Goodbye, Kearney

1,576 days, nearly half a decade, full of good and bad, my time in Kearney, Nebraska, at last came to an end. Believing this day would come much sooner, I continued to hint at my “leaving soon” for a couple of years to the point most of my friends did not take me seriously this time, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Prior to coming across the position of International Recruitment Specialist at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK), the term Nebraska had never exited my mouth. UNK offered to sponsor me for an H-1B visa during my grace period of Optional Practical Training Program, meaning I would have had to remove myself from the United States otherwise, and subsequently agreed to sponsor me for a green card (minus the medical fees). Although I believed this to be one of the primary reasons God sent me to such a foreign place, especially in the first half, I debated whether or not the green card was worth accepting the way my former boss and the few of his nepotic minions treated me. One time following a phone call with the boss, I became lightheaded in fury, knelt down, punched the floor, and rushed out of my office, impulsively thinking about quitting because I could not find any reason that justified my having to tolerate such disgusting evil. Here, my Christian colleague stopped me, put her hands on my chest and back, and prayed for me, which calmed me down. The adversity continued, but I learned to deal with it more efficiently each day, albeit the long-overdue firing of the boss, who really should have been imprisoned, did make this much easier.

When I initially submitted my resignation letter in June 2019 with the intention of moving on the following month, the new head of the office asked if I could continue to work for UNK remotely half-time until I found a concrete plan for my future. After praying about the matter, I took the offer, planning to explore different parts of the country to see where I would like to live next while working wherever I want; however, I ended up spending most of this golden opportunity still in Kearney, one of the reasons I decided to fully resign so that I feel more desperate and do not have any comfort holding me back. Even while working half-time, my workload remained the same, if not more, and I continued to do three or four colleagues’ jobs on top of my own while they took credit, not to mention I always worked well over my hours.

This pretty much sums up my last 4+ years in Nebraska!

Just this past week, God gave me back-to-back-to-back messages of confirmation and encouragement, which boosted my confidence to move on. The last Sunday of 2019, due to the major snowstorm that had just hit central Nebraska, my regular church closed; I barely made it to the location to find this out the hard way, after which I spotted a different church I had never attended that still held an 11:00 AM service. Here, the pastor emphasized, “God is the God of the promise. He is not the God of your timing,” which echoed in my heart, that God’s Word never fails and He will fulfill what He has promised me not when I want Him to but rather when He wills it. Throughout my time in Kearney, I learned a valuable lesson not to set my own timing, which led me to decide in my head I was leaving soon and sell much of my furniture over a year in advance and live in almost an empty two-bedroom apartment for the remainder. This same Sunday, the Korean church of my mother and father sent another message directly to me using a verse given to me as a child, Genesis 28:15: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Here, the pastor highlighted “wherever you go,” that wherever we decide to go, God will be with us; as he so beautifully expressed, “It is God who is with you and not you who are with God.” Even if Jacob had decided to go elsewhere, God still would have been with Jacob. As the pastor added, we need to move and take that first step for God to work in us; if we stay still and do not take any initiative, God cannot work. Lastly, in my final (24-hour) race of 2019 that carried into the new decade, I finished at 74.2 miles, 119.413 kilometers with which God reminded me He rescues me (119 is Korea’s equivalent of 911) and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). How could I ever doubt God?

This was essentially my office once I began working remotely. I will miss you all too!

As lonely, stressful, and challenging as this journey has been, God continued to provide. Focusing only on the positives, my Father gave me a gift I had been begging Him for since childhood and used me to spread the gospel and even turn one student to Christ, I became a permanent resident as early and smoothly as I did due to the lack of international competition/demand in Nebraska, and I completed forty races that include a 102-miler, a 74.2-miler, a 50-miler, two 50K’s, two marathons, twenty-six half marathons, and seven 10K’s during my time here, which would have been highly unlikely elsewhere. Perhaps most thankfully, I found the perfect church for me, the senior pastor of which started the same Sunday I did and contributed significantly to the strengthening of my faith, and used much of my free time, often hours a day, thoroughly reading and studying the Bible. Towards the conclusion, I made many new faithful Christian friends that made this departure difficult, which I never saw coming. I deeply appreciated most residents here identified with Christianity and I never had to filter my faith to avoid hurting sensitive individuals who do not yet know Jesus.

My training in Kearney is complete. What is next? I do not have my life figured out yet, but I have confidence I am making the right decision to take this leap of faith moving forward, because God will be with me wherever I go.

