I will own it: I am often a basket of neuroses before a race. Despite being late to just about everything else in my life, when it comes to race day, I want to get there AT LEAST half an hour early. That way I have plenty of time to use the bathroom (maybe even more than once!), make sure my shoes are double-knotted, fiddle with my race bib, have some water, do some dynamic warm-ups, and get lined up without feeling rushed. Though I’m not an elite runner, I have my pre-race rituals, and I feel way more relaxed and in the zone when I have enough time to do them.
Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also tried to embrace flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches a bit more. One quip I have frequently used to calm my nerves before a race is, “Relax! You aren’t going to win the race.” It might sound pessimistic, but for me, it takes the pressure off. It reminds me that running is just something fun that I do for myself, and that’s it. The worst thing that happens is *gasp* I STOP RUNNING. I’m not going to lose a sponsorship/my livelihood, no one’s life is hanging in the balance, and my worth as a person in no way depends on my race results.
The only thing is, today the mantra broke down. I cannot believe that I, once the caboose of my middle school cross-country team, am writing these words, but: this morning, I actually did win the (women’s) race for the 5K I ran in.
Was it part luck? Absolutely. It was a small community race with only 40-50 entrants, and the really fast ladies obviously had other things to do this morning.
Even so, I want to take some credit. I PR’d by over 45 seconds, and am now tantalizingly close to my long-term goal of breaking 25 minutes in the 5K. Fingers crossed that I can keep up the consistent training I’ve been doing, because I think that will get me there.
In the meantime, though, I may need to tweak my pre-race mantra a bit. I may not be a likely contender in most races that I do, but as I learned today, it’s now possible that conditions could align just right, and I might, in fact, win the race!
Not much has been going on in my day-to-day running life since my October updates, and with the holiday season in full swing plus some other projects I have going, I haven’t been updating as much as I would like. But, I did get to run two fun races in the last few weeks. First was the Grove City Thanksgiving Wattle 5K on Thanksgiving, which I ran back in my home state of Ohio (alas, I have done several Ohio races already, so it didn’t count toward the state tally). Second was Saturday night’s Festivus One-Miler in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which did indeed count toward the state tally. Race recaps below.
About two weeks before Thanksgiving, I got a text from my sister.
“Are you running a 5k in cbus for thanksgiving?”
Thinking nothing of it, I answered, “8k but yes planning to!” (At the time, I was fairly certain I’d be doing the Columbus Turkey Trot 8K in Upper Arlington).
“Noo I was gonna say we should do a 5k together”
*cue record scratch sound effect*
For a brief moment, I thought to peek outside in case there were pigs flying by my window. My sister, who hates running (although she is a fitness buff in all kinds of other ways), and has complained vocally to me every time she’s had to run for any reason, was asking me…VOLUNTARILY!…to run a 5k. Could this actually be real?!
She was not kidding, so I delightedly scrapped my plans for the 8K and found us the Thanksgiving Wattle 5K in Grove City, and my sister began a two-week Couch-to-5K redux training regimen to get ready for the big day (the rest of you, don’t try this at home).
Race morning dawned a tropical 30 or so degrees, but sunny. Mom agreed to put Thanksgiving prep on hold for a couple of hours to watch the live comedy show that was about to unfold, Dad packed up the camera, and at around 7am, the family schlepped over to Grove City for packet pick-up. I definitely miscalculated here. Being used to the chaos and bedlam of Chicago traffic and parking, when the organizers sent an email cautioning us to get there early in order to find parking, I took it to mean REALLY early, lest we end up parked a gazillion miles away from the starting line. Alas with the giant mall parking lot available by the AMC theater, it turns out I catastrophized way too hard in my time estimates. So, we all ended up sitting in the car for about an hour and a half after my sister and I picked up our packets, waiting for the race start at 9am. Oops. At least the car was warm?
Pre-race, my sister and I decided we would try to run it together. Her “dream goal” was to break 30 minutes, but her more “realistic” goal based on her two weeks of training was to finish between 30-35 minutes. We agreed that we’d start off a little easier than my usual race pace, which would put us just under 30 minutes if we held it, and see how that felt. If we had to slow down, no big deal. It was a turkey trot, not the Olympic trials.
About 15 minutes before the race start time, we made our way over to the starting line across the parking lot, marveling at the runners braving the frigid morning in shorts and tank tops as we pulled on our gloves and hats (pretty sure the tank top- and short-clad runners were the ones who actually won). Even just standing outside for 15 minutes made my feet go numb, so once the race started and we took off, I spent a good quarter mile feeling like a particularly uncoordinated Bigfoot.
Once I got the feeling back in my feet, though, I had a great time. The course itself was a quick out-and-back route, and featured a couple of rolling hills back through the neighborhood behind the mall. I ran what I gauged to be a medium-hard pace, about what I would do for a tempo run (certainly not slacking), and my sister kept up like a champ. I checked in every so often to see how she felt, but she never wavered in her insistence that we keep the pace, even on the tougher uphill stretches.
