As has been no secret, I haven't had the greatest year racing. It started off well, then I got ahead of myself which assured the rest of my year was a disaster. It actually became a big disaster. Two 8K races over 30 minutes, a 5K flirting with 19 minutes. Not good at all.
I did begin turning things around at Al's Run with at least a hard effort and a time that was a somewhat significant improvement on my previous 8K. Still, it was a time I expect of myself in training, not in a race. After Al's Run, I knew I had 5 weeks to get serious and turn an 18:50 from August into a sub-17 5K. If I didn't do that, my 15 year streak of at least one sub-17 5K each year was at risk. To put this in perspective, the last time I went a whole calendar year without breaking 17 minutes in a 5K was 1995, when I didn't even run a 5K (in 1994, my best was 17:06). I knew this was a tall order but I also knew I had to take a shot. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try. I also knew the 5K on my schedule was a fast course and a race that would allow me to take some chances. So, beginning the day after Al's Run, I set out on my mission: sub-17 or bust.
For 3 weeks, I put in very intensive training, going on to a high risk/high reward plan. I didn't have a choice. I needed to take risks in order to improve enough to have a realistic shot at sub-17 in such a short time. I pounded out some training that normally wouldn't have been a big deal but, given the base I was working with after the summer, was brutal. Solid volume and no lack of intensity. In the 4 Saturdays between these two races, I was at the track for 3 workouts and I did another track-like workout on the roads when a football game prevented me from getting on the track. On the rest of the days, I was doing a lot of strides, some tempo/progression runs, and for the first 3 and a half weeks only rarely backing off volume or intensity and rarely both. By 3 and a half weeks, I had worn myself down pretty good but I could also see I had made some solid gains. Now, it was time to rest. I still kept up a lot of strides and did that final Saturday track workout but I allowed my volume to fall a bit. In the final few days, I also wasn't running nearly every day with the same edge on my effort.
To make it clear, in case I haven't already, this is not the kind of training I would suggest to anyone. It was filled with risks but I felt like I had nothing to lose and I had to take a chance so I did it.
I arrive this morning confident in my ability to try for a sub-17 but less confident in my ability to accomplish it. For at least a couple of weeks, I pounded it into my head that I was going to go out and run sub-17 pace until I simply could not do so any more. Hopefully, that would get me across the finish line. If not, I would deal with whatever happened after that when the time came. Whatever happened, I wasn't going to fall short due to a lack of trying. If I fell short, it was going to be simply because my body was not capable.
As I set off on my warmup, the early minutes of that didn't fill me with confidence. I felt some aches and didn't feel smooth. However, after 10 minutes or so, I was beginning to feel pretty good. I did a couple short strides at race pace and they felt smooth and crisp. I went through my usual warmup routine and lined up, ready for the all or nothing effort.
At the start, I got out clean and was on my way. A couple hundred yards in, I noticed someone was not too far behind me but I didn't care. I trusted myself, stuck with the rhythm I had settled into and just went with it. By about a half mile, my breathing was already labored and I was a bit concerned that my effort level was too high for that early in a 5K. I reminded myself, though, that this was all or nothing. Just keep on pushing. This will either work itself out or I would know deep down that I at least went down fighting. Not too long after, I settled in and found a rhythm. Through the mile in about 5:23, i felt like I was right where I needed to be. My target was 5:25 to give myself a fighting chance at sub-17 pace. Now, I was in a rhythm and i just rode that rhythm for a while, until at about a mile and a half I suddenly felt my legs get heavy. For a split second, I thought here it goes. That thought literally lasted less than a second, though, before I told myself just keep pushing. For the next minute or two, all that was going through my head was "just keep pushing, just keep pushing, just keep pushing" until I got to a part of the course where traffic control hadn't yet arrived and a truck turned onto the street I was on, directly in front of me coming at me head on. I broke my rhythm a bit to go around the truck but, fortunately, there were no traffic issues as I crossed the state highway without traffic control yet in place in one direction (the other direction, the police car had stopped in the traffic lane to block the traffic and allow me through). Also fortunately, I was able to quickly find my rhythm back and facing that truck head on got the adrenaline pumping and allowed me to quickly settle back into the hard effort. Just keep pushing, just keep pushing.
Coming into the mile 2 split, I know this is a bit short. I figured add about 10 seconds to get a rough estimate of what my actual mile 2 split was, based on past experience. After going through dead legs and that break of my rhythm, though, what would I be hearing here? I wanted to hear 10:40, as this would give me about 10:50 at 2 miles and give me a fighting chance at sub-17 with a good finish. I was fearing that I would hear 10:50 or even worse, though. I was sure I had slowed down, even with the substantial effort to maintain. To my surprise, what I head was 10:36. With the adjustment, I had exactly held pace to run another 5:23 mile. At that point, my new mantra became "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it" as I focused on pushing off a little harder, lifting a little higher, and finding every ounce of effort I could. With a little less than a half mile to go, I was hurting badly but the walkers were on the other side of the street and there were a few groups of them cheering for me, giving me a nice pick up. I kept driving, I kept running tall, I kept my turnover up, and I kept hoping that effort would not leave me with nothing left in the tank before I got to the finish line. Around one corner with about 1/4 mile to go and down a gradual hill, I picked up a little pace. Around another corner, I can do this. I gave everything I had for that last kick. I rounded another corner and then had a gradual curve before the last turn, just seconds from the finish line. My biggest fear was going around that final turn to see 16:59 and watch 17:00 tick off the clock as I approached the line. I couldn't let that happen. I tried to sneak a peek at the clock before the final turn but couldn't see it. I was driving with everything I had. As I rounded the final turn and poured on every ounce of effort I had, my eyes scanned for the clock. The first thing I was was a 16. That's good. What are the seconds? 41! I have it! I continued to give it all I had through the finish line, with my eyes never leaving that clock. The last thing I saw was 16:47. That was it! I did it! Success! The streak is extended to 16 years and counting.
This was not easy, the past 5 weeks or the race. I do not want to extend the streak to 17 years the way I extended it to 16 years. No way I'm going to let that happen. It was great racing at that effort level again, feeling the searing lungs, the burning legs. I definitely want to relive some of those race efforts. That's what a 5K is supposed to feel like. I don't want to do the training all wrong like I did this year, though, and rely on about a month's worth of high risk training to get myself in shape to do this. I'm not going to let that happen. I'm taking a bit of a break now to recover from that intense training, then I'm going to build into 2012 so I can extend the streak to 17 years the right way. And maybe, see if I can improve on this year's time by a meaningful amount.