Monday, May 28, 2018

The Competitor In Me

Lately I've been thinking about how I don't run to compete against others. I want to see progress in my own journey, I want to get faster and stronger, and if I happen to place well, that's just icing on the cake. I like passing people in races, but I'm typically more focused on my own race and pacing strategy. I won a 5K last February and I was disappointed because I didn't perform as well as I had hoped. The win was a nice consolation prize, but it hadn't been my main goal.

But today I realized that I am more competitive than I thought. I ran the Ringing In Hope 5K in Ashburn, VA. This was my second 5K of the season, with the first having been two weekends ago. Since I ran the Semper Fi 5K in 20:40, I've run 4 hard track workouts and a long run of 14.4 miles. I knew going into today's race that I was more "used to" running fast than I had been two weeks ago.

Before the Race
Greg and I arrived at the race about 50 minutes before it started, got our bibs and I drank my Generation UCAN. It was about 64 degrees and drizzling and I hoped that the light rain would stick around during the race. When it's that humid, I'd rather have the rain cooling me down. As we started our warm up, the rain tapered off and we realized it would be really humid for the race. I can't complain about the weather though. On Saturday and Sunday it was into the 70's by 8:00am, so overcast and 64 was relatively good considering the trend we've been on.

After our 2-mile warm up, we approached the start line and waited for the race to kick off. After the 5-minute early start at the Semper Fi 5K, I wanted to be sure I was at the start line in plenty of time. There were about 10 kids lined up at the very front. I would guess they were around 7-8 years old. By contrast, there weren't many adults lined up at the start and that's when I started sizing up the competition. I didn't see any women at the very front, but there were several a few rows back from me. I lined up behind the children, as there wasn't much choice.

Mile 1
The race started on time, and as soon as it did, one of the kids fell flat on his face as the other kids were trampling on him. I barely missed tripping over him and it wasn't pretty. I know that when you are a kid it's exciting to be at the front and all, but it's dangerous and it would probably be good for kids to learn pacing and patience. I was beaten by one boy in the 11 and under age group, but the rest of them fell behind pretty quickly.

I had never run this course before, even though I had run the race before. They've had this race at a number of different locations and since they moved it to this course I hadn't run it. I knew to expect gently rolling hills throughout and I was relieved that none of the hills were too steep. In cooler temps, this could be a fast course.

There were two women ahead of me, one of whom was wearing a long-sleeved sweat shirt. I don't like to judge a book by its cover but something told me she wouldn't be ahead of me for too long. When I got to the first mile marker, both women were still ahead of me, and I clocked in at 6:33.

Mile 2
Because I wasn't too familiar with the course profile, I didn't have an exact pacing strategy. That meant I wasn't looking at my Garmin often, and I was running more based on feel. The first mile felt comfortable and I knew I had set myself up for a strong finish by not going out too hard.

I passed the woman in the sweatshirt shortly after the first mile marker, and then I crept up on the other woman and passed her right around the halfway point. When I did, I felt like she sped up too and was going to put up a fight, but eventually I didn't hear her anymore. Meanwhile, I was still ahead of Greg. I had gone out faster than him and he hadn't passed me. I saw him at the turnaround and he looked to be about 20 seconds behind me. That's when I had just passed the other woman and had taken the lead, so he could see I was winning at that point.

My split for mile 2 was 6:36.

Mile 3
As I said earlier, I wasn't paying much attention to my Garmin. I was in the lead and all I could think about was how awesome it would be to win. I've run this race multiple times in the past and I never dreamed I could actually win it.

I was still feeling strong and confident as the mile progressed. But somewhere around 2.6 I could hear someone close behind me and it sounded like a woman. I did a quick glance back and sure enough there was a woman right on my tail. It wasn't either of the two women I had passed earlier; this woman had started out slower than me and had been gradually gaining on me throughout the race. And that was scary. I increased my effort slightly and I continued to hear her.

My desire to win became so strong that I found a new gear I didn't realize I had. At around 2.8 I started to surge until I could no longer hear her behind me. Right around the mile 3 marker I heard someone yell that she was really close behind me and that motivated me to run even harder. My mile 3 split was 6:33, and I didn't even look at my watch or notice the time.

