Always an interesting day to wake up on. Sometimes the alarm goes off and I hop right out of bed. Other mornings I have been lying awake for hours, unable to relax, unable to sleep, the thoughts of hills, mile splits and a time clock ticking in my mind. Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Virginia Beach, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Miami, Tempe, Charleston, Kerrville or Austin – doesn’t really matter – there are things about those mornings that are all the same – and certain things of course that are different.
I’ve found that keeping the same routine whether it is a “big” race or a small one helps to keep me relaxed and focused. After checking the weather forecast the night before I lay out my race gear, pin my race bib to my shorts and have everything that I need ready to go. Race flats in my run bag, my warm-up shoes laid out and ready to go. No surprises. No last minute scrambling around burning valuable energy needlessly.
Saturday morning for the local Thin Mint Sprint was not what I would consider a pressure race, with about 250 runners expected to race a local 5K benefitting Girl Scout Troup 2063. But for us returning from injury and this being the first race of the year where we were relatively sound and fit, I was hoping to run a strong race and be able to hold pace from start to finish. I decided to race this one “blind” – meaning no watch to beep at me and feed me data every half-mile.
Just keep the watch on time of day – (I used it to measure my 2-mile warm-up) – then keep it shut down for the race.
Knowing that missing 5-weeks of training was a hole I am still digging my way out of, I didn’t want an opening 1/2 mile to scare me into slowing down, or force me into a faster pace than my body was ready for just because a device on my wrist told me so. Runners have been racing by feel for a hundred years. Sometimes less is more and tapping into a more primitive mindset is what your body needs.
Running “naked” is a freeing experience. Naked, meaning with no technology. I do it on training runs all the time to let my mind and body get in synch. Seemed like a good time to try it on race day.
So with that exception, I treated Saturday’s tune-up race the same as the 5o before it. Press the issue early, find your rhythm, stay strong in the middle, close hard late. Every PR I have ever run at any distance has followed that exact plan. I’m a “hang-on” racer, just the way we’re wired.
Pre-Race: At the sound of the alarm I hit the snooze button for an extra 10-minutes of sack time. I flexed my legs, rotated my ankles, started to gently and gradually wake up the machine. When I hopped out of bed and got in the shower I was feeling rested and solid. One distraction this week from training was the fact that Super-Wife was in Spain for work. Landry and I had been one-on-one since last Friday and my training was spotty this week to be kind. I only could manage two workouts – but they both were very solid. Although I would have rather had some volume on my legs this week, I did feel good about the fact that they had a lot of snap, crackle and pop on my run days.
I had the usual pre-race bagel, no banana this time and made my way over to the Cedar Park Center. An easy, no-traffic 15 minute ride to the start. I arrived on site and although we had picked up our race bib on Friday – and our box of Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies – we still had to pick up our timing chip. We got parked, grabbed our run bag and water and made our way over to the tents.
53 degrees, a little wind blowing, overcast skies. Not a perfect day for racing, but not a bad one either. Call it neutral weather I thought.
I grabbed my chip and decided to walk down to the start area to figure out where the route went and get ready for my warm-up when I heard “JOE!” over my shoulder. My good buddy Andy Bitner was in line to get his chip. Great to see Andy and I knew that I had a younger faster runner that would be in front to set pace. I wasn’t sure who else would be there racing on Saturday – but it was awesome to know Andy would be there to give me someone to chase and to keep me honest. Andy was going for sub 18:00, I was in 18:30 shape I figured, not quite back to our 18:02 PR level from December, but we were gaining on it. It was shaping up to be a fun morning.
Warm-Up: Andy and I dropped gear at his car and went out to the course to run a 2-mile warm-up. The shorter the race, the longer the warm-up as the story goes. It is a good idea to get good and warm before blasting out at the start of a 5K, 5-miler, 10K as you have to get that engine running smoothly and efficiently as quickly as possible. The race simply isn’t long enough to settle in.
At the top of mile 1 we ran into a training buddy of Andy’s Catherine – one of the top female Age Groupers in the area. I now knew two other runners that would be running in the top 5. The only question is whether or not we would be there with them. After a couple of miles right around 8:00 min./mile pace to shake loose we went back to the car, switched shoes and got ready to rumble. 5 minutes to the gun.
