[085] The 5k that wasn’t

Swim: 0 m/80,600 m

Bike: 8.9/575.4 miles

Run: 6.6/168.1 miles

For a while, running a 5k has been a mid-level goal in the back of my mind. I’ve run races from 8k right on up to the marathon, but I’ve never run a 5k. For such a small race, I hoped to find something that fit several criteria – close to home, convenient time, fast course and low price. And, honestly, I hadn’t been looking that hard to find one.

But last week I casually checked out the local race club’s web site and was surprised to find a 5k race that was just about 10 minutes from my house and only a few days away. Better yet, the price was only $15. It was a low-budget affair, so the course details weren’t available online, but the web site said it was USTF certified. So I decided to stop by the race site on Friday to sign up for Saturday’s run.

After my money had been paid, I found out that the course was actually a 2-loop affair through a local park. Immediately my heart began to sink – so much for the “fast course” that I had hoped for. The trails were packed gravel – not great for traction when running at top speed. Two loops meant the faster runners (hopefully me) would be catching up with the walkers on the second loop, and possibly getting held up on the narrow trails. Also, the course was filled with sharp s-turns and 90-degree angles, which would further inhibit speed.

But I brushed all this off and showed up ready on race morning. I got in a brief warmup in the parking lot and, at the appointed time, lined up at the start. The man with the bullhorn yelled “Go!” and we took off. I was immediately at the front of the pack with another runner (Blue-shirt Guy) as we navigated the twisting trails. The first part of the race went well – my pace was hard but not untenable and the course marshals were eager to point us in the right direction as the course winded across fields, through parking lots and onto the trails.

Blue-shirt Guy pulled ahead pretty quickly and I found myself running alone. It’s difficult to race with no one to pace against – I didn’t know how fast I was going or what my strategy should be. So I just kept it steady. Before long I heard more steps behind me, but it became obvious that they weren’t ready to pass and I sped up during the straight sections to add distance between us.

The second main loop came quickly, and the course was now full of walkers and slower runners. However, they seemed to be aware of the situation and kindly moved aside as the first wave started to come back around. And soon Blue-shirt Guy was back in my sights.

There was about a half-mile between the main loop and the finish area, and as we came out of the second loop the marshals seemed a little confused about where to send us, since they were simultaneously directing the folks who were still on their first loop. We made another circuit of the half-mile area and, as we approached the main loop again, everything fell apart.

Blue-shirt Guy, still in the lead, turned right onto the main trail loop. I was sure that this wasn’t correct, since the course directions had specified only two loops. I looked to the marshals for guidance as I approached, and one of them literally shrugged his shoulders in confusion. I came to a dead stop. The runners who were trailing close behind me caught up, and Blue-shirt Guy was backtracking. Confusion reigned as runners, struggling to remain polite and understanding, just wanted to know where to go next. No one seemed to know. Somehow a consensus was reached to head left and circle back to the start area, so that’s what we did.

Of course at this point the second-place position I had worked to solidify was destroyed – the faster runners had all caught up and were beginning again as if it was the start line. Somehow I immediately took the lead as I sprinted off in the new direction, but I could hear the feverish steps of the others right behind me, unrelenting and pressuring me as I led the group.

Finally we reached another course marshal who seemed to know what to do, and she sent us on the road to the finish line. As we entered the last bit of trail another runner passed me (not Blue-shirt Guy – he fell back a few places, likely out of frustration) and I just couldn’t catch him on the single-track trail. He finished four seconds ahead of me, and I finished in second place (out of 108).

As I crossed the finish line I immediately looked at my watch, which I hadn’t done the entire race. When I saw 18:27 I laughed out loud because I knew that time was impossible for me, even on the fastest course in the best conditions. It was obvious that either the course had been measured incorrectly or the marshals had misguided us. I later found out that we only ran about 2.7 miles, putting my pace somewhere in the 6:50s. When I later saw joggers still crossing the finish line at 44 minutes, I wondered if the poor runners had been directed to a third loop of the main course – as had almost happened to us – and turned their 5k morning into more of an 8k.

It’s easy to become frustrated in a situation like this. Could I have raced harder – and even maintained my lead – if I wasn’t worried about keeping the thread of the course at every turn? It shouldn’t be incumbent upon the leaders in a race to scout the course and have to stop and ask for directions from the marshals. The path should be clear and well labeled so the runners can focus on running. 

This was the first-ever running of this race, and while the logistics of packet-pickup, post-race food and sponsorships were well-orchestrated, it just seemed like no one really thought about how the race itself would play out. It was an intrinsically confusing course, with multiple loops of multiple areas, and marshals not having any idea of who was coming around on their first or second laps. It seems like a simple solution would be to post bold, colorful signs to direct the racers, rather than rely on humans to interpret the situation. Or at least describe the course to the runners before the start of the race, so they know generally what to expect.

But the race was cheap and the money went to a good cause. And there was a coupon for a free Chik-fil-A sandwich in the race packet (a surefire way to win my appreciation). And despite the fact that it wasn’t actually the 5k I had hoped for, it was a fun run and I finished in second place (first in my age group), and even led the race briefly.

So, at the end of the day, the hole next to “5k” on my life ledger remains blank. But I learned a lot, both about how to approach running a 5k in the future, and how to shop for one.  Maybe the next one will turn out a little better.

Now, back to my regularly scheduled triathlon training…

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2 Responses to [085] The 5k that wasn’t

  1. Jo365 says:

    Nooooo! How frustrating! Great read though and well done for the lead and getting first in your age!

  2. David H. says:

    Still a nice performance Jeremy. I did only one 5k the whole time I was in Richmond — all the non-Sportsbackers events that I did always disappointed me for several reasons. I hope you’ll find a 5k soon that you can dominate.

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