With no expectations whatsoever, we made the turn onto the final straightaway. I spotted the finish line clock, and much to my surprise, it had just ticked over 28 minutes. Not bad…a time that once required nearly an all-out, PR pace was now apparently just “medium hard” for me, effort-wise…hooray for improvements!
At that moment though, I was more excited that my sister’s dream goal of breaking 30 was solidly within reach. “Yo, we’re gonna break 30!” I said, hardly able to contain myself.
She immediately perked up out of her mile-3 drudgery.
“Feel like you can sprint to the end?” I asked.
“YES!” she exclaimed, and gleefully took off in a sprint.
Following her lead, I dashed as quickly as my feet would carry me for that last tenth of a mile, and the two of us finished in just slightly over 28.5 minutes…a fantastic first 5K time for my sister. Mom and Dad met us at the finish line to celebrate, and the best part? Getting our pumpkin pie “finisher prize” to take home for dessert!
Festivus One Miler
You could say that from my home base of Chicago, checking off a race in Wisconsin is relatively low-hanging fruit, and you would be correct, especially for a race in Milwaukee, which is only about an hour and a half away. That said, sometimes it’s nice to throw in an “easy” state, so I figured I would end my 2017 season with a December race in Milwaukee.
When I came across the Festivus One Miler on runningintheusa.com, it immediately jumped out as the race to do. I’d never raced just a straight mile before, and was curious what sort of time I could post. At the same time, the spirit of the race was fundamentally lighthearted, featuring a ceremonial “airing of grievances” before the start, and a beer stop at the half-mile mark. So really, my goal became seeing how fast I could run a mile while stopping for a beer halfway through (and ideally not puking on the way to the finish line).
I’d originally planned to run the race with a friend and his wife, but alas, they had to bail last minute due to the dreaded December crud going around. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to make last-minute arrangements to get myself to Wisconsin…I reserved a rental car for later that day, and around 3pm I headed up to Milwaukee, giving myself plenty of time to find parking near the race and pick up my packet.
Truth be told, I spent more time driving to and from the race than at the race itself, but for the short time I was there, the Festivus One Miler certainly delivered on what I anticipated to be its humor and lightheartedness. A couple of minutes before the race start, they played excerpts from Seinfeldover the loudspeakers as an “intro” to the holiday made famous by the show, and true to the promise in their advertising, we then all partook in a collective airing (read: indistinct shouting) of grievances. Then, we got on our way, dashing up Brady Street toward the awaiting libations.
Perhaps my only grievance about the race itself was that at the beer stop, the beer was warm. They had warned us about this ahead of time, but nothing can really adequately prepare a person for the flavor of warm Bud Light, which can only be described as…unfortunate. My original intent was to finish the beer before continuing on, but I got a few sips in before I just couldn’t. But! I thought brilliantly to myself. Maybe I can sip it WHILE I run the last half mile!
So I headed out from the beer stop, warm mini Bud Light in hand. This turned out to be a terrible life choice, because running=shaking, and shaking beer=foamy disaster. My gloves probably still smell like booze. At any rate, I choked down a few more sips of foamy, warm beer mid-run before finally deciding the multitasking involved was not worth the effort, and without missing a beat, tossed the rest into a trashcan that I passed by in the last quarter mile.
Having bailed on the beer, I could fully focus on finishing strong, though I really didn’t have too high of expectations. Much to my surprise, though, I ended up finishing in 7:24, well below my previous mile PR of 8 minutes (which, it should be noted, I had done on a treadmill without trying to drink a beer halfway through). Success? I’d say so!
So, after solidly breaking the 8-minute mile barrier for my last 2017 race, I am heading into the holiday season feeling energized and excited. Wishing you all a happy Festivus/Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year’s/etc., and looking forward to seeing 2018 takes us all!
Yesterday, my Facebook memories reminded me about the time I read an internet comment where someone thought the 26.2 (marathon runner) bumper sticker on someone else’s car stood for a Psalm verse. In the spirit of this person’s confusion, I Googled the Psalm verses corresponding to various race distances. The hilariously apt results:
26.2 (marathon): Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind. So far, not a test I have accepted.
13.1 (half marathon): How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? I would say this a very accurate description of what mile 9 feels like.
6.2 (10k): Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. Those middle distance races will do that to you.
3.1 (5k): O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Sounds like starting line chaos to me!
But seriously, these all need to be made into T-shirts, if they don’t already exist.
Being between race training plans is always sort of an odd time. Ever since I finished my most recent 5K in mid-June, I haven’t been following any kind of structured schedule with running. I’ve been aiming to get in a couple runs per week, but that’s about it. After the Swarthmore race, I ended up having some non-running related projects come up, plus a couple of pleasantly distracting visits from dear friends where catching up took priority over squeezing in a few miles, so overall, I’ve been happy to take a short break.
Besides allowing me the time to focus on other life priorities, I also really enjoy periodic running breaks because I almost always find I come back from them feeling well-rested and stronger. In my most extreme case, I actually dropped about 2 minutes from my previous 5K time after not running for about a year. Yet even for short breaks like this past week, I still find that my running noticeably improves afterwards.
