Before Saturday, I had raced a 5k exactly twice. Once was two and a half years ago when I finished up my first sprint triathlon with a well-executed 5k. The other was thirteen years ago when I competed in my first high school cross-country race, during which I broke my pelvis and gave up distance running for eleven years. I mentally ran through the history of my life several times after coming up with this number, certain I had missed something. But it stands. For someone who has essentially been a runner for life, I’m actually impressed that I’ve done so well avoiding non-obligatory 5ks.
Because of my conspicuous lack of experience at this particular distance, I struggled to come up with a goal time. Not only have I not raced this distance, but I haven’t even had many training runs at this distance recently. And the paces for the runs I have done recently are affected by how early I tend to do them. So my goals were set with that in mind.
Goal A—Run a well-executed race.
I wanted to run fairly even splits and feel like I have given my all at the end of the race. That meant not going out to fast but still going out hard. It’s a hard enough balance to hit when you are familiar with the race distance. I knew it would be more difficult for a distance I wasn’t intimately familiar with.
I decided I wanted to break 23 minutes in this 5k. This comes out to a 7:24/mile pace, and I really wasn’t sure if it was feasible for me in my current condition, especially with my current lack of experience at this distance.
The second I came up with goals, I started to come up with a plan besides “go out there, run hard, and have fun!” Pretty simply, I wanted to stay on pace. However, I don’t have a Garmin. And because I’m unfamiliar with the distance and my body is unfamiliar with the pace I wanted to run, I knew it would be a struggle to know where my pace was compared to where it should be. In a half-marathon, you can get to the first mile and pick it up or slow it down, as long as you are in the general vicinity of your pace. You can’t do that when you are a third of the way through the race by the time you reach the first mile marker.
So I looked up the race course and figured out what my time would need to be at each major turn in the road. That plus the assumed mile markers gave me plenty of pace checkpoints with the biggest gap being just under 3/4 of a mile near the beginning of the race. My plan was based on a best-case scenario where I ran on pace (7:24/mile) until the second-to-last (2.53 miles) or last (2.76 miles) checkpoint, depending on how I felt. Once I hit the checkpoint, I would drop the hammer (although I worried I would be too busy trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered race plan to drop any hammer).
The race wasn’t until 9:00am, but I woke up at 6:15am because I like to have been up and moving for several hours before running at a hard effort. I left to pick Rob up around 7:15, and we left from his place around 7:30. We stopped to get what has become the pre-race ritual breakfast of an Egg McMuffin from McDonald’s. I kind of had to go to the bathroom, but it was busy and you needed to ask an employee to unlock the bathroom. I didn’t want to be a bother so I decided to wait until the race. I had a fleeting concern about whether there would be bathrooms at the race site or not before dismissing that fear as ridiculous.
We ended up at the race site around 8:00 and walked up the registration table just in time to see a woman and her family tell the volunteers that the bathrooms weren’t open. Uh-oh. The volunteers pointed her in the direction of another building that should have been open, so I followed along. Locked. Crap. Upon our return to the registration table, one of the volunteers told us they were calling the city to send someone out to unlock the bathrooms but that there was a Chevron station about a block away we could use. Thankfully, we had gotten there early enough to have plenty of time and we just walked over there after registering. Crisis averted, thank goodness. And by the time we made it back, the bathrooms were unlocked for future use.
Since I still had time before the race started, Rob and I took a look around. It was way more than a 5k. There was a substantial silent auction and a carnival for the kids, complete with awesome face painting, balloon animals, and bouncy castles. As I mentioned here, this event and the accompanying foundation was set up by Rob’s cousin. She and several others started the Paul Moore Foundation after a local man was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. This event was to raise money to help him and his family with the costs that come with a diagnosis like that. This was a local event, so most of the people there knew the Moore family. It was incredibly touching (and more than a little inspiring) to see the community rally around a family in need and offer their support in whatever way they could. If any of you are interested in learning more, you can find information here.
Eventually, I did my typical warmup for a road race. I jogged around for about five minutes and did a few striders and some lackluster stretching. Rob and I headed over to the start line not long after that where I reminded him where I wanted him cheering on course and gave him my phone with a mission to get photos of the race. It was still a bit early, but there was a cluster of kids lined up right at front of the group at the start, so I stayed at the starting line to make sure I had a place up front and wouldn’t have to pick my way through a bunch of cute but erratic children when the race started. I saw one other guy doing a serious warm-up, and it wasn’t long before he joined me and the kids at the front of the group. Since I was the only woman up at the front near the start, I got the feeling I might have been the only woman really gunning for a specific time.