The Finish
I heard someone say on a walkie talkie "First female coming through" and I knew they meant me. I was NOT going to lose it now. I turned a corner and saw a guy finish, and then they put up tape for me. I ran toward it like my life depending on it, and broke the take in complete ecstasy and agonizing pain. I did it. I won!

Turns out I ran the last 0.15 miles at an average pace of 5:35. That was fast enough to bring my overall Garmin pace down to 6:32, which is faster than any of my three mile splits!

I felt like I was about to pass out for the first minute so I didn't see Greg finish. It actually took me a good five minutes to be able to speak. It's never taken me so long to recover from a 5K. I felt like death for the next 15 minutes. And even though I was chatting away with the second place female, I felt like I could pass out at any moment. Finally I sat down on a bench and fully recovered.

The results were announced and I ran an official time of 20:30. But the results that were posted online after the race had me at 20:32. Not a big deal, I just don't understand why there would be a discrepancy. My Garmin had 20:32, but I stopped it a little late given that I was busy breaking tape when I crossed! :-) I found out that the second place female was only four seconds behind me. What a close race! I am so happy I didn't ease up the effort. When I won the 5K in February I was a good bit ahead of #2, so it didn't feel like as much of a competition.

I walked away with gift cards to three different restaurants, as well as a gift card to Wegman's. And they are opening a Wegman's a mile away from me next weekend, so that was appropriate.

I definitely would not have run this race as fast if I didn't have competition. I think I would have been more focused on my Garmin and I wouldn't have had the motivation to push as hard during the last
half mile.

In terms of progress, I ran this race 10 seconds faster than I ran Semper Fi two weeks ago, and this course was hillier. I also executed it better in that I had even splits instead of slowing down at the end. I think I am starting to adjust to the humidity and my workouts have helped me transition from marathon fitness to 5K fitness.

And of course, I realized that I can be competitive when it comes to winning. I didn't think I would be so motivated when I felt another runner on my heels, but it did motivate me.

This was a fun race and I enjoyed the course and the atmosphere. I will likely do it again next year! Hopefully I will get the breaking tape photo soon so I can add it to the blog.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Respect the 5K!

Now that I have run over 50 5K races I can confidently say that it does not get any easier. In fact, it feels like it's getting harder for me.

Am I saying this because I'm just coming off of a marathon training cycle and I'm not used to running hard and fast? Maybe. I think that today's race gave me a new perspective on the 5K distance. I'm not discouraged by this perspective, but I think I have a bigger challenge ahead of me than I previously believed if I ever want to run under 20 minutes. Today marks the 1-year anniversary of my official fastest 5K time: 20:17. I've run about 7 5Ks since then and have not been able to go any faster. Granted, I have spent most of that time training for marathons, but at some point I really want to breakthrough this plateau.

Meanwhile, I haven't even raced a 10K in over a year. My fastest 10K and fastest 5K paces are only about 10 seconds apart, so I feel like I have much more opportunity in the 5K. But then. . . it's always harder than I expect.

This morning I raced the Semper Fi 5K in Washington DC. This is my third time running this race. As I said above, I ran my fastest ever time on this course exactly one year ago. The two big differences between today's race and last year's race are the fact that I haven't been training for the 5K distance (last year I had 6 solid weeks behind me), and the weather. It was about 10 degrees warmer this year than last. But still, I was hopeful that I would set a PR. I thought sub-20 was probably a stretch with the heat and humidity, but I really thought I could squeak under 20:17 based on how fast my track workouts were during marathon training.

Before the race
This race did not have race-day packet pickup like it has in years past, so luckily my friend Allison was able to get the bibs for Greg and me. Greg and I met up with Allison and Cheryl, pinned on our bibs, and warmed up to the start line. The race started at 8:30 which annoyed me slightly. If you aren't offering race day bib pickup, then can't you start at 7:30? I guess the race organizers wanted to offer the option of using metro as transportation.

We warmed up for just over two miles and returned to the start line at 7:20. We lined up, in the corral and starting chatting among ourselves. I noticed that it looked like the race was getting ready to start, even though it wasn't even 8:25 yet. And suddenly. . . HONK! The horn went off, catching everyone off guard and the race started five minutes early.

Thankfully, we were lined up and ready, but I can't say the same for some of the other runners who were still finishing their warm ups. Starting a race late is annoying, but starting a race early can really screw things up for people who are finishing their last-minute preparations.

