SINGAPORE - Serena Teoh was in tears five months ago when injury ruled her out of the Munich Marathon in October. But the 31-year-old has reason to start the year with a smile, after setting a national record in the women's half marathon on Jan 27.
She clocked 1hr 22min 7sec to finish fourth at the Gran Canaria Half Marathon in Spain, breaking Mok Ying Rong's 2016 mark of 1:23:14. The record is pending ratification by Singapore Athletics.
Teoh, who works as a risk analyst in Basel, Switzerland, told The Straits Times the result came as a surprise as she had intended to use the race to gauge her fitness ahead of next month's Tokyo Marathon.
"With my prior training, I had confidence in my current fitness level, but I just didn't expect to do so well," said Teoh, who started running more seriously only after she relocated to Switzerland for work four years ago.
"In the race, you're just so focused and trying to hold on to the pace that you're not really calculating your end time... When I saw the clock just before the finish line, I was really happy."
Teoh was a swimmer in junior college and was part of the biathlon team in university, but she revealed that she was "not so keen on sports back then". But that changed four years ago when she moved to Switzerland and joined the Basel Running Club.
"With the scenery and the climate here, I began to take up running, and then I decided to join a running club here," said Teoh, who credited her record-breaking feat to the support of her family, her club and training buddies in Singapore whenever she returns home.
"With some training and the races I entered, I realised I was becoming faster and, from there, I just kept setting more and more goals."
But she faced setbacks as she worked towards achieving some of these goals last year.
She fell down and suffered a bone bruise in the knee while preparing for last year's Boston Marathon in April - her biggest race since taking up running.
She could not recover in time but decided to participate in the race anyway. But the injury took its toll in the last 17km and she limped across the finish line after almost four hours.
In August, she started feeling pain in her right calf that persisted over the next two months. She was tested for compartment syndrome, a condition that occurs when pressure builds within the muscles to levels that can be life-threatening.
The tests were negative, but Teoh had missed so many weeks of training by then that she realised she would not make it to the start line of the Munich Marathon.
"I went home crying," recalled Teoh, who aims to run two marathons and three or four half marathons each year.
"But all these accidents and injuries - they are opportunities that make you learn and grow... I was sad about my situation, but the key was to remain focused and not let myself spiral into self-pity."
Teoh's big target this year is to represent Singapore at the Philippines SEA Games at the end of the year and she hopes to meet the qualifying mark at the Tokyo Marathon.
The qualifying time for the SEA Games women's marathon in December is 2:58:17, pegged to the bronze-medal time from the previous edition. Teoh hopes to clock around 2:55 in Tokyo.
She added: "Training for the marathon takes a lot out of you and puts you through a lot of tests physically, mentally and emotionally, but it also rewards you in many other ways.
"When I started four years ago, it was purely out of passion and I wasn't expecting so much but, with passion and consistency, it's quite amazing to see how much your mind and body can achieve."