119.413

To distract myself from the inevitable loneliness of the holidays, I eyed a three-day race in Phoenix, Arizona; nevertheless, I do not participate in a race of this magnitude without God’s clear green light, and after praying about the matter with my faith mentor and mother for a week, we all concluded no, especially with the lingering injury in my right foot. I also came across a 24-hour race, requiring the runner to go around a 1.06-mile loop in either direction however many times he/she can (or wants to) within the time limit, in San Francisco, California, and after praying about this as well, I registered to take on this poetic challenge of finishing the last day of the previous decade and starting the first day of the new decade running at New Year’s One Day. Leading up to the race, I faced a multitude of obstacles—a major snowstorm that made driving out of central Nebraska hazardous, my first flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, being delayed 40 minutes with the layover time already being tight to begin with, and running across the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to barely catch my connecting flight—that I felt simply toeing the line would be a victory in itself.

PC: Foggy Bay Photos

I cannot remember in recent times being this nervous before a running event, dwelling on this insane last-minute decision to run what should be the second-longest race of my life and not entirely understanding the state of my right foot. I atypically thankfully managed sufficient sleep and thus did not question my ability to stay awake all 24 hours. With the foot less than 100%, I could only keep the faith my Father would shield the injury; after the initial minor stinging and my praying over it, the foot no longer posed a risk and lost my attention. I planned to take my first break around what became my second-fastest 50K, of 6:19:15, when I felt the initial sign of fatigue. Whatever prompted this, I began singing worship songs I was listening to out loud, and all of a sudden my strength was renewed, allowing me to carry on thinking I would be a fool to snap this flow now. I took my first sitting break after 40 miles, just over 8:46:00, solely to conserve energy to last the entire race. I continued to converse with God and recite the many biblical verses I do every morning and felt such a physical presence of His being with me and providing for me that I said to myself I would stop complaining about the uncertainly of my future with this God, Who is interested in every minute detail of my life, for me and by my side.

Slightly past 50 miles, personal record of 12:07:35 in the distance, by an hour, I lied down for less than 30 minutes to give my feet well-deserved rest as my external battery charged my Garmin and iPhone. My body temperature predictably rapidly dropped and as I arose my legs started to feel heavier. The biggest struggle revealed itself between here and 100K, another personal best of under 17:30:00, by over 2.5 hours, likely psychological with this being my bare minimum goal. Once I secured that 100K+ buckle, I released pressure and thought more casually, “Now it is just about how much farther I can go than 100K before the end.” My feet and legs continued to lose power and gain pain, thanks majorly to the numerous blisters, and with several hours to go, I could not help but halt after only two loops. When I miscalculated in my head how fast I would have to move to reach 70 loops prior to 24 hours, I desperately sped up without a pause, not knowing I had more time than I thought. Crossing the timing mats for the 69th time, I, already hallucinating, acknowledged most likely this next one would be my last. Towards the end of this final loop, I drastically slowed down to the point of almost dragging myself; although I had roughly 35 minutes to complete another loop, I had no confidence I could sufficiently do this before running out of time; a top female in the 12-hour race missed her final loop completion by eight seconds and consequently the entire loop did not count. I had already exceeded my expectations by a small margin, and I decided to conclude my race and wait for the official closure of the event.

Amazing and inspirational people!

70 laps, 74.2 miles, enough for bronze in my age group of 30-39, I converted this into kilometers for my family and close ones, most of whom more familiar with the metric system, which came to 119.413 kilometers. These wise people commented on the significance of both the numbers 119, Korea’s equivalent of 911 and that God rescued me, and 413, Philippians 4:13 to which I dearly hung on, that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” God not only rescued me here but rather even more so in my drive back following the awards ceremony from San Francisco to San Jose, with there never being a vehicle around each of the countless times I was struck by microsleeps, and past midnight from Omaha back to Kearney, where many lights turned into balloons and cars continued to dance and switch lanes in front of me. God will forever be my 119 and 413, and I thank Him for this entertaining reminder and the wise individuals who helped me interpret this. Thank You, Jesus!

My Garmin was pretty accurate this time.

This wraps up my most-active race year, which included a 74.2-miler, a 50K, a marathon, eight half marathons, and four 10K’s. Happy New Year, everyone!

