Firmware Engineer, Minimalist, Improving Runner

A Look Back On My Best Year Of Running Ever, And How I Managed To Do It

Local track near my house, where gains are made

Happy New Year! It's that time of year when we start afresh with a blank state, full of hope and possibility for things to come.

I always enjoy this season, mainly for the chance to reflect on the year behind me. To see how I grew, what I learned. To cultivate gratitude. To realign new goals with my values and priorities. And best of all, to celebrate accomplishments! Life isn't worth it if you don't stop to smell the roses along the way.

So here's a look back on my best year of running ever, and how I managed to do it.

Background

I started running in 2012. I'm not a natural runner, and am by no means fast. I run simply because I enjoy it. After climbing the race distance ladder, I topped off at a couple marathons and even added an ultra-marathon to my belt.

Looking for a change, I decided to try my hand (or legs I should say) at some shorter distances. After two unsuccessful attempts to go sub-20 in the 5k, I put that milestone on hold for 2017.

Thus, my only two goals last year were:

  1. Break 20:00 in the 5k
  2. Finish another ultra-marathon

Below were my previous race PRs heading in:

  • Mile - 5:42
  • 5k - 20:15, 20:18
  • 10k - 1:10:54, 47:14, 42:59
  • Half Marathon - 1:47
  • Full Marathon - 4:05, 3:55, 3:45
  • 50k - 6:58

March: Lucky Laces 5k

It was a frigid January and February in Colorado. I'm pretty wimpy when it comes to handling weather, and only managed ~20 miles/week. Each weekend, I'd look out the window and tell myself, it's not optimal race conditions yet. And promptly slip back into bed.

March rolled around, and I was eager to see what I was capable of. How much fitness had I lost over winter? Would 21:00 even be possible?

I set my eyes on the Lucky Laces 5k in City Park. A fun and inexpensive race which included unlimited sandwiches and green beer.

There were NO expectations going into the race. Simply a litmus test to see what shape I was in. It was a gorgeous morning. I remember feeling nervous, but excited. Happy and glad for life.

I won't lie, it was pretty painful. I even threw up after crossing the finish. But I had the biggest smile on while dispelling my stomach juices, for I had done the unthinkable - 19:46!

How was I able to shave 30 secounds off my 5k on minimal training? I've thought about it and my theory is - I visualized my goal. Every detail. Every day.

I was obsessed with 20:00. For 3 months, I imagined how it would feel seeing 19:XX near the finish. I imagined what the second half of the race would feel like. How much my body would burn in that last 800m.

After a while, you get use to the experience. And your body doesn't panic when it happens race day. It may not amount to much, but every bit helps in a race.

May: Bolder Boulder 10k

I hadn't planned on running Bolder Boulder. I've done it twice before, and it was crowded and a bit over-hyped each time. But 3 unexpected factors pushed me to sign up:

  1. I won a free race entry through my work
  2. My sister (who despises running) and a bunch of other friends were participating
  3. I qualified for the AA wave based on my latest 5k, making the crowds more manageable

Unlike previous 10ks, I trained properly for the race. I googled a 10k plan and knocked out some tough workouts. Stuff I've never done before, like 10 x 1k and 3 x 2mi. There were times I didn't think I could take another step, not to mention finish another interval. But c'est la vie.

One pleasant surprise was, while warming up for the race, I glimpsed Emma Coburn giving an interview at the start. When she finished, I told her what an awesome job she did in the Olympics and how inspiring it was. Then I asked her for a high-five (of all things). It was a good one, and pumped me up.

For some reason, I didn't look at my watch or check my splits. I just took in the energy around me and ran with my heart, unsure of how fast or slow I was going.

As I crossed the finish, I made my way to the nearest trash can. Where two others and I took turns dry-heaving. Only after I finished, did I dare look down to check my time - 39:59:09.

I don't even know how.

A neat thing about the Bolder Boulder is if you go sub-40, they give you a commemorative t-shirt for the feat. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I'd own one. It's one of my most cherished possessions.