Go-Time: Runners assembled into a very narrow start area and we pressed to the front. As is often the case at the smaller local races, young children press to the front and can make it a bit dangerous to get out clean where a tangle of feet or a misstep can cause a runner to crash to the ground or turn an ankle. My goal in races like this is to get up front and get out quickly, run a quick 200 meters to get the blood flowing and get clear of all the danger, then settle into my pace and cruise. Standard, simple, strategic.
Runners to your mark, set, horn – and we were off. Just as planned we got out quick, Andy ran next to me and then slightly ahead as we completed the first 400 meters and made the first right turn uphill and into the wind. The same section we ran during our warm-up, we would run straight to the top of mile 1, make another right – head to a turnaround at the mid-point and then retrace our steps to the finish line. Nice course – all smooth paved road – perfect footing with only 6 turns.
Racing: As we settled into the middle of the first mile a runner came by my left side and pulled ahead of Andy pushing us down to 3rd place. Unsure of our exact pace, it felt like we were clipping along around 5:45 pace. Meaning Andy and the other runner were running around 5:30. Too rich for our blood even on our most fit day, so I checked it down and locked it in. Stay even to the turnaround and then I would have a chance to see who was behind us.
We made the turn at the top of mile 1, Andy had retaken the lead position and started to stretch his lead a bit. We had a slight downhill section to the turnaround to enjoy, but unfortunately, the wind was blowing directly against the runners. Instead of picking up :15 it felt like it was a bit more like only :05.
At the turnaround we were firmly in third place with a 200 meter lead on the 4th place runner. It looked to be Catherine, but they were still navigating the loop in a small park which made spotting her difficult. I powered back up the hill and marked to the 1-mile to go point.
Here is where I could tell that I was not all the way back from a fitness perspective. I will typically run the fourth half-mile faster than the third in a 5K, the fifth faster than the fourth and the sixth the fastest of the race with the exception of the opening 1/2 mile. That first 1/2 mile with all of the adrenaline is always the fastest. When I started to lengthen my stride out entering the final mile of the race Saturday, it just isn’t quite there yet.
I pushed a bit but the acceleration that I usually enjoy was more like a steady grind. I was no slower through this mile, but if I was any faster it was only negligible. The good news is my track position was staying the same. Nobody was gaining ground on the downhill stretch, but I was not able to cut into the two leaders ahead.
I made the final left turn with 1/4 mile to go and surged a bit. Finally the legs started to spin up with a closing kick and we hit the mat solidly in 3rd place.
Finish: 18:23. :20 seconds faster than we were two weeks ago, :11 seconds off of our “old PR” that stood for more than two years up until this past December where we blew that time out of the water with our 18:02. Basically the fastest we have ever been in our life. So all in all – it was a great morning, a well executed race and we were able to see our friend Andy finish first overall and run a new PR breaking 18:00 minutes in the 5K for the first time in his life.
Post Race: We hung around for the awards ceremony, caught up a bit on things and talked about joining Andy’s training group in the coming months. I think that it is time for us to look at a change in our training regimen if we are going to continue to make strides and force adaptation at 45 1/2 years old.
Training on our own, developing our own training plans and workouts has taken us from a 3:58:06 marathon debut to a two-time Boston Marathon Finisher, a 1:23:30 half-marathoner with a solid 37:30 best 10K. Not too shabby for a runner in their mid 40’s. But we’re not done yet and we still have two goals out there that mean something to us.
That sub 3 hour marathon and a sub 18 minute 5K.
Running is absolutely an individual sport and effort. It is one of the great metaphors for life. Nobody can do it for you.
But to think that we are all in this alone is an egomaniacal and foolish view. We all have people in our lives who help us from time to time. Give us a pat on the back when we need it and a firm kick in the ass when required.
Maybe it’s time that we took that reality to our running. One of the truly great things about the sport is that you can always reinvent yourself even as a 45-year-old Dad.
In two weeks we’ll be teeing it up at the Cooper River Bridge Run with 40,000 fellow runners on April 6th. We’ve got two weeks to try to get as ready as possible for that event.
As Dom would say. Time to go to work.