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Runner stories

Going for personal records? Look to these runners for inspiration

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Every runner has a reason, and no matter what that reason, the sport will transform them. This can be especially true when going after personal records, whether in races, in training distances, or on the track. Maybe it's to snag a coveted Boston Marathon qualifying time or simply to run around the block for the first time. Whatever the case, chasing a personal record not only checks a box but can transform a runner on a deeper, more individual level.

For years, running served a sole purpose for 33-year-old Molly Gutt, an insurance professional from Scottsdale, Arizona — and it wasn't to set a personal record. A competitor in the martial art of Muay Thai, Gutt regularly turned to the treadmill to cut weight and get into fighting shape. She dreaded those runs, viewing them as a means to an end. Until, that is, the day she met a fellow fighter who showed her a better way.

From then on, I took my runs outside. It became a lifestyle, not an association with losing weight or being in 'fight shape.' Today I use running for physical and mental health."

Gutt's new friend competed in more than Muay Thai, it turns out. She was also an ultrarunner and competitive triathlete. "I was so intrigued," admits Gutt. "Almost every runner I had met to that point hated running, like me. After talking with her, however, we made plans to meet up and run a local 10k."

The race served as Gutt's first time running outside. "Let's just say I wasn't optimistic about the race, but I was excited to try because it was a race setting and would probably be more exciting than the treadmill," says Gutt. It turned out to be more than just 6.2 miles — it was Gutt's moment of transformation with running, turning it into a passion that has opened up an entire world for her.

Runner with palm trees in the background

Photo: Molly Gutt

As her competitive nature kicked in, Gutt surprised herself by breaking an hour in the race. She was also surprised by what became a transformative moment in her life: She was hooked on running. "From then on, I took my runs outside," she says. "It became a lifestyle, not an association with losing weight or being in 'fight shape.' Today I use running for physical and mental health."

She also uses running to achieve new goals, both in distance and in time, and to prove to herself that she can overcome setbacks. In the past few years, Gutt has endured two ankle surgeries and, in both cases, she returned to running and racing stronger than ever. "After my first surgery to repair stabilizing tendons, I had to spend two months on crutches," she explains. "Learning to live on one foot was hard."

In spite of that, Gutt motivated herself to get back to training as soon as she was cleared and even turned to trail running, which filled her with fear, but also joy. Now she has new goals she wants to pursue. "I slowly started running trails in 2018 and found a huge sense of adventure from being in the wilderness," she says. "I haven't been able to run an ultra yet because of ongoing issues with my ankle, but I'm determined to get there."

When life gives you lemons, set personal records

Running can have a transformative impact on your life on its own, but when things don't go as planned, the motivation and drive to roll with the punches can have its own revelatory effects.

Like many runners, 29-year-old Tom Lau had big race plans for 2020. And like most, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lau had to adjust his goals and figure out if and why he wanted to keep moving forward with training plans. The answer was yes, and in the process of training for — and completing — his first two marathons as virtual events, the Brooklyn-based architectural designer learned a few important things about himself.

Throughout my training, I improved in spite of bad days. That is the running goal I am most proud of and will most remember."

Both the New York City Marathon and Chicago Marathon were on Lau's race docket last fall, and in spite of the fact that the two races were scheduled just two weeks apart, he was all in. Once they both went virtual, however, Lau questioned whether he could summon the enthusiasm for two solo marathons. "I honestly didn't know how I would feel about running my first marathon virtually, without all the cheering crowds that I had seen in the photos," he admits.

When New York announced it was going virtual, Lau still had hopes that Chicago would continue on in a live format. Those hopes were dashed last July, however. "I was devastated, but once it went virtual as well, I thought, 'Why not?'"

Runner running by a tennis court

Photo: Tom Lau

Following a training plan, Lau set to work prepping for both marathons, knowing they would be all the tougher on his own instead of feeding off the energy of the roaring crowds and fellow runners. October rolled around and it was time to put his efforts to the test, taking on the virtual Chicago Marathon. "I had no time goals," says Lau. "I just wanted to say I finished 26.2 miles."

Lau did just that and then three weeks later, on the same half-mile loop, ran his virtual New York City Marathon. "I didn't give up and I knew what I was capable of, so I did it," says Lau. "I proved myself capable, not once, but twice."

In the midst of gaining a new distance personal record, Lau was able to see his hard work pay off in spades, setting personal records at several distances en route to the two marathons. "Throughout my training, I improved in spite of bad days," he says. "That is the running goal I am most proud of and will most remember."

Build on your running successes

For 51-year-old executive coach, management consultant and author Christine McHugh, who has been running for about a decade, the thrill of achieving personal records is still there.

I set goals that are a stretch, yet still achievable. Having goals helps me stay on track and not get distracted by bright, shiny objects."

"I did my first 5K in my early 40s and it took me 40 minutes," she says. "My current 5K personal record is 24 minutes. That's a huge improvement and it motivates me to do hard things and achieve great progress when I put my mind to it."

She put that attitude to the test when trying marathons for the first time in 2016, finishing the New York City Marathon in 4:40. In 2018, McHugh ran her third marathon — the California International — in a huge personal record of 3:58. "I cried with positivity and gratitude when I crossed that finish line," she says. "I was so proud of myself."

To continue to go after those personal records and keep the flame burning, McHugh employs a methodical approach to setting goals. "I set goals that are a stretch, yet still achievable," she says. "Having goals helps me stay on track and not get distracted by bright, shiny objects."

Runner running by a tennis court

Photo: Christine McHugh

McHugh also does her fair share of mental work to achieve her goals, including journaling, visualizing and creating meaningful mantras. "It gets as much focus as my physical training when I'm really going for it," she says.

When it comes to the personal transformation she's experienced through running and achieving goals, McHugh points to the cumulative effect of consistent training over the years. "I've become more confident and empowered, and I'm not afraid to take risks," she explains. "I've even ventured out into uncharted territory in other parts of my life as a result."

No matter what personal record you're going for, the process is as important as the goal, as McHugh, Lau and Gutt can all attest. While it's up to you how you want to transform your life through running, there's little doubt that it's possible.

Want to read more inspirational stories like these? Check out these runner profiles and find your reason.

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.