Race report: 2016 Autism Awareness 5K

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Last year, I was looking for a local 5K to shake up the legs and get my running back into a rhythm after a vacation. I found a 5K relatively close to home at just the right time. It happened to be in its first year but I wasn’t really concerned about anything other than getting in a hard effort in a race day atmosphere. So I did it.

While the people were good, I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in returning to the event. The people seemed to care but the event was nothing special. Then, this year in searching for a tune up effort before a planned trip to Brown Deer for the Deer Run 5K, I discovered that this race, two weeks before the Deer Run, had moved to a location that was less than 5 miles from my home. So here I was again.

This year, I didn’t need to get back into a rhythm. I just finished up a very solid base phase and was transitioning a bit more to race prep type work. This was actually not the ideal time for a race as I was in my first week fully focused on that race prep work. Not a cutback week, plus there are always things that don’t feel right when in the first week of a new training focus. That said, it was a good week for tuning up for the Deer Run. Plenty of time to recover from a 5K but not so much time that I will have forgotten how a 5K is supposed to feel.

So I was back. Not fully rested, on a day that was warmer than we recently had seen. Not the variables for a great race but I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking for a solid effort and not worrying myself about time. I expected to be in the mid-17s if I ran well but wasn’t too concerned about the time. It was more about a good effort.

After registering, I reviewed the course map. Pretty simple. 3 laps around a 1+ mile loop around the county fairgrounds. Mostly flat, a few hard turns but mostly a semicircle around the parking lots. My only real concern was how traffic control would be. Would a clear path be given to runners as we began lapping walkers?

I warmed up over the course, which allowed me to confirm that the loop was a little over a mile and seemed generally to have a good flow. A couple hard turns early and a few late but, otherwise, this had the potential to be a fast course.

At the start of the race, the instructions were given more than once that there were cones down the middle of the road throughout the course. Runners were to stay to the left of the cones, walkers to the right. This left me a little relieved. They had a clear plan to control traffic and avoid issues.

As the race started, I went straight to the lead. I had talked to a couple runners before the race and their goals were in the 20+ minute range. I didn’t see anyone else who looked like sure fire serious competition and I recall winning by a significant margin last year. So this wasn’t a real surprise. What was a surprise was that I could sense more than one runner going with me, not just for the first 100 yards but for at least close to 1/4 mile. I wasn’t sure if they were going out fast or I was going out slow, though I definitely didn’t feel like I was going out slow. Pretty soon, though, I found myself alone, hugging the cones on the left side of the road. Late in the first lap, I turned back into the park, went around those few hard turns, then was passing through the start/finish area.

Then, into lap 2. This was when things would get interesting. How good would enforcement of the "runners left, walkers right" rule be?

It didn’t take long to find out. Early in the second lap, I started seeing packs of walkers strung out across the road. I weaved through as best as I could and, in a few instances when there was simply nowhere to go, wedged my way through the biggest gaps I could find. I’d like to say I called out but, honestly, I was halfway through a 5K. To say my breathing was labored would be an understatement. The best I could do was grunt out some kind of audible alert but the walkers weren’t taking the best hint I could offer that I was coming through.

Unfortunately, I let this working through the walkers get into my head more than I should have. I’m disappointed in myself for that. I should have remained tough and kept pushing but I didn’t. I was still pushing but not redlining the way a well-run 5K requires.

Eventually, the crowds started thinning out a bit and it was easier to work through without too much problem. However, I already let the circumstances get in my head and I wasn’t prepared to get back to redlining. I pushed as hard as I could convince myself to but I definitely didn’t have that 5K edge.

In the third lap, the situation started changing a little. Now, the walkers were thinning out but I was encountering lapped runners. They were easier to work around, though. The walkers were staying to their side better and the runners were at most two or three wide, so there was room to pass with minimal, if any, trouble.

Unfortunately, there was one more logistical problem. The finish was on the right side. I’d have to cross the walkers lane to get to it. Fortunately, there was a gap when I needed to go so I could do so without problem, even managing a bit of a kick as I finished in 17:43.

All things considered, I’m good with this result. Fitness wise, I know that with more rest and better focus on my race execution, I’m probably in low-17 shape already. If the stars align for the Deer Run, I could possibly even make a run at a sub-17.

To her credit, the race director was very receptive to my suggestions for race improvements. I tried to make it clear that I was trying to offer suggestions to make the event better and not give her a hard time but I knew my comments could easily be taken as criticism. I had two suggestions. First, runners on the right so we have a clear path to the finish line. Second, have course sentries enforce or at least remind people of the rules of the road (runners right, walkers left next year if my first suggestion is followed) on the course. This would make the event both better for runners and safer for everyone involved as I was truly concerned at points about hurting someone.

All said, this event has a lot of potential. It’s clear the race director does care deeply about creating a good experience for both runners and walkers. The course is actually spectator friendly, unlike so many road races, and it has the potential to be a fast course with more fan support than most local road races can offer. I have a feeling I’ll be back, especially since it’s so close to home.

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