I ran the "So Others Might Eat" 5K Turkey Trot yesterday morning, finishing in a time of 19:30 -- good enough for a new PR. It was a good race.
I went into the race with a bit of uncertainty about how I’d perform. On the one hand, the fact that the last mile of a) my last 10 mile race; b) my last half-marathon; and c) the four mile tempo I ran last Friday were all faster than my current 5K PR pace indicated that a 5K PR was a strong possibility.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’m as strong at 5Ks as at the longer distances. I tend to build momentum the longer I run, and I’m much more comfortable racing distances where I have a while to get into a groove. It’s hard to explain to non-runners, but 5Ks intimidate the hell out of me, much more than any other distance. In 10 milers and half-marathons, I can go out pretty easy and work my way into a rhythm, and then make up the time at the end. In a 10K, I have less room for error, and in a 5K, I have almost none. Go out a hair too fast - I blow up. But go out too slow, and I don’t have the same space to make up the time.
Given a choice of 10 miles or 5K, I consider 10 miles the easier race.
But my coach really encourages us to do races shorter than our goal distance, so that we get used to the faster speed, which makes the pace of the goal distance feel easier by comparison. He’s got a point. And I also believe that the workouts you most dislike are the ones you most need to do. And so I sucked it up and did the 5K, as opposed to the more alluring 5 mile or 10K turkey trot options.
Doing the 5K was also a good chance to experiment some more with the racing mentality I’ve been playing with this fall, which basically boils down to "stay relaxed, don’t strain, have fun, don’t work too hard, never look at your watch, don’t worry about passing others." When you think about it, it makes sense that this mentality works well for longer distances, where you are running below your lactate threshold, and your concern is avoiding premature fatigue. But...a 5K is run way above lactate threshold -- pain is part of it. How would a mentality of "avoid hurting too much" play with a 5K?
[notes for those who aren’t competitive runners -- "lactate threshold" is a fancy term for a certain physiological state, related to how quickly you can clear lactate from your bloodstream. Essentially, it’s the dividing line between anaerobic effort (which burns) and aerobic effort (which simply tires), and is approximated by the pace you could sustain for an hour long race. Yes, that’s the simple version. Google it if you want the complex.]
[Here’s the really simple version. When you’re running at or just below your lactate threshold, you’re working hard and getting tired, but not really hurting. Above the LT, and you’re digging yourself into oxygen debt, and things are on fire. That’s why many competitive runners prefer longer distances over 5Ks -- yes, you’re running further, but it hurts a hell of a lot less unless you blow up].
So, back to the question: how to refocus a race mentality centered on avoiding discomfort when racing a distance where discomfort is the definitive aspect of the race?
Easy -- just refocus slightly. From prioritizing pain avoidance to prioritizing fun. After all, there is something bizarrely fun about the burn of the 5K (we runners are weird). I had a plan.
The race started at the jarring hour of 9 am (I actually would have loved to have started earlier, but oh well). I jogged around with my teammates, and then some more by myself, doing the same warm-up that’s been working well for me in my workouts. I’ve found that (especially as the weather gets cooler), I run best when I run at least 2.5-3 miles, starting very slow and gradually building pace until the last few minutes are at something like tempo effort. I know that other people run well with a mile or so or slow running plus strides, but I never feel limber or ready to go with that little. What can I say -- I’m creaky and take a while to get all the systems primed.
Then lined up in the start area, gently ignoring the angry older guy wearing the race t-shirt over a sweatshirt who informed me forcefully that he had lined up before me, and that I couldn’t cut in line to start the race.
The race started, and I diverged just enough from my "ignore everything and zen" plan to remind myself to keep the first mile very easy. In this course, it’s a very slight downhill and we also had a tailwind -- making it very easy to go out too fast (this tendency is compounded by the fact that Turkey Trots are always packed with new racers who shoot off like rockets in the first 400m of this race, and suck everyone out with them). I knew that the third mile would be that same very slight uphill, plus a headwind. I wanted to have plenty in the tank at that point.
