminded I did not run 102 miles in worse conditions alone; thank You, Jesus. Since my upcoming ultramarathon starts at 9:00 PM without the interruption of the sun, I remain optimistic I will perform.

At Last (After 17 Years)

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On July 2, 2018, I received in the mail the approval notice for my I-485 – Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status; I have officially become a permanent resident of the United States!

I was born in South Korea and began studying in North America in late 1999, at age ten. After nearly a couple of years in Vancouver, British Columbia, I moved to the US, in 2001. I spent much of my adolescence complaining about having to go to the Embassy of the United States in Seoul and change my visa status each time I moved to a new location as a typical foreigner when I grew up in America and felt culturally American. Only when I accepted my role as an international recruitment specialist for the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) just under three years ago did I see the value in having been through every possible step an international student could undergo, from F-1 to Optional Practical Training (OPT) to H-1B to, now, green card. I could educate and emotionally connect to many international students from Korea and other countries with my unique extensive global background.

While on OPT from 2014 to 2015, I was repeatedly misinformed my opportunity to be sponsored for a work visa had passed because I missed the deadline. Regardless, I continued to feel I would somehow find a way to remain in the US and was prompted to Google this subject myself, right after which I read I still had a chance to be sponsored by a university and/or research-based institution. I immediately went on HigherEdJobs and found my current job with UNK that had just been posted. Reading the description, I had confidence God would send me here, and I was soon hired, during the 60-day grace period of OPT. In June 2016, although no colleague really understood the green card process, I proactively contacted the university lawyer, which led to the eventual agreement of my office to sponsor me and pay my application fees. I do take pride, not in a boastful way, in that I earned my permanent place in America through merit rather than being freely handed the privilege. The new presidential administration did delay my application process many months with the addition of an interview and even kept me stuck in the country for a year while my travel document was pending. My medical exams, lasting one year, had only two weeks left until expiration by the time of the interview, which saved me hundreds of dollars; my medical insurance does not cover immigration-related fees.

Following my interview, the final step of this 17-year journey, on June 27, 2018, either a flying object or a dishonest person left a ding in my car, which I noticed upon return home. Satan always pokes at you with petty matters before something great happens, so I did not bother being upset over this issue. Less than a week later, I was notified of my status change to a permanent resident.

I thank Jesus, first and foremost; His timing is always perfect, whether we admit or not initially, and our job is to simply trust Him. I also would like to thank my employer, UNK, for allowing this to happen. Next, US citizenship!

I Miss Winter…

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After running three virtual half-marathon races in Kearney, Nebraska, under different circumstances in the past year and a half, I registered for a legitimate 13.1-mile race in the city with the Buffalo County Stampede, taking place on June 10, 2018. This event would occur the weekend after I return from a one-week conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, so I knew I would have to miss a vital week of training. I, however, forgot to consider the nearly inevitable heat I would be up against and refrained from turning on the air conditioner in my apartment so that my body could acclimate to the rapidly increasing temperature. Simply lying in bed made me sweat, and I even woke up early morning of the run due to the heat and relied on a cold water bottle on the back of my neck and stomach to fall back asleep.

The temperature peaked on race day, and the unanticipated rainstorm the night before raised the humidity level as well. I wore a hydration pack containing two water bottles filled with Gatorade for a 75-degree start and 84-degree finish with the direct sunlight to my face, when I prefer long-distance running in the lower 40s. I began the course at a similar pace as that of my races in cooler weather, and I realized this strategic miscalculation five miles in when I noticed my fatiguing far earlier than usual. Halfway through, I ran a steady steep uphill on a bridge, which would have been a breeze in most cases but took much out of me here; I could have power-hiked at a similar pace without burning myself out, what I did for the second comparable uphill past mile 10. In spite of the course being mostly flat and untechnical, the worsening heat and my body’s producing an ocean of sweat drained me both physically and mentally. I added brief walks towards the end while hydrating, partly to conserve energy to finish strong but also because my stomach felt overwhelmed by all the fluid I shoved in and my bouncing around simultaneously. With no participant anywhere near me, I had difficulty finding an incentive to push. One runner finally came into sight with half a mile to go, and I took off and poured all I had left, crossing the finish line in 2:05:46. The drastic impact summer heat and humidity, although not summer yet technically, could have on my performance… I miss winter.

