47min 47sec – the clock by the side of the road read as I ran past the 15km mark of the 2019 Aramco Houston Half Marathon. I tried to do the math in my head to see if I could get under the 67:00 barrier, realising that I had to run the last 6.1km in 19:12 or faster. I tried to break it down further into pace per km, but that’s where the math got too hard to handle, and a headwind started hitting us in the face. I felt the pace of my pack of about 8 runners slow, and made a little push to get to the front, yelling “come on! Let’s keep it moving!”
It worked for a while, with 2 American guys in white tops making the push with me, but they too faded quickly after – a common occurrence for any runner in the closing stages of any distance race. In a minute, I had gone from the security of a pack of 8 runners to running all by myself. If I wanted to break my personal best (67:21), the Singapore record (67:08) and the 67:00 barrier today, I would have take my race by the scruff of the neck and make it happen myself.
-------------------------------------------- 1,211 days ago --------------------------------------
“1:07:21” the clock read as I crossed the finish line at the 2015 Rock N’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon. I was delighted with that performance – and there was no reason not to be. I felt like a million bucks that last 5km, ripping a 15:37 split from 16km to 21km. I beat then national record holder Mok Ying Ren by 61 seconds that day, and went under his 1:07:29 record by 8 seconds, becoming the new national record holder at the half marathon. I crossed the line feeling good and thinking that I could go even faster. I guess that on our best days, we feel so good, that we all think “I could have gone faster”.
Little did I know that it would be 1,211 days until I improved on that mark.
Even while running that 1:07:21 national record, I had been dealing with early signs of plantar fasciitis (PF) in my left foot. Never having had PF before, I completely ignored the signs, doing nothing with regards to rehab or prehab that I currently do to manage PF symptoms. After San Jose 2015, that annoying pain in my left foot came and went, came and went, until one day after a hard 60min cutdown tempo, the dull throb exploded into a shooting star of pain when I woke up from a nap. That PF problem would bother me for months, forcing me to drop out of the 2015 Fukuoka Marathon, then finally popping and sustaining a partial tear at the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff, Wales.
Through that whole injury process, I managed to also get the unfavourable honour of being probably the shortest lived Singapore half marathon national record holder ever, with Mok Ying Ren running 1:07:08 at the Rock N’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon to reclaim the national record, breaking my mark by 13 seconds.
While many took the chance to spice up the rivalry between us and ask when I was shooting to break his 1:07:08 in return, I focused simply on getting better myself. To me, I always believed I was capable of being the first Singaporean to run below 1:07:00 if I got into the right race, fit and healthy. My next goal was always going to be 1:06:59, not 1:07:07. I believed that a new personal best, a national record, and a sub-67:00 clocking would all come in the same race when I got fit and got into a race with good racing conditions – weather, route and competition wise.
I've been hunting this breakthrough performance for 3 years but have had bad weather (heavy rain, strong winds, sometimes even snow) in every single serious attempt at the 21.1km distance:
1) Cardiff '16 (1:07:56; epic storm, tore my left plantar fascia at 5km)
2) Marugame '17 (1:07:53; Fitness not the best, rain and wind)
3) Hamburg '17 (1:07:44; Very fit, but faced rain and strong wind – faded bad in the last 5km)
4) Marugame '18 (1:08:38; Extreme wind and snow - the worst)
5) Valencia World Champs '18 (1:08:28; Light rain and strong winds)
After a good month of shorter track workouts in November (example: 8 x 1km in 2:59 – 3:04, 72s rest), followed by a month of longer runs and workouts (examples: 15 x 1km target 3:13, 60s rest. 42.2km long run effort in 2:41 to win Singapore Marathon National Championships, in high heat and humidity.) I felt ready to give the half marathon another shot, and made the decision to race in the 2019 Aramco Houston Half Marathon on January 2019. Despite my late entry I was kindly offered a spot by the Houston Marathon race organisers in the American Development Program corral, which meant I would get to start in the corral just behind the elite athletes (about 5 seconds behind the start line). Knowing Houston’s reputation of having a flat course that serves as host to many fast performances when the weather cooperates, I was excited to give it a good go in Houston.
Then, I was struck down with symptoms of appendicitis at what seemed like the worst possible time, on January 8, 2 days before I was due to fly to the USA for a work trip in San Francisco. This infection could probably be traced to my insufficient sleep in striking a balance between a full-time 9am-6pm job, an increasingly hard and heavy training load (topping out at 161km/week in December), and life (I stayed out pretty late playing beer pong at a New Year’s Eve party courtesy of my buddy Colin). The lack of rest could have negatively impacted my immune system to the point that my appendix got infected.
Severe stomach cramps and spasms plagued me incessantly, and I was unable to run for my last 2 days in Singapore leading up to the trip, and was also unable to get any training in the 4 days of work in San Fran. On the bright side, the condition seemed to be improving every day, so if it was indeed a case of appendicitis, it was thankfully not one that was severe enough to require operation – it seemed to be healing slowly on its own accord.