Mile 1
Still in shock by the early start, I realized I was thankful for even 5 minutes of slightly cooler weather. It was 70 degrees and humid, with partly cloudy skies. I went out at a pace of 6:25 and it felt really good. I thought to myself, this feels really comfortable and I will definitely be able to run this pace the whole time! I could tell that Greg was right behind me and I thought it would be great if we could stick together for the whole race.

Initially, there were two women ahead of me, but I passed one of them about 3/4 of the way through the first mile. I was now in second place. But then, a woman came up from behind and passed me as we approached the mile 1 marker. I assume she must have been one of the people who missed the start of the race and had to work her way up in the pack. I was once again the third female. My 1-mile split was 6:25.

Mile 2
Shortly after the mile marker, I felt myself slowing down, even though I was keeping the effort level
steady. And then I got a cramp in my chest. It was uncomfortable but I was able to still run through it. The race suddenly became very difficult. I pushed harder in order to try and maintain my pace but it was not happening. I was getting slower and slower but pushing harder and harder.

Greg was a few feet ahead of me at the turnaround point, and then he widened the gap even farther as we made our way back toward the finish line. I kept reminding myself that it was supposed to hurt and that hurt = happy, but it wasn't helping. I wanted to stop so badly. And I momentarily told myself I would never run another 5K again. I didn't think there was any way I would make it to the finish line. It took every ounce of mental strength I had to not stop and walk. And yes, this was still during mile 2! My split was 6:42.

Mile 3
I tried to rally for the final mile, as that was part of my original race strategy. I wanted the final mile to be my fastest as it has been in years past. The best way to describe mile 3 is torture. I was in so much pain and even though I knew I wasn't going to PR, I told myself I had to "practice" the feeling of pain so that when my PR day arrived, I would be able to take full advantage of it.

I think success in the 5K is largely dependent on how much pain tolerance you have. I can be moderately uncomfortable for a long time in a half or full marathon. But I struggle to allow myself to feel so much pain, even for a short period of time. I decided I would salvage the race by practicing the act of continuing to give, give, give even when I felt like I had nothing to give. I logged a 6:47 split for the final mile. This was followed by a 6:25 paced run to the finish line.

After the Race
I felt like I needed to collapse after I crossed the finish. I found a nearby tree to lean on. And then it took 2-3 minutes to be able to talk to Greg, who had finished in 20:18. Thankfully, I was able to see Allison and Cheryl finish although instead of cheering I just waved my arms.

That was a MASSIVE amount of effort and quite torturous. And it got me a time of 20:40. Sigh. I have to admit I'm little bit discouraged but in a positive way. I have even more respect for the 5K distance so when I do finally break 20, it will feel like more of an accomplishment. I think that going sub-20 this summer will be a long shot, although not entirely impossible.

I'm pleased that I had so much "fight" in me this morning, as compared to the Crystal City 5K I ran in early April. During that race the last mile was into a headwind and uphill and I just didn't have the motivation to fight for it.

Me, Allison, and Cheryl
In hindsight, do I think I should have gone out slower? Actually, no. I think that the best pacing strategy is probably to go out hard and try to hang on. It was very difficult to hold on during the second half of the race so if I had started slower, it would have been even more difficult to motivate myself to run faster. I think I am going to have to keep doing that if I want to test my limits. It would be one thing if I totally crashed and burned like I did in Crystal City. But I held it together just well enough to not be crawling at the end.

After the race, we got our awards and did a cool down jog back to the car, followed by brunch.

To sum up the key takeaways:

  • Sub-20 or even setting a PR will be more difficult than I expected; I have a lot of work to do
  • This race was excellent practice for pushing through the pain and suffering
  • I have this experience to channel when I run future races
  • I had fun! I got to hang out with Allison, Cheryl, and of course Greg
  • It's not a warm-weather PR but it's a warm-and-humid PR!

Two more weeks of training and then I'll put myself through this whole ordeal again!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Keep the P in PR

Personal Record. Or, Personal Best if you are in most places outside of the United States. This concept of a PR or PB (we'll use PR for the sake of this blog post) is what motivates many runners to do what they do. We want to see progress. We want that feeling of knowing that we're fittest and faster than we ever have been before. The feeling that all those early mornings and hard workouts somehow "paid off" and we have proof of it.

Now that social media is intertwined so heavily into our lives as runners, and real-life running communities are developing and growing, I think we've lost the P in PR. A personal record is just that, personal.