Yet Again

I opened Thanksgiving 2019, like the last three years, running my fourth consecutive Wild Turkey Chase 13.1 in Pickrell, Nebraska, the familiar flat trail I had already conquered on four separate occasions. I recently reset my frozen Garmin, not knowing this would format all the saved data on the watch, and for the first time maintained the auto-lap to read each of my mile times rather than only the average mile pace of the whole. I decided to use this standard method here but fretted I may not as easily be able to tell my estimate finish time this way. With the temperature hitting just below 30 degrees, my preference, and acknowledging this to be my final half marathon of the year, I set out to run my fourth sub-1:50:00 in the distance, which I have accomplished twice on this course.

I have been reading Deena Kastor’s New York Times Best Seller Let Your Mind Run and consciously applied her motivating tactics and positive attitude to push forward. Rather than solely focusing on my own running, I would pick one runner in front, gradually catch up, and then gently pass without forcing the pace out of my norm, the process I successfully executed several times throughout the race. I found this more thrilling, as running alone does not motivate me as much to pick up the pace. When my earphones ran out of batteries with four miles to go, instead of panicking this could slow me down, I reminded myself, after being grateful this did not happen sooner, most elite long-distance runners do not even listen to music when they run and thought optimistically this may help me concentrate on the rhythm of my breathing and strides, as I counted one-two-three-one-two-three and one-two-three-four-one-two-three-four.

As I thought, because I did not know my overall average mile pace, I could not tell how much faster I had to go to reach my goal and moved forward with every ounce of my remaining energy. Aside from the very first mile of 8:08, I ran my fastest mile of 8:12.3 in the final full mile and most likely secured a negative split in the second half, still not sufficient and crossing the finish line in 1:51:03, third in my age group of 30-34. Everyone has good and bad days, so I remained content simply knowing I could not have done more this particular day. In this period of uncertainty and all that I have been dealing with mentally and emotionally, I, from the start of the run, in my head said, “Running is easy,” as I know clearly the task ahead of me. At least, for the moment, I do not have to stress over my future, perhaps one of the main reasons I so habitually sign up for long-distance races that also happen to play an accurate metaphor for life.

As I prepared to celebrate this holiday alone at Golden Corral again, I checked a text message from a church friend inviting me to join her family, which I strangely predicted beforehand. I told the family she saved me from being “emo” again. Happy Thanksgiving!

Finding Contentment

Eager to take advantage of the cooling weather to set personally fast times in one or two additional half marathons prior to the conclusion of 2019, I registered for the Longview Half Marathon, taking place in Grandview, Missouri, on November 9, 2019. I never enjoy driving this far, nearly six hours both ways, for just a 13.1-mile run, but I used this being my first running event in Missouri as a motivator.

PC: KC Running Company

I cannot remember the last time I managed sufficient sleep before a race, so doing so this time felt almost foreign. Confident off my recent Chicago Marathon, I shot for my fourth sub-1:50:00 and even a personal record in the half marathon, especially reading and hearing from many the course is expected to be flat. Nevertheless, around four miles in and already encountering repeated semi-steep rolling hills, I knew hitting a personal best would be verging on impossible and shifted my focus towards staying ahead of the 1:50 pacers. Once I saw the front 1:50 pacer in sight not even halfway through, I realized even this secondary goal would be a major challenge and only thought about pushing my hardest and trying not to slow down too drastically.

Final sprint! PC: KC Running Company

With a quarter of a mile to go, I sprinted like a maniac to the finish, passing numerous runners, including those participating in the 10K and 5K, on the way, which made me wonder if I inadvertently approached the race conservatively to have this much energy remaining and could have gone slightly faster. I even asked myself, particularly in the middle of the race, whether my losing weight would benefit me by giving me less to carry or sap my strength and endurance. Although I did not achieve either of my time goals, I did manage to run my fourth-fastest half marathon, in 1:51:40.9. I find contentment in knowing I gave my all and that my three quicker times came from easier courses. Thank You, Jesus!

Chicago, First Major

Joan Benoit Samuelson!

Ready to enter my name into the lottery for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon 2019, taking place on October 13, I remember praying to God to only allow my entry to be accepted if I could actually participate. I more often than not sign up for races at the last minute, lacking confidence my schedule will not change; thus, being admitted almost a year prior to my first Abbott World Marathon Major slightly concerned me, especially as I predicted I would be out of Kearney, Nebraska, and have begun a new job by then.

Deena Kastor!

