My Personal Journey: How I Became a Runner

varsity girls

Sit down and make yourself cozy, as we rewind back through the years…

The Childhood

I first discovered my talent as a kid in elementary school. Remember back in 5th grade, there was a mile time trial at school? Everyone had to race a mile (3 laps around the block) and get timed for it to pass the fitness test. I toed the line with all my classmates, ran as fast as I could, and realized that not only was I the fastest girl, but I also beat most of the boys. Wow, I was surprised and it felt great! :)

In middle school, we had 3 sports teams: 1) basketball 2) volleyball and 3) track and field. Striving to do all the things, I of course signed up for all 3 sports, but my heart was really looking forward to spring each year, when track and field was in session. It was my time to shine. I loved the 400 meter race, which was 1 lap around the track and I loved the 4x400m relay, a relay race where 4 runners each run 1 lap around the track.

Fun fact: my sister (who is 3 years older than me) is the one who first introduced me to the term “track and field.” She told me she was going to join and that you run on a track. I was shocked! Who would want to run on railroad tracks?! thought 8-year-old Anna. It took me a while to realize what she meant…

In high school, I joined the cross country team as well as track and field. Since cross country was in the fall, and track and field was in the spring, I could now run year-round! I grew very close to some of my teammates and still look fondly to those adventures and experiences. It was then when I had my first real taste of victory, it was then that I understood what it meant to put in hard work and see the results. As a freshman, I won All City, beating out the upperclassmen and setting a new precedent. No freshman had won All City Cross Country finals in San Francisco before. I really enjoyed running and the connections I made through it.

As a senior getting ready to apply to college, I faced a difficult question: Did I want to pursue running as a collegiate athlete? Now, a little background on myself – I grew up with a traditional Chinese upbringing. My conservative parents taught me to go the practical route and value security and stability over “chasing your dreams.” So when I thought about this, I reasoned that no, I wasn’t going to become a professional runner, so it didn’t make sense to pursue that route. Instead, it was time to buckle down and do well in college so that I could get a nice job afterwards and work my way up.

From time to time, I would find myself wandering down to the track field and watch the track meets held at UCLA. I would fantasize about how different my life would look, how different I would be, if I had just said yes years earlier, and had tried to get recruited by a collegiate cross country coach. I would flirt with the idea of marching down to the Athletics office and see if I could join the team as a walk-on. But every time, I would quiet those dreams, tell myself it’s silly, and return to my normal life. It was an idea that stayed with me all throughout my years at UCLA, but I never once acted upon.

SF Marathon 2013

The Marathon

After college, with my shiny, new Business-Economics degree and full-time job that I worked hard for, I found myself with loads of free time. I had moved back home with my parents after graduation (living on my own in San Francisco with my-then salary? No way). Since I no longer had to study for exams or work on team projects, after work, I had all this time on my hands. My sister (always my role model) was starting to run half and full marathons with her friends, and my dad and I liked to cheer her on with our handmade posters.

Jumping up and down, yelling at the top of my lungs, and watching all those runners brought a wave of sweet nostalgia over me. I was taken back to my high school days of racing competitively. I thought to myself, well, I used to be a runner. It’s on my bucket list to run a marathon at some point in my life. And so, I convinced myself I would give it a try. I looked up different races in San Francisco, and registered for the SF Marathon (half) and the Nike Women’s Marathon (full) in 2011. I was set!

I don’t remember much from my training in those days. I definitely did not know how to train for a marathon, how to build mileage, how to prevent injuries, or anything related to proper training or preparation! All I knew was that I lived close to the beach and Golden Gate Park, and both made excellent running routes and running companions :D

I completed my first half marathon (which was uneventful) and as I was gearing for the Nike Women’s Marathon, I got injured along the way. My goal was simply to finish. When I crossed the finish line (at 3:37:09), I ran into my friend Ben, a friend from high school I hadn’t seen in years. He asked if I BQ’d. I was like, WHAT? I had never even heard of the Boston Marathon before. Ben explained that it was like a victory lap for all qualifiers and that he regretted not registering for it when he qualified a few years ago. Well, after hearing that and learning that I was only off by a few minutes, of course I made it my next goal to qualify. We made a pact to each try to qualify and then run the Boston Marathon in 2013.

