When Natasha Wong Tsz-yan crossed the finish line at the Berlin Marathon on September 29, she promptly broke into tears. “Finally,” she thought. “I could keep the pace and complete the race on pace.”

She said training at altitude, dedicating more time to strength training and training on her own to improve her mental strength were all factors in the improvement.

Wong, 24, completely shattered her personal best of two hours, 49 minutes and 54 seconds, set nearly two years ago at the Asian Marathon Championships. And it was no ordinary smashing. She lowered her time by eight whole minutes, to 2:41:54.

The result was a long time in the making, a vindication of her past couple years of relentless training while struggling with various injuries. Her performances at the 2018 and 2019 Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon were not ideal, some five to six minutes off her fastest time. She knew she had more in her. But in Berlin – her sixth marathon since diving into the distance in 2017 – things finally clicked. And suddenly, the distant dream of one day running for Hong Kong at the Olympics appeared to be feasibly within reach.

“It was really freaky,” Wong said. She had aimed for something in the vicinity of 2:47. Add to that a head cold and sore throat she caught while running her final few sessions rainy Berlin, and she had been grateful to even stand at the start line that Sunday feeling well enough to run the race.

So when the kilometres flew by relatively comfortably, she was pleasantly surprised. Wong found herself continually latching on a pack, then breaking off to chase the next one. She chased them down one by one, spurred by the urge to improve her ranking. “My willpower got better and better,” she said.

Wong chalks her spectacular performance at Berlin up to a number of factors.

The basic contours of her training programme remained similar to previous years, but as a full-time athlete, she went on multiple training camps to prepare for the marathon. A month before Berlin, she set off for a three-week camp in Yunnan, training at an altitude of 2,200 metres. She remembers having to go to the hospital within days of arriving in Yunnan, her body swelling and her head aching from running at altitude. But she quickly adapted, and the training effects showed when she returned to race at sea level.

Compared to previous years, Wong said that she now dedicates much more time and focus to strength and conditioning sessions. Whereas she used to work on strength once or twice a week at the end of a running session, she now carves out specific times three to four times a week to focus on strength, as well as hip and ankle mobility drills to smooth out imbalances that have built up as she worked through injuries.

Wong said that her mental game has improved drastically too. Almost all of her training sessions in Yunnan were done solo, which tested both her mettle and self-knowledge.

“When you're running on your own you really have to be very clear about how you're doing ... I think I understand myself better now,” she said.

Being so closely in tune with her mind and body certainly helped her push to the very limits at Berlin without being too conservative or aggressive.

Natasha Wong Tsz-yan can't hold her tears after becoming the fastest women’s local marathon runner at the Standard Chartered Hong Kong marathon 2019. Photo: SCMP

On the nutrition front, Wong said that she had cut down on eating meat. “I used to think that not eating meat would mean not having enough energy, but in fact I now feel more awake, lighter, and cleaner,” she said.

In Yunnan, she ate meat only a few days a week, and mostly relied on eggs and beans for protein. She now plans to continue keeping meat consumption to a minimum.

Wong’s next immediate goal is the Asian Marathon Championships in Dongguan, in which she hopes to represent Hong Kong. And in the meantime, she wants to turn her focus to 5,000m and 10km races to improve her base speed before setting her sights on even faster marathon times.