Race report: Going for 19 straight years

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

As those of you who have been reading my race reports for any time know, one of the things I’m very proud of is my streak of going under 17 minutes in a 5K every year since 1996. A little background. For me, going under 17 minutes was a big deal. My early years as a runner were pretty inauspicious. As I first started, a sub-17 5K would seem impossible. Doing it for 19 years in a row? Forget about it. What I did have was the ability physically and mentally to push hard in training and a body that responded to that training very well. Combined with the best coaching I could have asked for, I was able to go from not being able to break 4 minutes in a half mile to nearly breaking 5 minutes per mile for 2 miles before I graduated high school.

Still, as I graduated high school, I hadn’t run a sub-17 5K. My only 5K races to that date were on cross country courses. During my senior season in 1994, I got a best of 17:06 and that’s the PR I graduated high school with.

Then I moved on to college and the distance for cross country races moved up to 8K. Good for me competitively because I’ve always been better as the race distance went longer but that means I went the whole year of 1995 without ever racing a 5K.

Then came my freshman indoor track season in 1996. In my first indoor race, I believe I ran a 16:16 to smash my cross country best and run my first ever sub-17 5K. A week later, I ran 16:08, which would be my PR at the end of the season.

Fast forward to 2014 and I haven’t gone a single year since 1996 without running a timed 5K in under 17 minutes. For some runners, such as myself back in middle school or my freshman year of high school, that seems like a crazy good accomplishment. For others, that’s probably not a big deal. It means a lot to me, though. This year, though, the story has been close but not quite. In the spring, my planned 5K season essentially fell apart due to circumstances mostly out of my control but I did get one 5K in. However, I got caught in a tactical battle mid-race, then got led nearly off course which cost at least a few seconds and ended up finishing in 17:02. So close! Three weeks ago, I got caught in another tactical effort early and had to deal with a slightly challenging course. 17:05. So close again!

That leads to today. This was my last planned race of the year. I knew I was in shape to get a sub-17. Given the faster course, the fitness I’ve shown in earlier races this year and simply my confidence on this course to log fast times, I knew I was ready for sub-17. My training had gone very well and, on Friday, I was not stating anything publicly but I had in the back of my mind the idea that I could hit the 16:40s with a good race, maybe 16:40 or high 16:30s with a near perfect race.

Then Saturday morning happened. I got out of bed and hobbled. Something was up with my left foot. I checked the weather and the 0% chance of rain at race time that was being reported yesterday afternoon turned into an 80% chance of rain. I spent some time on the foam roller and with the stick before leaving home, then we loaded up the car and the whole family was off to the races.

On the drive over, the rain got downright hard at times. Man, it’s going to be fun running in this. A steady 43 degrees sounds great but with hard rain and enough breezy to be noticeable, that’s a different story.

I get to the race and I’m still very confident in my ability to break 17 but I’m less sure of the 16:40s. This might be a year where I slip in by the skin of my teeth.

As I warmed up, the rain let up some. Well, that’s good. It actually had pretty much stopped by start time and I decided to go minimal. No hat, no gloves. As for my foot, it only hurt when I was slowing down at times like at the end of a stride. As long as I was running fast and kept my pace going, it was fine. I figured good. I don’t want to slow down until the race is over. As long as I cross the finish line with the first two numbers being 1 and 6, I don’t care how I feel after the finish line.

At the start, I went straight into the lead as is usual at this race. I pushed up the one little incline on the course a couple hundred yards in as we run away from the river, then turned into the wind and up the long northbound stretch. I was thinking the wind was at least from the right direction. It would suck through here but I would then have it at my back when the going is getting really tough in the last mile. Through mile 1, I just focused on being quick but smooth. That took me through approximately mile 1 (I’m pretty sure it was a bit long) in 5:30. I panicked a bit because that seems way too close until I realized it was probably a bit long. I then cruised through some very good traffic control this year and into a figure 8 loop that covers the middle stretch of the course. Out of the headwind, I just kept telling myself work mile 2. Work it, work it, keep pushing and I’ll always be able to find a way to grind it out in the last mile.

Late in the figure 8 loop, I cruised through the again probably long 2 mile split in 11:00 even. Well, I’m skeptical of these splits but at least they are consistent. Two 5:30s. But, just in case they are accurate, it’s time to grind it out. I just sustain for the first 300-400 yards, then I turn onto the southbound stretch and backtrack toward the start/finish area. From here, I know it’s all about 100% effort. This is the stretch that I just give it everything I have and I know I’ll always have something for the end. I am just hammering here, grunting with effort, suffering but feeling in control. I’m sure I’m in the "ugly" stage now but I just keep it going. Late in this stretch, I start encountering walkers who are going on a different route but sharing part of the route with the runners. Apparently, the police decided the morning of the race to demand a change in course for the walkers that left them walking up the same sidewalk I was returning on. I left the sidewalk at one point to get around a few walkers and nearly twisted my right ankle. Then I jumped out on the road. I’m not going to keep fighting the packs of walkers. So I got past all the walkers out there, then got back on the sidewalk. Still hammering, still bringing all I had.

With I’d guess a little over 1/4 mile to go, I turn off this stretch, do a slight downhill, a couple more turns, then I’m looping around a park and into the finish. I bring all I have into that downhill, have to slow down for one turn, then just bring it with all I can. As I’m coming around the park, I’m thinking what am I going to see on the clock as I come around the last turn? 16:50-something? Hopefully high 16:40s?

As I make that final turn, I quickly scan for the clock. 16-what? 16:20-something? No freaking way! I see the clock ticking toward 16:30. Whoa, I crossed with it at 16:30? Sure enough, I’m given an official time of 16:30. Well, I honestly didn’t rule out the possibility of 16:30 but I thought it would take absolute perfection to get it. This race was extremely close but not quite absolute perfection.

After crossing the finish, I first did one of those hands on the knees things. Then I had to take a knee. I tried getting up twice but got lightheaded and had to go back down both times. Yes, I definitely gave it everything I had and it worked out.

So there it is. Some may be impressed by it, some may think it’s no big deal. To me, though, 19 straight years and counting with a sub-17 5K means a lot. I can’t wait to go for number 20 next year.

On a side note, 16:30 is the fastest I’ve gone in a while. I’m not quite sure how long but I’m going to guess at least 5 years. This year has been very good for me. I’m very proud and happy with how it went. It’s been a good year. Now, it’s time to rest up and get ready for year number 20.

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