In 2012, I ran the SF Marathon again (this time, the 1st half) and the Santa Rosa Marathon. With the completion of my 2nd marathon, I was in! I now had my elusive BQ. Ben had also qualified, but ended up getting injured, so I was on my way to Boston in 2013 by myself. As part of my training, I ran a half marathon in Fremont called the Bay Breeze. Looking for a ride to and from Fremont, I ended up carpooling with Charles, an old friend from middle school. And just like that, I had a running buddy. It ignited my passion for marathons like no other.

Charles lived, breathed, and devoured long distance running. He taught me so much when it came to what shoes to wear, what new routes to explore, and what equipment to use for stretching and recovery. We were a dynamic duo, running together most Saturdays at 7:30am. We helped each other so much during that time, him teaching me all the do’s and don’ts of running, and me providing him with a running buddy that matched his running level and encouraging him to race less frequently, but to focus more for each race.

With Charles’ help, I reached new heights I didn’t even think was possible. I was the 3rd woman to cross the finish line at the SF Marathon 2013 with a time of 2:59:00. I was consistently churning out personal bests with each race and feeling stronger and faster than ever.

marathon finish line

The Idea

Charles was also the one who planted The Idea in my head. One day, he mentioned that I should try to qualify for the Olympic marathon trials. I was like, WHAT?! No way! I could never do it.

He said, yes you can.

I thought about it some more. And with that, I was never the same. Once it entered my head, this idea always resurfaced when everything else was quiet. The idea that I could never push away, although I don’t think I ever truly tried.

Ben reached back out again and offered to coach me. I remember his words so clearly, “I will do this only if you promise to be committed. I don’t want to waste my time.” And together, we came up with a plan for Boston 2014.

At this time, I was living in the outer sunset, and it took me over an hour to commute to and from work. To make time for training, I woke up daily at 4:30am to squeeze in my mileage before work. I remember thinking to myself how crazy I must be to do this, but I would remember Ben’s words and my promise to myself, and that kept me going day after day, week after week.

On April 21, 2014, I ran my best marathon in Boston, clocking in at 2:55:40. It was unbelievable. I followed Ben’s training and trusted him, and the results proved it. I was ecstatic and ready for more.

The Injuries

However, my body had a different plan. In my intense training for Boston, I developed plantar fasciitis. After the race, I could barely walk without pain shooting through my right heel. I reassured myself that it was no big deal, and I would take a month-long break to recover. Soon, a month stretched into 2, which stretched into a year, and finally 1 year and a half. That time was really hard on me. I had wrapped my identity around being a runner, and to take such a long break from it, I felt lost. It was a period of frustration where I tried lots of remedies from drinking cherry extract to rolling my heel on a golf ball, to wearing a boot to sleep, and yes, even voodoo floss. Yeah, I was desperate!

In May 2015, I spent 3 weeks in Europe, not giving a single worry about my plantar fasciitis. I of course, ate and drank all the things in Europe, so when I returned, I gave a hopeful glance at my running shoes and decided to lace them back on. I went on a slow and easy 2 mile run. Not bad. 2 days later, I went for another easy 2 miler. Again, no pain. I slowly worked my way back up and realized that my pain had gone away after my Eurotrip. Go figure. I was back in action!

I ran the Giant Race Half Marathon and the Chicago marathon in 2016. They were respectable performances, but I was focused on other priorities and didn’t give them my best shot. In January 2017, as I was running along Crissy Field in the marina, I felt a sharp pain shoot up my right hip. Ouch!! This led to another period of on-and-off pain, frustration, and feeling lost.

In March 2018, I finally revisited my physical therapist from 2014 (who helped me when I had plantar fasciitis). He gave me stretching and strengthening exercises and brought me back to good health. It was a miracle.

Chicago marathon

The Present

Today, I am much older and wiser than the 25-year-old Anna who didn’t think much about training properly, eating right, or preventing injuries. Now I have a deeper appreciation for when my body is able to run without pain. I’m much more mindful about how I fuel my body, and how I take care of it. I believe my best running years are still ahead of me, and I’m very excited to see how far I can go.

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