Same Race, Opposite Conditions

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From meeting one of my favorite runners, Molly Huddle, and listening to her speak to constantly being woken up early morning by my hotel neighbors’ dog and cat ceaselessly barking and meowing, I dealt with a myriad of emotions the final hours leading up to the Lincoln National Guard Half Marathon on May 6, 2018. I had run this exact race a couple of years previously and knew what to expect, except two years ago I endured cold and rain and this year I battled heat and humidity.

Suffering in the heat!

I don’t know why I look so fat here. :/

I had not run for quite some time in such a massive event flooded with so many runners I sometimes have no choice but to slow down as well as crowds cheering on from both my left and right from start to finish, as I have been participating in mostly trail races; I knew people’s energy would have an impact on my adrenaline. I wanted to break two hours again, but I knew I would have to push extra hard on this course that read 13.22 miles rather than 13.1 on my GPS my first experience in 2016. I maintained a comfortable pace, which still put me on track to smash my personal record (PR) of 1:56:55 for the first nine miles. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, around ten miles in, I felt the sudden temperature rise to the 80s affect me and even salt pouring out of my body. With several rolling hills left to conquer, I drastically slowed down the last three miles that I knew finishing under two hours would not be a given either. I also understood every runner was suffering. “Pain is temporary,” I continued to remind myself and push without overanalyzing.

I completed the course in 1:59:08, unsure whether to be elated or disappointed; I accomplished my goal of securing another sub-2:00:00 half marathon under tough conditions but had to give up on a PR fairly close to the end of the race. (My actual time should have been closer to 1:58:20, as, again, my Garmin read a longer distance than 13.1.) I felt at one point around mile seven my right knee might give out, so overcoming the course without an injury already eliminated any room for me to complain. Furthermore, with the heat draining almost every ounce of my energy, I felt relieved to have finished strong, as many runners in front of me ended up walking towards the end. 1,784th place out of 7,682, I will take it!

Trade-Off

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One year ago today, I achieved my ultimate running goal of reaching 100 miles, the pinnacle of ultrarunning, at the Jackalope Jam in Cat Spring, Texas. This purpose had consumed my life for a year and a half, and I consistently prayed until I believed I had God’s approval prior to registering for the 48-hour event. All but a few of my close ones strongly opposed, understanding my mind-set would not let me surrender unless I faint or even die; if they thought I would stop for any reason other than the aforementioned two, they would not have worried as much. Cross-training and frequently racing in preparation for this daunting objective took up a large portion of my life outside work, but I battled with my head 24/7. I dreamed about running a 100-miler and/or finishing the distance almost nightly, sometimes twice a night.

102 donut holes from my supervisor, except a colleague ate a few before I even arrived…

When I finally fulfilled what felt to be a fantasy for so long, completing 102 miles in 39:25:44 by the grace of Jesus and securing my first (and last) 100-mile buckle, I thought my life would become much easier; “I never have to run again if I choose not to,” thought I. I did not anticipate the impact this new immense void that used to be filled with this aim for nearly a couple of years could have on my mind, as my mild OCD consistently intensified and invited all sorts of disturbing intrusive thoughts and images; I read accomplishing something so great could be a cause of this. Though I was initially certain I would never run for the rest of 2017, to help keep my mind off this burden, I ended up lacing up my running shoes and hitting the streets after a break of barely over a month without even being fully recovered and participating in seven more races in the past year.

As my mother puts it best, “When you go for something so big, there is always a trade-off.” No, I never would have imagined what I would be dealing with mentally following arguably the happiest day of my life. Would I take this back? Never.

Read my blog post on the race here!