Case in point: Recently I’ve noticed that part of what slows me down is actually my arm movement, so I’ve consciously been working on that, especially towards the end of a run when I might be getting tired. I have a huge tendency in running (and really in day-to-day life in general) to hike up my shoulders when I get tense and/or fatigued, which of course is a complete waste of energy. Along with that, if my upper body is tense, my arm swing constricts and/or my arms start crossing over the midline, and either way, it slows down my stride considerably…I really noticed this at the end of the 8K last week. If I’m able to keep my shoulders relaxed and my arm swing natural, I can easily maintain a much faster pace than if I don’t.
Fast forward to today. Got home from work and decided to do a quick 3-3.5 miles, no watch, no pressure. Although the temperature still hovered in the 80s, I felt great the entire time. A cool breeze blew in from the lake, and the few times my arms and shoulders felt like they were creeping up, I quickly adjusted. My stride felt smooth and easy nearly the entire time. It’s like something clicked for me during my days off, and now I feel ready to build the intensity back up again.
This upcoming week, I start training in earnest for my next big race, the Chicago Half Marathon in late September. I’ll possibly have a few shorter races between then and now (including a new state if all goes well!), but will mostly be focusing on getting ready to tackle 13.1 miles for the second time. I’m excited to be getting out of training limbo and into a more structured regimen again, and after having a couple of weeks to relax, I feel ready, both physically and mentally, for the challenge ahead.
I am not one of those people who sailed into the world of running, buoyed by endless reserves of natural ability. My first foray into the sport was an ill-fated attempt at cross country during my middle school years. Somehow, I reasoned at the time, getting involved in a sport would rescue my social standing from the depths of nerd-dom, and given that I had absolutely zero ability at any sport involving hand-eye coordination (let’s not talk about the time I accidentally CAUGHT THE BALL during a game of volleyball in 6th grade gym class), cross-country seemed like a safe bet. No flying projectiles to dodge, just me, myself, and I, gracefully galloping through the woods. Or so I envisioned. Nevermind that I had never so much as jogged around the block before attempting this feat, I was gonna be a runner!
Suffice it to say, I started off at the back of the pack during the first day of summer conditioning practice, and really it only went downhill from there. The top runners on our team finished races in times faster than I could even think. Meanwhile, my one and only season as a student athlete was marked with near-constant last place finishes and a whole lot of wheezing. In one particularly egregious instance, I finished (in last place of course) a race on an overcast, 45-50-degree October day. Turns out cold air + asthma + exertion was a pretty gnarly combination for me at the time…I gasped for air like a dying fish at the finish line and could hardly speak, which prompted my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) to whisk my sorry self straight into the school cafeteria for a 20-minute nebulizer treatment. Remember that part about wanting to improve my social standing and be one of the cool kids? Turns out that “doing a breathing treatment in your school cafeteria after finishing a race in dead last place and nearly collapsing at the finish line” is not generally how you do it, at least in middle school.
Still, I gritted my teeth, toughed out the rest of the season, and got to the end with my dignity mostly intact. Unfortunately with school sports being the overly competitive minefields they have become in modern times, I felt that there was no point in trying again the next year. No one ever said it out loud, but the serious lack of encouragement and ability-appropriate advice from the coaches spoke volumes, heaping an extra layer of shame onto the the humiliation I felt at literally not being able to keep up with my teammates. Perhaps my experience would have been different had I tried again the next year, but at the time I decided to call it a day and focus on other, more promising interests far outside the realm of athletics.
I didn’t attempt to run again for another 8 years, but in college I had a few friends convince me to try the Couch to 5K, and I fell in love with it. I finished my first 5K, then a half-marathon, and a few other 5Ks and 10Ks in the subsequent years, stories which I’m sure will unfold over time on this blog. The world of running I have discovered since my middle school cross country days is so much different than the world of running as an interscholastic sport. It’s a world that’s inclusive of a wide variety of speeds, abilities, goals, and attitudes. Where people cheer each other on, and the person who guts it out for a last-place finish is as worthy of celebration as the person who wins the entire race. I’m not necessarily advocating for “participation trophies” here—winning outright is awesome and shouldn’t be cheapened in any way. But it’s also awesome in its own right when someone who has never run in their life laces up their shoes, trains for, and finishes their first race. Or when people recovering from serious illness or injury get back out on the course, slower but still determined to do what they can, as best they can. Or when people finish a 100-mile race, regardless of how fast they do it.
I hope to capture the best of that world in this blog and as I travel to different places and races across the U.S., with my goal to complete a race in all 50 states. Because I get bored running the same distance and terrain all the time, I’ll be tackling a variety of distances, from the mile to the marathon (and maybe more!). Someday I’d also love to try trail racing. The only rules for a race to count are:
It has to be an official race for which participants register (so, no going for a jaunt around the block and claiming a new state that way).
A race does NOT have to be exclusively running, but it does need to have a running component (i.e., triathlons count, bike races do not).
I have to finish the race, even if it means crawling on all fours across the finish line.
Otherwise, it’s all fair game, and I’ll be documenting my progress on the state map and list of races. Here’s to the start of a wild, wonderful adventure!