I got to Flagstaff after my work trip in San Fran and was able to start jogging again, but was no longer sure if racing was such a good idea. However, with the flights to Houston and Airbnb already booked, I decided I really had nothing to lose by going in apart from my own pride if the race didn’t go well. I wasn’t going to allow my pride to be a reason for not giving myself a shot in Houston – at most, I was rusty, and the race wouldn’t go as well, but it would still be a good workout and a shock to the system which I needed after a long layoff.
I managed a grand total of 1 workout in the last 13 days leading up to Houston – a 3 mile (4.8km) tempo run on Thursday at 7000ft altitude where I started slow, progressed faster and faster, and averaged 3:24/km. It was nowhere near the 3:10/km pace I required to break 67:00 in the half marathon, but the important thing was that I finally felt good enough to run again and I felt smooth in the workout even though it was my first one at altitude. I took it as a positive, put aside all my fears and doubts, and went into Houston with a positive, focused mindset of simply running the best I could, focusing on the process of being positive, executing smart, and staying relaxed for as long as possible. The result would take care of itself.
Race day was Sunday, 20 January 2019.
I didn’t get elite athlete entry into the Houston Half Marathon, which meant that I had to jog over from my Airbnb for my warmup and squeeze with everyone else to the start of the race. This ended up kind of working out, though, because it was zero degrees Celcius at the start of the race and it was COLD. Squeezing through the masses to the start kept me warm while waiting for the race to start.
The only downside was that we started about 5 seconds behind the elite athletes, which meant that I spent the first kilometre or so zigzagging around elites running at a slower pace just to find a pack I could run with. I found my friend Aliphine of Northern Arizona Elite, ran up to her at 2km and made sure she knew I was there, and once we linked up we could both relax in familiar company. The first 2km were run in 3:16 and 3:17, but that soon changed when we got sucked into the 67:30 pace group which seemed to have gone off to a slow start. I think the Kenyan pacemaker Kipkoech Kirui noticed that and started racheting up the pace, running 3:12 for the third kilometre.
Coach Ben was standing at 3km and yelled for Alipine to stick to her plan of 5:15/mile (3:18-3:19/km). I felt ok at my pace though so continued just staying relaxed and tucking into the pack. Kilometres 4-10 were crossed in 3:12, 3:03, 3:06, 3:08, 3:09, 3:06, 3:07. After a slow start, we had really got rolling, partly due to Emily Sisson being in fantastic shape and pushing to go after Molly Huddle’s women’s American record of 67:25.
My split at 10km was 31:44. I have only ever run faster than that in a 10km race once in my life, and that was when I set the national record of 31:15 on the track in 2014. My legs felt good, and I was starting to believe that the 6 days off from running the week before was a blessing in disguise. I felt fresh and felt like my legs could keep going at the pace they were locked into – national record pace.
Our pack held the pace at 3:10, 3:10, 3:07 for kilometres 11, 12, and 13, before running into the strong headwind that had been forecasted and had everyone worried before the race. Kilometres 14 and 15 were significantly slower, 3:16 and 3:13. While we had banked lots of time with that blazing fast section from kilometres 5-10, I knew I couldn’t afford to keep bleeding time if I wanted that sub-67:00.
I was starting to get tired at kilometre 15. Everyone does. But I was on a strong pace, had conserved enough energy, and was motivated to make one last push for the 67:00 barrier. I broke free from my pack and started hunting down the guys in front of us. I began to pass guys one by one, and for each one I passed, I had to fight the urge to take the easy option of tucking in behind them, for they were slowing down - I had to fly by every competitor I could catch and to use each one I passed as fuel for my fire.
My strategy of forcing the pace worked – for kilometres 16-18, I ran 3:11, 3:08, and 3:03 to put myself within striking distance of the 67:00 barrier. I just had to hold on. It was around this point that I caught up to Jack Keelan of Illinois, who was running at a strong tempo and passing lots of guys as well. He responded when I caught up to him, pushing his pace even harder, and that made it perfect for me. I could stop worrying about time – as long as I raced Jack hard, we would both run faster and faster towards the end. The time would take care of itself.
I enjoyed the back and forth battle with Jack – first I followed in his slipstream, then attacked when I sensed the pace slowing. He would respond and not allow me to gain an inch on him, and I would fight back. We ended up passing numerous other runners, including 2:10 marathoner Luke Puskedra of the Oregon Track Club, in the last 3km, splitting 3:05, 3:10 and 3:01 for kilometres 19, 20 and 21, before a mad last 100m dash for the finish line. It was by far the fastest finish I’d ever pulled off in a half marathon, and I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked up at the clock at the end – 1:06:46! A massive 35 seconds off my personal best, taking a chunk of 22 seconds off Mok Ying Ren’s national record, and demolishing the 67:00 barrier by 14 seconds.
It took 1,211 days to improve on my old personal best, set on a sunny day in San Jose in 2015. Those days were filled with injuries, difficult race weather, frustration, most recently a bad illness just before Houston and doubt if I’d ever get the opportunity to run the half marathon performance I knew I was capable of. 1,211 days is a long wait, but in 1hr 6min 46sec in Houston, the 3.5 year long journey of trials and tribulations rewarded my stubborn perseverance with a fairy-tale ending.
Keep trying, keep showing up!