Running for years without a break, mostly, tends to start repeating itself if you don’t make deliberate changes. The workouts repeat, the training routes repeat, the races repeat, and so on. So when I got it in my head to do this 5 mile race I thought I’d switch things up a bit and not lose any training time in the process. I take races very seriously, because they are HARD and demand a great deal of mental preparation and focus, so I tend not to throw any other components into the mix except proper rest and readiness. This time, however, I decided to throw all that out the window and see what it was like to drop a hard race in the middle of my scheduled Saturday long run of 16 miles. This is how things played out…
I left my house and began a long, slow 8 mile run as equal parts pre-race taxation and warmup, running slow enough to avoid any unnecessary damage that I might inflict upon myself deeper into the race. I arrived at the start line and just shy of 8 miles about 20 minutes before the gun went off, allowing for more warmup, striders and mental prep, which I was going to need. I felt surprisingly strong during my striders and hoped that muscular strength would hold out as deep into the race as possible.
After a bit of extended ceremony the race director sent a “skinny santa” off down the course as a prize incentive for the first runner to catch him. That sort of incentive may appeal to some, but that wasn’t my focus today. A group of us anxiously stepped to the first timing strip as a German St. Nik counted the race down….and at “One” (in German) we leapt from the line in unison, a pack of us stretching out down the straight.
I found myself out in front immediately, but was consciously not pushing the pace as I prepared for a more rapid fatigue due to my previous miles. I wanted to play it safe, but no one was trying to press me. There was, however, an audible pack just behind me consisting of typically fast dressed runners, some hanger’s on and a couple Five-Finger wearers slapping the pavement with a seemingly painful resonance. We moved through the first mile and I noticed my breathing wasn’t skyrocketing as it sometimes does, leading me to believe I was strong in the lungs at this point or taking out the race too slow. I couldn’t tell how quickly we were rolling, but I still remained calm as another runner came up to keep me company with the pack still beating out behind us.
Then with just about 150 meters to the first mile marker a Saucony sponsored runner pushed right past us to the front at a pace which indicated we were running far too slow for his abilities. Or maybe he saw the Skinny Santa up ahead and wanted to make sure he was in position to get him. Either way, after he rolled by, FOUR more runners passed me and I suddenly found myself in sixth place, feeling quite absurd for getting dropped before I could even blink. A sort of disappointment and inadequacy washed over me as the group stayed just a couple paces ahead and I hung off the back hoping the fatigue later in the race might switch up the situation.
We ran through the first mile at 5:17, a touch slow for a 5 mile race, but a distinctly smart pace for me after my warm up. That bouyed my positivity for a bit. Then without realizing what was going on up ahead I looked up just in time to see the leader tap the santa on the shoulder as he ran by, with no one else giving chase. And that was that. Everything was rolling pretty casually at this point, evidenced by the ONLY 5k runner in our group of 6 peeling away from us onto the 5k course with a two finger peace sign thrown up, as if to say, “Enjoy the race, I’m out of here.” That guy must have won by minutes considering no one else went with him. And admittedly, considering my situation, I would have been pretty psyched if nearly the whole pack in front of me split off on the 5k course as well…but that certainly didn’t happen. I still sat in 5th place, well off the podium.
But then we started up a short and almost imperceptible incline, but an incline no less. To my advantage, I ride this street (and many streets on this course) on my bike every day so I’m acutely aware of where they go up slightly and where they go down, and I made a mental note to use these to my advantage. And sure enough, as we started up this incline I was immediately back with the pack of four, while the leader sat just a few paces in front of us.
We turned into an historic neighborhood where the streets leveled out and continued eating up distance, when suddenly I found the pace noticeably slowed, so without hesitation I pushed forward, weaved through a couple runners and almost immediately shot out the front of the pack, bringing the leader back ever so slowly.
I remember feeling comfortable ahead of the pack, thinking to myself, “Yeah! You’re in this! That’s how you do it!”
Filled with a sudden burst of adrenaline I pushed out a little further in hopes of dropping some of the pack as we passed the second mile. The leader was just a couple paces ahead as we turned the opposite direction in the neighborhood and started back up another short, quick rise. The muscular fatigue was still holding off and although my lungs were mildly taxed with the rise and fall of the course, I was able to reel them back in on the flats, which I know is a good sign for fighting later on when I need them.
Our pack ate up the ground we had just covered as another runner pulled up just next to me, the same runner who sat with me through the start, and the sound of footfalls behind us quieted. We had dropped another runner, leaving the leader just up ahead and three of us working simultaneously with and against each other.
Popping out of the neighborhood we turned towards the 3rd mile split and back down the road we first ran up. I consciously worked the decline, letting my legs take the pull of gravity while my lungs worked a little extra hard to keep pace. The other runner held right at my side, at times getting half a step ahead as we continued down the street at a pace that turned out to be too fast for the 4th runner, whose footfalls faded into the background until they went silent.
