Swim: 0 m/109,645 m
Bike: 0/1,247.9 miles
Run: 15.4/489.5 miles
After the debacle that was my last attempt at a 5k race, the distance has remained officially unchecked on my running to-do list. But earlier last week, as I was lurking on the local running club’s website waiting for the registration for my favorite fall 10k to open, I noticed a promising 5k coming up in just a few days.
Even though I still considered myself a 5k virgin, I learned a lot from the experience earlier this year, particularly regarding how to choose a race. This time I was already somewhat familiar with the course and knew that it was all paved and mostly flat. This was also the fifth year of the race and more than 1,000 participants were expected, which let me know that it was probably well-organized (about 210 of those people ended up being timed as “runners”). When I arrived at the small expo on Thursday to sign up, I was encouraged to find an efficient operation staffed by people who looked like runners.
Going into the race, my “A” goal was to break 20 minutes (something that’s sort of been hanging out on my life bucket list) and my “B” goal was to finish in 20:XX. If a sub-20 was going to happen, this would be the perfect opportunity – the weather forecast for Saturday morning was perfect at about 50 degrees and clear, and as I mentioned above the course was flat and fast. I’ve run a couple shorter (2-mile) runs in the low-6’s recently, so I knew that sub-20 was not impossible.
Another thing I learned from my earlier almost-5k experience was the value of a proper warm-up. As a veteran of longer races, I’m not used to elaborate warm-ups before a race. But I did some research and knew I wanted to get in about 2 miles of easy-to-moderate warm-up running with some race-pace intervals thrown in. So that’s just what I did, and I could feel myself loosen up as I traversed the vast parking lot of the mall where the race was staged.
When I arrived at the race site, the first thing I noticed was the huge groups of young runners – there were several school running teams in attendance and many of the groups were going through choreographed warm-up routines of high steps, lunges, etc. I was a little intimidated and realized that a top finish was unlikely for me. How could a 34-year-old possibly compete with teenagers and 20-somethings who race this distance regularly?
Nevertheless, I lined up near the front of the pack (even so, I was behind a few people who obviously did not belong on the front row) and waited for the start. The emcee started the countdown at 10, and then we were off.
My approach was to go out hard and see how long I could keep it up. Forget conserving energy and focusing on a finishing kick – I was already warmed up and in a race of this distance, when every second counts, there’s no time for timid or conservative running. In the first hundred yards I passed about 20 people – many of those who probably did not belong in the front. For the next few hundred yards I was in third place, and the front two were obviously going to be running at a pace that would be impossible for me to match. Even if I had wanted to, there was no way I was catching them.
Eventually I was passed by several small groups of younger boys from those cross-country teams, and at the turnaround I was in 19th place. I checked my watch as I rounded the bend and saw 9:20 – I knew I needed to be under 10 minutes to hit a sub-20 and I was beyond stoked to see that I had 40 seconds of cushion for the return trip. I later calculated that I had run the first half of the race at a 5:59 pace! Crazy.
The second half would not be so fast – the gentle downhill that had kindly aided my speed on the way out was now waiting for me as an uphill grade. But I didn’t let it concern me – I knew that hill was there and I was mentally ready to tackle it. I knew my pace was slipping as I ascended but I still felt strong. Soon enough the hill was behind me and I was ready for the last, fast 2k.
At this point I was still somewhat close to the front pack. Only one other kid had passed so I was still in the top 20. Since it was an out-and-back course, the return trip shared the lane with all of the other runners and walkers on their way out. I was so pumped to hear all of their comments – not only the motivational words directed to us, but the asides made to their companions. “They’re not even sweating!” “These are the fast guys.” “Wow, they’re moving!” Yeah, I was letting it get to my head a little.
With about a mile to go I made a move to pass one of the young guys. I was still feeling great even though my pace had slowed slightly. I just tried to keep it strong whenever I felt the urge to back off. No weakness, I told myself. I wasn’t having any trouble mentally or physically, but I knew that I would never be able to forgive myself if I came in over 20 minutes after having such a strong first half. That was my motivation to keep it up. And I never let off.
I started feeling a little queasy as I approached the turn a few hundred yards out from the finish, and I was so excited to be nearing the vomit threshold – I knew I was pushing for all I could and it made me genuinely happy. I was hanging right next to another kid and I stepped on it, happily finding another gear to slowly pull past him. That final gear barely lasted to the finish line – I was literally running as fast as I could. I felt a broad smile creep across my face as I finally saw the race clock ticking 19:09, 19:10, 19:11 . . . 19:12 as I crossed the line.
I caught my breath and then felt . . . great! I was so happy to have crushed my “A” goal, and my body felt awesome. No pain, no soreness. I don’t think I could have kept going at that pace for much longer, but I definitely could have kept running (after walking around for a couple minutes I jogged back to my car to call my wife and tell her how I’d done). My overall pace was 6:10, which means the second half was about a 6:20 average. While the uphill section was a small factor, I had felt my pace slow slightly in the second half as I fought to maintain my speed despite increasing fatigue.
By the end of the race I had lost track of how many people were in front of me, but I knew they were all young people and I thought I had a good chance of at least placing near the top of my age group. So I stuck around to check out the results when they were posted (about 45 minutes after I finished).
During that time I watched the later runners and walkers cross the finish line and was very moved by what I saw. The race benefitted a Down Syndrome foundation, and many of the participants had the condition or were family members and loved ones. Maybe it was an effect of the adrenaline that was still pumping through my system, but I was strongly affected by the outflowing of pride and genuine happiness from those runners and walkers as they finished the race. They beamed with joy and threw up their arms in triumph as the large crowd erupted in cheers for each of them. It was a good thing I was wearing sunglasses as my eyes moistened at the scene. It was so moving to see all of the finishers, not just the ones connected to this particular cause. Everyone was accomplishing something personally significant.
Eventually the results came out, and I was greeted with my second significant milestone of the day (after finishing under 20 minutes) – I had won my age group! And the age groups were split into 10-year increments instead of the five-year groups you see at many races. I finished a full 40 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher in the 30-39 group. Also, I had finished 18th overall, so it turned out that many of those high school and college runners were not that much of a threat, after all. Only the top finisher in each age group got an award, so I stuck around for the ceremony, where the medal was placed around my neck in front of the crowd. What a great ending to a great morning.
And with that, my quest to complete a 5k – and to finish one in under 20 minutes – has been happily fulfilled. As far as I’m concerned, I never have to run another 5k again. But then I start thinking – with a 19:12 finishing time on a course that included a small hill, could I, with an utterly flat course and perfect conditions, run a sub-19 some day? Ha! It’s so easy to think about going faster when you’re not actually running. . .
(Postscript: I finished off my scheduled long-run mileage for the day when I got home and ran an easy 4.2 miles @ 7:21)