So I held the brakes really hard for the first minute or two, and then relaxed and coasted. I let myself run as fast as I wanted, but never to the point where the discomfort of running fast outweighed the joy of running fast. And sure enough, by the 1 mile mark I was passing people left and right. The passing continued from that point onwards. I’d see another runner, and want to chase, but hold off and just relax and smile a bit. And then the runner would be by my side, and then behind me.
After the second mile marker, we came around the last corner and turned for the run towards home, up Pennsylvania Avenue, with the finish line visible in the distance. Once again I felt the old urge to start staring at the finish line and pushing like crazy towards it. The wind and the slight incline made this urge even more tantalizing - the more obstacles you put in my way, the more I like to attack aggressively. Sounds like a good competitive mentality, but in practice it’s remarkably unproductive.
However, this tendency gets slightly easier to overcome every time. I refocused on myself, and just gave myself permission to relax even more and have more fun. No need to rush to the finish line - it’d still be there when I got there. And there’d probably still be bananas, even.
And once again, the more I focused on patience and relaxing, the more the runners fell aside to either side of me.
With about 1200m to go, I noticed another woman in my age group ahead of me. The urge to chase her down hit very strong, but I redirected it slightly. Instead of staring at her and gunning like crazy, I focused inwardly, and simply asked if I had any more relaxing forward I could do. Sure I did. So I kept doing that. Every few moments or so, I’d take a glance, and note that she was closer. With a bit over a quarter mile to go, I passed her, relaxing all the way.
Then, the finish line was finally close enough, and I gave myself permission to gun it (FINALLY). The kick was a relief -- I’d been patient so damn long. Crossed the line, with my legs starting to stiffen up from about 50 feet away (a satisfying sign that I really did give a hard effort). Stopped my watch, and flipped screens so I could take a look - I figured I’d probably broken 20.
19:30 - a new PR by 15 seconds.
Mile 1: 6:21 (very slight downhill+tailwind)
Mile 2: 6:31 (some turns, including a 180 degree one)
Mile 3: 6:01 (! Very slight uphill, and into the wind)
Final .11: 0:37 (5:36 pace)
I’m pretty happy with this, especially since it seems to establish that I pace myself best when I ignore my watch completely. Though the splits look like I went out a bit fast and then corrected in the second mile, I think the discrepancy can be explained by the tailwind of the first mile and the turns of the second. No way that I could have closed the race the way I did had I gone out too fast.
Looking at the race results, it appears that both I and another woman in our expanded age group (30-39) ran 19:30. However, they placed her above me for both overall and age group -- I’m guessing when it came down to fractions of a second, she beat me. *sigh*. So I was 6th overall and 2nd age group to a woman with the same time. *mourn*. But since she was 30 and I’m 37, I guess I can still take some satisfaction in being the top female 35-39 (normally age groups are in 5 year brackets, not 10). And the PR sweetens the pot.
Other notes: Used my inhaler 50 minutes before race, and had no issue, but did have some breathing problems show up during the cool down jog, which was really surprising (exercise induced asthma don’t normally work that way). But that’s why I carry the inhaler.
Occupy DC had tents set up in part of Freedom Plaza, but were very well behaved for the most part (actually, there were tons of tents, but not very many people at all -- I’m not sure whether they’re overtented, or were just off elsewhere doing an activity). Once of the race managers told us that they did have a slight issue with Occupy DC refusing to remove tents from the area of the Plaza that the race had the permit for, but they were able to work around it. My guess is that maybe the tents’ owners were elsewhere, and so unable to relocate the tents.
[programming note: yes, I've finally decided to move my race reports to this blog. I had originally planned on this blog being almost entirely about pool-running, and so kept my race reports elsewhere. But, as things do, the blog has evolved a bit to become all of my mental brain droppings about running -- I might as well keep the race reports here. Older reports are going to get copied here as I have time.]