People have asked if I planned my pace or had this goal in mind. No, I answer. Truthfully, something changed inside of me after going sub-20. Like the limits I had set for myself and what I thought was possible had been a mirage.

Each workout I nailed gave me more confidence in my abilities. Each barrier I broke had me questioning the next one. Don't let fear prevent you from reaching your potential.

June: North Fork 50k

With my entire focus on the Bolder Boulder, I sort of forgot about the 50k. I didn't hit the trails once. I rarely went long. And my elevation gain to date was absurdly pitiful.

Oh well. Let's just have some fun and enjoy the day, I told myself.

The course was gorgeous, with sweeping mountain and forest views. The trails were fast and smooth. There were miles and miles of orgasmic single-track as far as the eye could see.

Like a kid in a play pen, Strawberry Fields, Mile 30

The race was a blast. I remember reaching out to talk with anyone around me. Whooping and hollering each time I entered an aid station. Feeling giddy (and a bit delirious) the longer the race went on.

At one of the aid stations, I came in and said, "Hello! Could I get 3 coconut waters, 4 salt tabs, and 3 GUs? Oh and a couple Coke-Backs if you can, thanks" - wait, where did I think I was, a night club in Vegas ordering a round of drinks?

At mile 30, I laid out a 7:17 mile. I remember looking down at my legs thinking, how is this even possible right now.

After 32.2 miles and 4800 ft of gain, I finished in - 5:22:27 - good enough for 15th overall on a historically fast course!

June: Be A Tool 5k

I'm a sucker for good deals. And free stuff. Which makes this race coincidental, since I only heard about it because I traded my email for a free t-shirt at an expo.

When I saw the race was only $20, and included UNLIMITED pancakes, bacon, bagels, and yogurt.. Well, it was a transgression to turn that down.

The race's inaugural event was quite small, maybe 120-130 people. Which was fine because it only meant more pancakes for me.

I lined up in front. When the gun went off, I was right on the bike pacer. You know how you turn on the TV and see elite marathoners and cyclists follow flashing motorcycle or car pacers? Well, that was me! It's quite surreal. I probably grinned the entire first mile at how cool it was.

When no one had passed me by the halfway point, a seed began to take place in my mind. Could I actually win this race? I took a quick look and behind me, only 3-4 seconds back, was Lenny Archuleta, a local speed running legend.

Oh crap.

I couldn't give him an opening or any hope. I made my move at the playground slides, and didn't look back the rest of the way. Just follow the bike, and don't throw up.

I collapsed across the finish in an unthinkable - 18:48 - to drop a full minute in only 3 months was unfathomable.

Sub-19. Be A Tool's Overall Winner!

As I inch farther from my mid-30s, I realize the chance of this ever happening again as "slim to none". But at least for one time in my adult life, I could claim I was the overall winner of a race.

Much of running success comes from how much work you put in. But people often forget that running is a mental activity as much as it's a physical one. In every race, each person will eventually have to answer the question: How bad do I want it? You can usually tell who wanted it most in the end.

July: Longmont Half Marathon

I still hadn't digested all that had happened the past couple of months. But when life hands you quad Aces, you go all-in. So I set my sights on a new distance, the half-marathon, as my next challenge.

I hadn't run one in 4 years. Do I stop for water? Do I need to GU? How do I even calculate half-marathon pace? Given that my last half was 1:47, I figured 1:40 or even 1:38 was good to shoot for.

I went out with a similarly paced group early, at around 85% capacity. The course was an out-and-back and, as a mental game, I counted how many people ran past the other direction until I hit the mid-point. I was 14th!

Feeling fresh, I shifted gears and began picking people off. I crushed the last 4 miles and finished in - 1:32 - placing 9th overall and 2nd in my age group.

Me accepting a 2nd place age group commemorative glass cup award

In hindsight, I could've pushed the early miles harder. But I was very happy with my effort. A good learning experience for next time! On a side note, drinking beer from a glass cup award tastes 3x better, heh.