When I was working with a sports psychologist and heavily frustrated over my lack of PRs, he encouraged me to be less rigid in what I define as a PR. He told me I could have as many PRs as I wanted:
  • Hot weather PRs
  • Hilly course PRs
  • Windy weather PRs
  • Garmin PRs
  • Training PRs
When you've run over 100 races like I have, and have been doing it for 12+ years, you'll probably only set a distance PR when the race has ideal weather, the course is relatively flat, and you're able to run the tangents (26.2 miles instead of 26.4, for example). Should you be robbed of all the PR glory I talked about above just because the weather sucked? Or the course was difficult?

The great thing about a truly personal record is that you define the criteria. I'm a data junkie so I like to track pretty much everything. I have a list of official records (if you're on a desktop PC you can see it in the right column) but I also track personal records for varying circumstances. Let's take the recent Boston Marathon for example.

Comparing last month's Boston to my official PR marathon of Myrtle Beach, I quickly realize this is a case of apples and oranges. I ran Boston in 3:26:53 and Myrtle Beach in 3:21:54. Let's break it down:

Myrtle Beach
 Hills  4 large uphills late in the race  Flat
 Wind  20-25 sustained headwind the whole way  10-15 mph headwind for miles 8-20 
 Air Temp  High 30s Low 40s
 Precipitation   Heavy downpours throughout None
 Logistics  55-min bus ride + 90-min wait outside Leave hotel 30 mins before race start
 Tangents   Curvy road, a few turns (26.48) Straight road, a few turns (26.23)

Officially, my record for fastest marathon is 3:21:54 at Myrtle Beach. What do I consider my personal record for best marathon performance? Boston. There were so many more obstacles and the race was less about fitness and more about strategy. I had a strategy for what I would do in athletes village. I had a strategy for my outfit and for changing my shoes before the race start. I had a pacing strategy that was specific to the course and the windy conditions. Boston was also more about attitude. It's easy to run fast when you leave your hotel room 30 minutes prior to race start with near perfect weather and the course is flat. I didn't need my mental toughness skills as much on that day.

Personally, I think my best marathon accomplishment is Boston. And, it's actually my fastest BQ margin, considering I am aging up for the 2019 race. My former self would have speculated on what I could have done if the weather weren't so horrible. But the time for that speculation was when I was training and setting goals; before the forecast came out. I had been targeting a 3:15-3:17, but I was able to accept my new reality once I learned what I would be facing. I got over it pretty quickly.

Army Ten-Miler 2017
Another example is the 10-mile distance. My official 10-mile race PR is 1:10:24 and when I ran that I was slightly disappointed. I had been trying to break 1:10:00, and I believed I had the fitness to do so. Weather conditions had been perfect but for whatever reason I just wasn't able to run what I believed I could have. On the other hand, when I ran a 1:13 at the Army 10-Miler in 74-degree, humid weather, I was elated with my performance. I typically don't run well in the heat, but I started out really conservatively and was able to run a huge negative split, passing loads of people in the second half.

Another great thing about personal records is that you can have them for training runs. I used to get frustrated when I would run really fast paces in training and then my official results wouldn't line up. I needed to learn to embrace the training PRs, and to have patience that the fast race times would naturally follow. I was really excited when I ran 19 miles with 15 at marathon pace, and marathon pace averaged 7:21. I didn't feel like I was straining at all! I felt like that run showed me that I had brought my fitness to a new level.

My former self would have been really upset that my actual marathon pace was much slower, but I'm not upset at all. I know what I am capable of and that's super rewarding. Would I like an official race pace of 7:21? Sure! But I need good weather, a flat course and easy logistics. Only 2 of those 3 are in my control.

As the summer approaches, I am gearing up to run a bunch of 5Ks. Most will be hot. Some will be flat, others will be hilly. I'll be able to run the tangents at some of them, for others, I won't. The coolest, flattest, and most direct 5K is going to be the first one, when I am least conditioned to race that distance. And the hilliest, curviest, hottest and humid 5Ks will come once I've had a few months of 5K training behind me. So, as I embark on this journey I need to keep the personal in personal record. I define the criteria. What I'm trying to accomplish might be completely different from what someone else is trying to accomplish. I may technically be racing hundreds of other women, but I know that each of us has our own purpose.