It had been 5 weeks and three days since the Cooper River Bridge Run. In a year where it seemed like I had been racing every 3 or 4 weeks, the last month plus away from racing seemed like forever. Wednesday night’s 5K was the kick-off race of the Summer Sunstroke Stampede. The S.S.S. is a 12-race 5K Series that runs every week through July 27th.
I was very interested to see where we were last night as I had taken 5 weeks away from running with some knee inflammation leading up to the Cooper River Bridge Run. In fact, that “race” was my first run of any kind since late February.
I had been able to run injury and pain free for a solid month, gotten back into doing some up-tempo work and resumed my hill repeat training, but I knew we were a far cry from the fitness level we had reached at the end of last Summer’s race season.
Last summer during my first Summer Sunstroke Stampede race I finished the Brushy Creek Course with a time of 20:23. I was hoping that I would be able to break through the 20:00 minute barrier last night, running something around 19:45.
That would be a great place to start as my “course record” for the Brushy Creek trail race was 19:29 last July during the 9th race of the series. The course is fairly technical with a lot of turns, a crushed granite track and a long 4/10 of a mile hill to crest to the top of the dam over the final mile of the race.
It is not a “fast track” by any means, but it is a great race to help you learn how to race on tired legs and to push pace over the 3.1 mile distance. I’m convinced that running this series last year propelled me to my 5K PR of 18:12 that I ran on two separate occasions in the fall and winter of last year on relatively flat road courses.
So even though this was not an “A” race by any means, I was very interested to see how I would fare and just how far away we are right now from where we ended 2010.
I deviated slightly from my nighttime pre-race routine last night and ate a little heartier. Usually I will just have a bagel with peanut butter and a banana about 1 ½ hours before the start of the race, but I felt like I was a little bit hungrier than usual.
I made a bagel sandwich with turkey and cheese to go along with my bagel and bottle of Gatorade. This proved to be a little too much for me in hindsight as my stomach felt too full and heavy during the race. I’ll need to make an adjustment for next week.
I took care of Kayla, filled her water bowl and patted her on the head as I left for the race. Somewhat of a ritual that the two of us have gone through for close to a dozen races now. It’s always great to know that she’ll be just as excited to see me when I get home no matter how well or how poorly I run.
I arrived at the race, paid my $10 entry fee and wrapped my timing chip band around my ankle. Minimalist running for this series for sure. Shoes, socks, shorts and a timing chip. No shirt, no bib, no muss, no fuss.
I ran into my friends Dan and Erin who drove over from Georgetown for the race, Tom from S. Austin and Sean from Cedar Park. We all chatted for a bit until 10 minutes before the gun when I went for a quick jog and some strides to get loose.
Mile 1: One of my favorite parts of this series is the low-key start. The starter will walk up, say to the crowd, “you guys ready to take your marks?” When we nod yes, they instruct us, “O.K., let’s go.” And the first runner to head across the timing mat starts the race.
Last night that runner just happened to be me, which was pretty cool. I was able to lead the pack out over the first 3/10 of a mile or so before the younger, faster stronger men passed me by. Typically I will head out over the first mile of a 5K trying to settle in right around 6:00 min./mile pace. With all of the variables going on with my injury and how long it had been since I ran a 5K (New Year’s Day) – I thought something around 6:05-6:10 would be about right.
I found myself in a comfortable pace around the half mile mark and just stayed with it, not paying any attention to my watch. I was going to run this race “by feel” as I really wanted it to serve as a litmus test for our fitness level.
I trailed the lead pack of 5 runners around the trail past the lake and up onto the dam. At the mile mark my watch beeped with an opening mile split of 6:07.
Huh, I mumbled to myself, just about spot on.
Mile 2: The second mile of the course starts on top of the dam. It is flat, concrete and pretty fast. What should be a fast split on the course however changes on you pretty quickly as there is a switch back that the runners must tackle bending around 180 degrees to the left, then another 180 degrees back to the right before you can thunder downhill.
It is tough to tell how much time the turns cost you exactly, but it seems that it is about a :05-:10 second “penalty” vs. being able to just run in a straight line at 5K Pace. Last year I was trying to run this mile in the 6:10 – 6:15 range most weeks.
This is the point of the 5K where I always seem to find myself doing some soul searching.
Face it, if you are racing a 5K the amount of time that you actually “feel good” is infinitesimally small. For me it is just a matter of managing the pain as it starts to move from your legs up into your chest and arriving at whatever “uncomfortable pace” you are “comfortable with” running.
We hit the turnaround point and I was able to grab a quick splash of water before we made our way back toward the hill we had just come down from the top of the dam. I glanced down at my watch when I heard the beep marking the end to mile number 2, 6:18 pace. Still looking pretty good.
Mile 3: This mile takes runners back up to the top of the dam and through the switchback. It is a 60 foot climb over 4/10 of a mile, about the equivilant of a 6-story building, which is not too terrible a grade, but like most things in real estate – it is all about location, location, location. After pushing hard for 13 minutes, the hill comes at a pretty cruel part of the race.
I focused on even effort, trying to keep the legs churning at 6:15 effort, even though I knew my actual pace was much slower than that. I heard a runner over my shoulder who was closing on me. It was going to be hard to hold him off as I could feel my legs getting heavier and heavier.
Last summer I remember being able to power up the incline to the top of the dam and pick up a lot of space on my competitors. I was just not at the same level at this point in the year and I was a bit more cautious with my pace on the climb. Not quite as reckless as I was last year, or like I will be in another 4 or 5 weeks of steady hill repeat training.
I settled back in over the dam and reached the 3 mile mark of the race. Mile 3 came in at 6:32 pace. About :10 slower than my best over this stretch last summer. Those :10 were going to be the difference.
Finish: With just .10 to go to the finish my friend Sean slipped by me on the left and outkicked me to the finish line. As much as it is deflating to be passed late in a footrace, I was really happy for Sean. He’s been training and running great and being one of those young 35-39 year old whippersnappers, he didn’t move me down in my age group.
This was an odd race where I never really had anyone near me to “race” to the finish, someone up ahead to serve as that rabbit to keep me pushing hard over that final mile. It’s always easier to chase than to be chased, and Sean proved that last night.
Next time I need to be a little tougher over the dam and start my kick a little earlier.
Total time 19:42 – 6:19 pace.
My time was good enough for 7th place overall, 1st Place in the Masters Division or what they politely call those of us over 40 years old.
:13 seconds slower than my course record, :41 faster than our first race on the course one year ago.
All in all, I have to come away pretty happy with how things went for our first race of the summer. The best news is that our knee is back 100% healthy as I did not think about it at all during the race. I have also shed the shin compression sleeve on my right leg that I wore last year after returning from our shin splint woes of 2009.
We’re back, running healthy, running strong, just not quite running “fast” yet. But it’s coming. By the time we show up in Holland, TX for the Cornfest Race on June 18th we should have a great shot at defending our title and post our third consecutive age group win.