Tales of a 5-Miler, Then and Now

I still remember my very first 5-mile run. It was summer 2010, and I was just finishing up a 10-week stint at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina. I had gone to Brevard as a rising senior in my college’s music program with the intent of getting myself ready for auditions the following year. By the end of my junior year, though, I had started seriously doubting whether a performance career was really, truly what I wanted for my life. Perhaps going to a summer music intensive in the midst of such an earth-shattering epiphany wasn’t the most logical course of action, but I had already gotten scholarships and grants to cover the cost, paid my deposit, and figured that regardless of what path I took after graduation, going to Brevard would be a good learning experience, both for music lessons and life lessons. Besides, it would be a change of scenery, and that alone would probably do me some good as I figured out what exactly I wanted to do next.

Though my daily schedule was packed with lessons, rehearsals, and personal practice, I carved out time on most days to run around the beautiful campus with its tree-lined paths, sparkling lakes, and rolling hills. Generally I kept my runs to 2-4 miles, but I looked forward to them as a calming ritual of sorts. When the uncertainty of my life direction seemed almost unbearable at times, running kept me grounded and in the present moment. I loved the steady rhythm of it, focusing on timing my breathing with my footfalls, and just being outside, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I even made a few friends at the camp who sometimes ran with me, including a run two of us did one night at about 10 p.m. under a perfectly clear, starry sky…which I highly recommend trying if you ever get the chance!

The day I did my 5-mile run that summer was the day before I was scheduled to head back home. As the sun set on my final day at camp, I decided I was going to go for it. That elusive 5-mile run was happening, and nothing could stop me. Surely if I could finish that run, I would be able to finish the upcoming year of my degree program and sort out my life direction. With my reserves of determination filled to the brim, I set off towards town, slowly but steadily, savoring the scenery and soaking it all in. At the 2.5-mile mark, I turned around and headed back, buoyed by the conviction that I was definitely going to make it, and just as dusk descended, I triumphantly returned to camp. I had averaged something like a 12 minute/mile pace, but by golly I had finished, and my friends celebrated with me at a picnic table outside the rec building. 5 miles! I had really done it! And sure enough, much like I got through that run, I got through my senior year and figured out next steps, the cumulation of which have gotten me to where I am now.

I couldn’t help but think of that run tonight as I went for a 5-mile tempo run after work. These days, 5 miles hardly feels like the monumental challenge it did 7 years ago, at least in terms of distance alone, though adding the element of speed certainly kicks the difficulty level up a notch. As the sun ducked behind the buildings and the cool dusk set in, it took me back to that night in the mountains of North Carolina, my determination to hold my speed now mirroring the determination it had taken just to finish back then. When I got back home and looked at my stopwatch app, it showed that I had managed to hold a 9:23 pace for the duration of my run. Sub 10-minute pace for 5 miles…I could hardly believe my eyes; it was the first time I’d ever cracked the 10 minute/mile pace for anything over 3 miles. This was a feat I could have only dreamed of that summer at Brevard, but I’d finally done it.

Obviously, I am by no means the fastest runner out there. I never will be, but I’ve long since accepted that, and besides, that has never been my goal. The beauty of running, to me at least, is how the sport grows with you over time, how you only really ever compete against yourself, and how you get to celebrate whatever milestones are meaningful to you. Tonight, I took a moment to savor the fact that I had dropped over 12 minutes from my very first 5-mile time as well as the progress I’ve made both in running and in life since that summer at Brevard. While it’s always good to be looking ahead and striving to improve, sometimes, it’s just as necessary to look back and see for the sake of perspective just how far you’ve actually come.

Training Limbo

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.