Running the marathon feels like just another day at the office at this point, and I remained more anxious about learning how to get around the city of Chicago, specifically from my Airbnb to Grant Park, where the race commenced. The Expo in McCormick Place with its immensity seemed more like a major business conference, and I spent six hours here the day before my run, making the most of all the perks and even meeting two of the greatest American female marathoners of all time, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Deena Kastor. As Joan kindly signed for me, she asked how many marathons I have completed, and I replied, “I have run five ultras, and this is my fourth marathon.” She continued, “You are serious,” and I felt shy and out of place in the presence of this humble legend. I also asked Deena after her guest-speaker appearance, “What is your main source of motivation?” to which she answered, “Being a role model and a good mother.” I could have been more nervous if I had read more thoroughly through just how much these two women have accomplished in the sport of marathon.

Pre-race!

Walking far more extensively than I planned the final two days leading up to Chicago, I worried this may hurt my performance. Following twenty minutes of sleep, I rode Uber and then the subway to pick up my professional-runner friend, who ended up finishing in 2:16:29 and 31st male overall, from his hotel and walk to the event location together. I had never walked so far to reach the starting line, which seemed to be at least half a mile away from where my corral, G, assembled. The initial lengthy tunnel lost my Garmin satellite, which utterly messed up my GPS. Another tunnel or two later hindered satellite progress as well, but I reminded myself GPS does not mean much anyway. Intentionally or unintentionally, one fit blonde woman and I continued to run in proximity from around mile 4 to mile 15; she would be in front and then pop back up from behind, I would pass her and she would pass me, and later I just smiled each time we ran almost shoulder to shoulder. I half-jokingly blame her for my overpacing the first half, crossing the 13.1-mile timing mat in 1:57:46, but based on how strong I felt I thought I possibly could break four hours, my primary ambitious goal. Unsurprisingly, however, I hit the first wall around mile 16, but I repeated to myself, “This will not always get worse,” as ultrarunning legend David Horton would say, and carried on. I recovered for a moment, but with seven or eight miles to go, I really bonked and drastically slowed down, and I battled constantly with my mind, “Should I walk a little?” but each time I thought of what would make me happy after, this time eating Korean food, and persevered. The effect of my lack of sleep rapidly revealed itself, as I almost felt like I was sleep-running. Furthermore, I must have passed, squeezing through and running around, at least a thousand runners and not many runners passed me the first fifteen miles, which could have contributed to my loss of energy. Slightly past 21 miles, I pulled out my last of three Honey Stinger gels in my right pocket just to accidentally drop it, and I, beyond frustrated, decided to move forward without pausing, mainly due to the muscle tension in my neck that would have given me pain had I crouched down.

I, by the grace of God, overcame these obstacles and succeeded in never walking throughout the entire 26.2 miles, crossing the finish line in 4:19:20. As I walked another half a mile to leave the finish area, I did not feel content, as I believed wholeheartedly I could have performed better; nevertheless, this substantial personal record in the marathon showed me how far I have come since my first 26.2 five-and-a-half years ago in Atlanta, Georgia.

From start to finish, the crowd and performers filled the streets with positive energy and entertaining signs, and this truly means a great deal to runners. Meeting numerous individuals with the same passion from all over the world brought out the motormouth social butterfly in me, and I miss that atmosphere. Ultimately, I hope to finish all six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, leaving Boston, New York City, Berlin, Tokyo, and London on the list of marathons I need to pursue. Finding a way into these Majors feels more challenging than running the marathons themselves, as I have already been denied by New York City and London, but I will figure out a way. Thank You, Jesus!

Rolling

As close to Kansas as it gets from Kearney, Nebraska, and with the start and finish at different points, which I prefer to out and back, the Race to the Center Half Marathon that kicks off in Smith Center and concludes in Lebanon seemed too ideal to pass up, although only a week after my most-recent half marathon in Marysville, also in Kansas. Living up to its name, this event would take the runners (and cyclists) to the geographic center of the contiguous United States, even more appealing. Beginning by a cemetery felt spooky, but, as a few participants said, “It is better to start here than end here.” Valid point.

These ladies are amazing!

The rugged course for the most part repeated steep ups and downs with hardly any flat to give my body a chance to recompose, contrary to what I had imagined, to be mostly flat, based on the couple of videos I watched on the race website. Just like last Saturday, I participated mainly to use this as part of training for the Chicago Marathon less than a month away. I did not intend to push my body to the limit to achieve a particular time to avoid risking any unnecessary injuries; thus, even though I barely missed coming under two hours on this unrelenting trail, finishing in 2:01:09, I was not too disappointed, and how strong I felt on these ceaseless rolling hills actually boosted my confidence slightly, especially as I predict the weather and the energy from the mammoth crowd and environment then will give me many intangible advantages. More than anything, my right foot still feeling sturdy even after these two 13.1-milers in a week reassures me my body will be ready to go on October 13, 2019.