August: Ragnar Relay Colorado

The races finally caught up with me. I was tired and ready to shut it down for the year. Just fun runs from here on out.

Fortunately, a good o' 200 mile relay with some AMAZING people was just what I needed. I've never had so much fun, crammed in a SUV with 5 crazy others, eating clif bars, running in the dark, with no sleep. It was wickedly fun.

Most of the team had never run more than 3-5 miles. Some didn't even know what they had signed up for. But everyone ran their butts off. I've done Ragnars in the past and this team was truly special.

I knew our team was strong going in. But we smashed my expectations. We finished in a shocking - 31:00:56 - 14th out of 52 in our division. 50th out of 172 overall. I was so proud of everyone.

It was an unforgettable experience with an unforgettable group of people. And a good reminder that running isn't just about paces or medals or PRs, but also a healthy life activity we can share with others.

November: Longmont Turkey Trot 2 Mile

Every year, my company sponsors us for the local Turkey Trot in Longmont. It's probably the fastest, non-championship race I've participated in.

The 10k winners are usually in the low 30s.. which is nuts considering the altitude. Add in elite cross country teams from Boulder, Longmont, and Niwot and you have one fast field.

Looking to try something new, I forewent the 10k and elected to try the 2 mile, my first at that distance. My secret goal was 12:00. I hadn't the slightest idea of the pain that would entail..

My splits were 5:55 and 5:48. Yes, I dry-heaved afterwards. But I had done it - 11:43 - 1st place in my division!

It was the first time I received a monetary award for a race. This experience also gave me huge respect for shorter distances. People ooh and ahh at big distance races. But I'd take a fast 5k over a marathon finish any day.

November: Pumpkin Pie 5k

My family and friends continued our yearly tradition by signing up for the Pumpkin Pie 5k. It's a fun event to hang out, get some exercise, and eat pie. What better way to get ready for Thanksgiving!

It was a bit cold, around 23 degrees when we got there. But when the sun came out and it was time to race, I knew I made the right decision to stick with a singlet and shorts.

I hadn't planned on pushing myself hard. I remember feeling in control and relaxed during the race. Kind of like a hard tempo during training.

Hence, I was pleasantly surprised when I crossed in - 18:50 - cashing in on a $20 gift card for 1st place in my division. As exciting as the award was, what I'll ultimately treasure are the laughs, encouragement, and great moments shared with everyone.

December: Santa Mile

Some time ago, I saw a picture where hundreds of Santas lined up for a race. It was glorious. I've wanted to do one every since.

Unfortunately, these races aren't very common and I grew weary of waiting for one. Wait, why couldn't I organize my own Santa run? It'd also be a fun way to spread holiday cheer.

The number of car honks, smiles, and compliments I received on the way to the track were overwhelming. People were ready for Santa!

Check out the outcome below. It was the perfect ending to an incredible year.

Filmed and produced by Dai-Long

Run Without Limits

In just a year, I crushed my personal bests in ALL categories. My training paces have dropped tremendously. And I have the confidence to go faster than I previously thought possible.

It's hard to pinpoint how I got to this point. But if I had to say, I'd attribute it to these factors:

  1. There is no instant gratification - There's no faking fitness in long-distance running. You have to put in the miles. You have to work, sweat, and fight for it every day.

  2. Running is FUN - First graders don't count their steps, or weekly mileage, or know their 10k pace. They run to feel free, to be outside. For the thrill and excitement it brings. Can you make it to the top of the hill? What's down this street? Be a kid once in a while!

  3. Consistency - It's the single most important thing that leads to success. Want to run faster? Just make it a habit and run more. It's really that simple. If you focus on improving 1% every day, I promise you'll be surprised with what you can accomplish.

  4. Run without limits - Take a leap of faith once in a while. Take a chance on something scary. And believe in yourself. If I can do it, you can too.

Here's to another sweat-soaked, lactate-burning, lung-gasping year - cheers!