Then in a moment of traffic pattern confusion a truck came up beside us just before we made another turn on the course. The runner next to me waved him back, but he didn’t heed the warning and as we started to make the turn he had to yell at the driver and dart in front of him, just as the driver hit the brakes, managing to avoid clipping either one of us. All part of an urban race I guess.
I missed the 3rd mile split as it was hidden behind the errant driver, but no matter, my concern was just up ahead at the next turn. We had now reconvened with the 5k runners and found ourselves doing a little dodging and weaving to avoid the long line of slow running groups in front of us.
“Runners back!”, I had to yell as kids and adults alike swerved carelessly around the course, trying to avoid a race ending collision.
Internally though, I was recognizing that a fight was about to begin between both myself and the other runner. I pulled up next to him and went into full assessment mode to see how this was about to play out. What was his breathing like? We were both starting to breath audibly, but I heard his rhythm break and double skip, a sure sign he was maxing his systems. What was MY breathing like? It was quickened for sure, but also rhythmic and I could stabilize it with deep breaths if necessary. Admittedly, his form looked good and so he could still keep pace on strength alone, but I also felt good. Surprisingly good. I assumed at this point I might be fighting my legs and having to resort to my arms, my quads threatening to buckle on any uneven pavement, but instead they held strong and were able to counter any small ground the other runner was making.
It was obvious. This was going to be a fight. One of us was going to have to make a move and the other would have to counter or drop. Those are the rules.
Now, prior to the race I had assessed the course using my first hand knowledge of it’s topography, and it was at the 3.5 mile turning point that I told myself, “If you need to fight, to make a move in the race, THIS is where you do it. It’s a mile and a half to the finish and full 800 meters of downward trajectory. This is the best place to use the course to your advantage.” Laughably, I never thought I’d actually be in the position to use the course or fight for placing, not because I was confident that I wouldn’t have competitors or anything arrogant like that, but because those considerations were more just exaggerated stories in my head. Narratives of exciting race scenarios where two runners are battling it out, yet narratives that pretty much NEVER happen. Still, it’s fun to think about.
And yet here I was, taking the turn with another runner at 3.5 miles, 800 meters of downward road in front of us and an endless line of slower 5k runners to blow by. And with a noticeable surge I started pushing, getting a stride in front of the other runner, and when he came back into my periphery, pushing yet again to lose sight of him. And when I lost sight of him the second time, I really laid into it. My legs were turning over rapidly and my lungs were starting to get out of control. I thought to the intervals I did on Tuesday and how those felt and then to the mile repeats I did on Thursday and how those felt, and I forced myself to mimic the speed and exhaustion I felt knocking those out, knowing that If I could get to that effort, I was doing everything I could.
Continuing to pass the 5k runners I neared the end of the decline at exactly 4 miles, took the turn where the road mercilessly flattened out, and realized the other runner was no longer with me. Not next to me, not right behind me. I couldn’t hear his footfalls nor anyone cheering him on. I broke him….maybe.
I HOPED I had broke him, but with a full mile to go and my body now fully taxed by that fight, it was very possible he could move back up on me if I couldn’t keep the effort to the finish.
I looked ahead and saw the bright orange jersey of the leader about 5 or 10 seconds up the road and used him to keep the fight. We ate up the course and every so often I noticed the leader coming back a hair, but I also noticed the leader running smooth enough and looking around to say, “Hey, this is pretty fun.” I was convinced I wasn’t going to catch him, or if I did, he could drop the hammer without thinking about it. Still, I used him to press on and hopefully keep 3rd place out of spitting distance.
At this point the only fight taking place was against myself, and that fight was growing. I was pushing all out at this point, letting my heartrate beat wildly, my breathing go erratic and pushing through that distinct sensation in my legs of a sponge dripping with saturation, the lactic acid consuming my body and trying to lock up my lower half. The end was close though and I fought through, getting to that point I could just let it all out.
The leader took the last turn and I saw him look back, making eye contact with me and putting in a surge to prevent any last second sneak attack. I took the turn soon thereafter and did the same, looking over my shoulder for 3rd place, but seeing no one, fortunately.
I threw all reservation to the curb and kicked down the last 2 blocks, suddenly finding a sprinting gear amidst all the lactic acid in the last block. I caught sight of the timing clock above the finish, “25:50” it read.
“Oh hell no, you’re not going over 26!”, my inner coach yelled to me and I kicked as hard as I could, hitting my watch just as I crossed the finish and abruptly slowed to avoid crashing into a barrier. I caught my breath and looked at my watch for the final mile split, “4:59”. Shit yeah!
After my systems shut down and slowed to a manageable degree I picked up my long sleeve shirt and gloves I had discarded before the race and started my cooldown back home, finishing the 16 miles my coach has scheduled for me. I was stoked!
There was a lot of apprehension and “what if’s” going into this race, coupled with a dose of, “just how fit am I right now?”, so to incorporate that into my long run and race both quick and smart has injected me with a powerful dose of confidence leading on. Things are finally falling back into place. Next up is a 1/2 marathon in two weeks, in both a new race and on a new course. To new experiences!
St. Niklaus 5 miler
25:55 (5:11 average)