Sunday, June 3, 2012

Race Report: Race for the Cure 5K, June 2, 2012

I ran the Race for the Cure 5K in downtown DC this morning, finishing the "course" in 19:42.  It is hopefully the closest in my running career I'll ever get to being in a zombie uprising.

But more on that later.


I've always been a bit conflicted about running this race.  On the one hand, I really don't like the Komen foundation.  On the other hand, it's not like this is the "Race to End Emancipation" or similar -- I don't have deep down fundamental objections to the underlying cause that would force me to skip (well, other than the fact that I hate the color pink).  And opportunities to race on the National Mall of DC are few -- other than this race, it's limited to Army 10 Miler, Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, RnR National Marathon, and Marine Corps Marathon.

So I registered, and decided that I'd run only if the weather was remarkably good for DC in early June.  And as it turned out, it was.  62 degrees, low dewpoint, and bright sunshine.  Not optimal conditions for a 5K, but as good as we were going to get.  Game on.

From the start, I wasn't planning on running this as an all out goal race.  I raced on Monday, and haven't run since  -- I took a few days of non-running as a "sabbatical" to top off my "recovery month" of May.  But a reasonably hard run through downtown DC on a nice morning was sounding like a lot of fun and the opportunity to practice running my races relaxed and focused, without any expectations or pressures.


And that was how I found myself jogging the two miles from my home to the race start (another reason I love races on the Mall - so convenient).  Jogged another mile to the race finish to use the blissfully pristine portapotties there (rather than fight the crowds at the start), and then a mile back to the start.

I did a few drills and strides in the very limited space available, and then lined up.  After a moment's debate, I opted to line myself up in the immense "5 minute" section of the starting area.  No, I had no illusions about running this race at 5:xx pace this morning.  But the alternative was to place myself way back in the field, while the 5 minute section packed up with walkers, cross-fitters, and a surprisingly large number of people with their bibs attached to their backsides.

A few promotional statements, and then the race started (5 minutes late).  I started pretty slowly, both to dodge traffic and because that was what felt right.  I was feeling a bit sluggish and slow at first (I'm guessing because I hadn't run since Monday), and so it took me a while to find my rhythm.  So I stayed easy, even though that meant running behind the girl wearing a pink tutu and the guy in black compression tights (seriously?  black compression tights in June?  This is the second year I've seen this at this race).

I wasn't too worried, as I wasn't really racing this, but just using as an opportunity to practice staying focused and relaxed for the entire race, which I could do at even a slower than normal pace.  But still, it felt good when my legs finally woke up and I felt like myself again.  I started to flow, and passed black compression tights guy and tutu girl.

And then the fun really started.


Though I didn't have the course memorized, I had some basic familiarity.  I knew it took a right turn to cut south across the Mall soon after we ran back past the start area, and then a left at one of the "inside" Mall streets to head east.  Then later, another right to go south a bit more, before a final left to finish on Independence.

So it was the most natural thing to make the right turn onto 14th street when I thought I saw someone waving us that way.  I was running in my standard way - focusing on the road ahead about 20-50 meters ahead of me, while looking more forward from time to time.

And the next time I looked forward, there was NO ONE ahead of me.  Huh?

Took another glance forward.  Nope.  No one.

I paused a second and looked back.  (Yes, I know you never look back in a race, but this was a special circumstance).  A group of people behind me, and nobody screaming at me that I'm off course.  Not knowing what to do, I just kept running.

And then I looked forward and saw that the course ahead of me was NOT closed.  More specifically, a large group of pedestrians (hordes of tourists) were crossing 14th.  A continuous river of them, about 5 people deep, with no breaks to dodge through.  Oh FFS... 

Not knowing what to do, I went to my default -- when in doubt, go FORWARD.  And I plunged through the tourist wall, arms instinctively shifting to mosh pit position (hands in by upper chest, elbows down and slightly out).

And on the back side I realized what the combination of no lead pack and a tourist crossing meant.  "Shit - I'm off course."  Took another look back and other racers were behind me, following me in my errant ways (and widening the hole I had started).

I had single-handedly taken a large group of runners onto the wrong course.  In the largest and most visible 5K in DC.  Not only had I eliminated myself, I had just ruined a lot of other people's races too.  This was Hot Chocolate all over again.  Except this time, it was all my fault.  What to do?

I kept running.

My whole goal was to run something a bit over 3 miles in distance at a decently hard effort while maintaining race focus and staying relaxed.  So, I might be DQ'd, but I could still achieve my goal for the morning.  As for those behind me, no way I could turn them around even if I stopped.  So I kept on.