When the organizers started giving the pre-race talk, I was stricken by starting line syndrome. I was suddenly hungry. And did I really have to pee again? And how was I going to run a whole 5k if even jumping up and down to stay warm exhausted my legs so much? All that was immediately forgotten when the gun went off and I started running.
The guy I had seen warming up earlier just took off. I stayed (far) behind him, determined to run my own race. As we approached the first potential turn, the lead guy (who was still within shouting distance) turned around and asked if we were supposed to turn there. I was fortunately pretty familiar with the course after using the map to figure out my splits a few days earlier, so I was able to wave him forward and keep him from turning. Not long after, I came to my first checkpoint. I was at about 1:47 when I was supposed to cross at 2:04. CALM. DOWN. I tried to settle into an easy pace, and I hit the first mile in about 7:12, feeling strong and trying not to think about the fact that I still had two more miles to run.
I felt strong through the second mile despite a moment of panic. I suddenly noticed I was approaching a hill. A big, bruiser of a hill. I ran through my race prep in my mind—I had looked at the elevation changed on the course. I hadn’t noticed anything major at all. How did I miss this lunker? And then I saw two volunteers at the corner right before the hill, directing runners to turn. Thank goodness. The next portion of the race was a slight uphill grade, though, and I was starting to feel it when I crossed the second mile in about 14:30.
I was starting to hurt, I had to focus hard to keep my pace up. I knew I would see Rob about 2.25 miles in, so I used that to propel me forward. He’s a great cheer section and typically lifts my spirits a lot. When I saw him in the distance, I was relieved. That much closer to the finish line. He kept me going, but the encounter was not the emotional boost I wanted. I was still running pretty strong, but I was suffering. I kept reminding myself that I had less than a mile to go.
I hit the first, optional hammer-drop spot. There was no hammer to drop. I was still pretty significantly ahead of my goal pace, but I was losing a little time, and it was all I could do to keep my turnover up. As I approached the next intersection, the runner directly in front of me stopped. I could not figure out why he had stopped until I caught up to him. He asked me if this was the turn. I knew we were supposed to turn on Main Street, but there were no volunteers or signs at this intersection, and street sign on the light was covered with a tree. I couldn’t for the life of me read the sign I was facing, so I ran until I could turn around and see the street sign facing the other way. Sure enough, it was Main Street. We both turned down the street, and I was doubly glad I had studied the course earlier. This intersection was also the second point at which I was supposed to drop the hammer. I didn’t. Honestly, looking back, I can’t recall if I didn’t pick up the pace because I was tired or because I was thrown off by the unmarked, surprise turn.
But the theme for the race—push through the pain—held strong, and I hit three miles in about 22:00, about ten seconds faster than my goal pace. I did some quick mental math and realized I’d need to slow down a lot to miss my overall goal time. Despite the cushion I had, I did (finally) manage to pick up my pace and kick it in to the finish. One guy passed me during that stretch, but I really didn’t care. I was just thrilled to be done. I crossed the finish line in 22:45 and significantly ahead of my 22:59 goal pace. As a fun bonus, I won the race for the women. I came in third overall, but that should have been fourth. Remember that speedy guy from the beginning? He missed the turn I helped the guy in front of me with and ended up running an extra mile or so as he found his way back to the course.
I felt the way I should after a tough race. My lungs hurt, I was gasping for air, I got a little dizzy after crossing the finish, and the thought of food made me want to vomit. After I recovered for a bit, Rob and I went over to the carnival and the silent auction and spent some time hanging out with his aunt, his cousins, and a whole gaggle of his cousins’ kids. I don’t know his extended family all that well yet, so I’m always glad for chances to spend time with them and get to know them a bit more. I think I’m finally starting to learn which kids goes with which cousin!
Overall, this was a strong race. I raced fairly smart and resisted the urge to start out way too fast. Even though I didn’t quite follow my race plan (which would have resulted in negative splits), I was mostly happy with my performance. It was a pretty gutsy race, but I do still need to work on my mental focus. I slowed down during the third mile. It wasn’t terrible, but it was noticeable. I need to be better about pushing through the pain. I dug pretty deep this race, but I think there’s one more level of mental toughness I’m not accessing. Maybe racing a bit more (as I’m planning to do this upcoming year) will give me really-hard-effort practice I need to cross that barrier.