Up the incline of 14th Street, debating where to turn.  Jefferson Street?  That had a cone.  Might as well turn there.  So I did.

And faced the surreal -- an utterly empty downtown DC street.   This road WAS closed.  No cars, no lead pack of runners, no runners at all.  Just a long stretch of pavement.

I took another look back - the rest of the "race" was behind me, but I was building a decent lead.  I was all alone.    I've always found it easier to run when I'm NOT in a pack and have some space, but this was ridiculous.

Yeah.  Like this.  Except I was moving a bit faster.
(scene from 28 days later)

And no mile markers to be seen either.

Again, a brief flicker of a question - what to do?  And then my instincts and my analytic side agreed - keep running!    I was no longer participating in the race in any sense of the word, but you're always supposed to "run your own race" anyway, and this was just the reductio ad absurdum of that basic tenet.

And so I ran onward, focusing on my own effort just as I would have normally.   Some tourists were walking on the sidewalk, and they started cheering madly for the woman leading the entire race (I looked back and saw a large mass of runners trailing into the distance).  Um no, not really.

But at least I was in the lead. One thing common to real races, faux races, and the zombie apocalypse -- it's always best to be running faster than everyone else.

From the upcoming Brad Pitt movie World War Z

But then, another question.  Where to turn to get to Independence and the finish line?  I debated turning right on 9th, but that looked very narrow.  Nope, not a good choice.  There was another cross street a bit further.

7th Street?  Sure, that sounded good.  I knew the finish line was by the Air and Space Museum, and that was at the corner of 7th, so I probably needed to turn there to make sure I didn't pass the finish.

So, right turn onto 7th, and suddenly there were other runners again.  I rejoined the race flow, and just focused on finishing the race strong but relaxed.  Crossed the finish line, stopped my watch, and immediately started commiserating with other runners, who confirmed that they had run a different course, taking a later turn.  I found a few of the people closest behind me, apologized for leading them down the wrong course, and then went to locate a race official to let them know that I ran the wrong course and needed to be DQ'd.  Then I jogged home.


So, I got home, and pulled up the race course.  And then I downloaded my Garmin record of my run for comparison purposes.  And...I had actually run the correct course; it was everyone ahead of me who had run the wrong course.

I emailed race management, correcting my early statement that I had been off course.  I noted that it looked like everyone ahead of me had been off course, but also that I really didn't want everyone ahead of me disqualified.  I suggested that perhaps it would be fairest to treat as two separate races (in truth, I think my "pack" ran a slightly longer course, plus we didn't get to run head to head against each other for most of the course.).  But the verdict was that that wasn't really doable as there was no way to determine who ran which course.  Fair enough.  I didn't really care that much.

I got a good workout on a beautiful day in a beautiful city, which was what I really came for. The great story was just a fantastic bonus.

Other notes:

  • Left house at 7:15, which was just about perfect timing.
  • There was no real room to do drills and strides (they had a small area, but not really long enough).  I think this, combined with the fact that I hadn't run since Monday, explained why it took me so long to hit my pace groove.  If I ever do this as a "race race," I'll allow more time so I can jog off somewhere and get properly warmed up.
  • Two puffs of inhaler at 7:00 am; two more at 7:40.
  • Splits were 6:32 for the first mile (10M race pace - yup, started slow) and then 13:10 for next 2.11 (6:15 pace).
  • Ended up "4th female" overall and the "age group winner" (quotations because, again, we didn't all run the same race and weren't competing against each other).
  • Yes, I own pink compression socks.  No, I didn't wear them.


  1. 1. I blame your lack of pink appreciation for the lack of you getting a photo in Washington Running Report's photo gallery. We all know how much they love you. 2. That's such crazy mis-management, but I loved your report! 3. You still did great, Congratulations!

  2. I mean, if I were organizing a race, I would definitely prioritize making sure that the porto potties are pink over making sure that the course marshals, um, marshal the course properly. You've GOT to have your priorities straight.

    And congrats on not having a nervous breakdown at the turn. That's what I would have done.

  3. That's fantastic! Love it! Not only did you run a smart race and follow your instincts, but you have a priceless story to tell! I wonder what percentage of the field went the right way vs. the wrong way?

  4. This kind of reminds me of the last scene of animal house. Complete and utter chaos.

  5. Sounds like the lesson is, if there IS a zombie apocalypse, you can be trusted to lead everyone to safety eventually.

  6. Wow, what a crazy race and great story! I have no idea what I'd do if I found myself in that position.

  7. This made me laugh pretty hard when I read it on my phone a few days ago, and I just wanted to tell you that.