Race report: going for two decades

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

I have a feeling this is going to get long so I’ll break it into sections.

Background

For those of you who aren’t aware, one of my proudest personal accomplishments as a runner is my streak of consecutive years with a sub-17 minute 5K. It may seem monumental for some to run a single sub-17 5K, while for others such a run is barely a workout. For me, it took a lot of work to get under 17 minutes in the first place and it takes a lot of work to stay there.

How much work did it take to get there? Well, I graduated high school with a 17:06 PR. Anyone who knew me in high school could tell you how hard I worked for that 17:06. It wasn’t until indoor track during my freshman year of college, 1996, that I finally broke through the 17 minute barrier. Every year since, through continued hard work and surely some luck I’ve gone under 17 minutes at least once.

This year, I wanted more than anything to continue that streak. To be able to say that I’ve gone under 17 minutes every year for two decades meant a lot to me. I’ve never been a superstar but one thing I’ve always taken pride in is my consistency. Sure, I have bad races but I bounce back and, year after year, I’m always there. When you don’t get hurt, you are always willing to work both hard and smart, and you are willing to lay it all on the line on race day, that’s the result.

Leading up to race day

So it’s with that background that I entered today’s race. I had a shaky spring racing season. In the fall season, I was fighting some lower right leg problems that I believe can be traced back to my perpetually tight hamstring. Through that, though, I fought through my races and had a high before today at the Hootie Hustle 5K, winning with a 17:15 on a course that seems to be both challenging and relatively fast. At Hootie Hustle, though, I felt like I left something on the course. I was in a relatively close race and didn’t want to leave myself hung out to dry in the last half mile so I saved something. That wouldn’t be a problem today.

In the past couple of weeks, I felt like I had done some solid work since my semi-disappointing run at Al’s Run. I felt like I was coming in fit and the taper was working perfectly. In fact, even the lower leg problems were disappearing. In the two days immediately preceding the race, I even found myself saying I felt better than I have for months. I felt ready to roll. After yesterday’s run, I told myself I felt like I could have run a 16:45 5K (remember that).

Race day

This morning, I got up and checked the weather. At 6:30, it was 24 degrees at the nearest weather station to the race course. The race was 10:00. I knew it would warm up but I also didn’t want to take anything for granted so I threw some extra gear in my bag just in case and the family packed up and we headed out to the race.

As we arrived, a parking space right next to the finish line was available. I grabbed it and had myself parked with my front bumper virtually even with the finish line. With the course for many years starting at the finish line, this was perfect.

We went inside and I relaxed until warmup time. I went out for my usual warmup, initially keeping the pace very relaxed before opening up a few times after a very slow opening mile. Much like yesterday’s run, I didn’t feel the greatest when running slowly but I felt invincible when I picked up the pace. Sounds fine to me. As long as I feel good at a fast pace, that’s all that matters.

After some strides, the walkers started going past to get lined up. As I was waiting for the crowd to clear so I could line up in front, one of the runners I see every year at this race came over and asked me about the new course. Huh? New course? Oh, shoot. Maybe I should have hung around to listen to the pre-race instructions. So I went over to one of the organizers and got the scoop. There’s a new rec trail, which I happened to notice while warming up, and for safety reasons they are moving the course to there.

One problem, the rec trail is a crushed limestone trail. Anyone who is familiar with crushed limestone trails, especially newly established ones, should know this means some loose gravel on the trail. Not bad footing but there is definitely some slippage every step and you lose just a bit from your toe-off on every step. Combined with the fact that this was a new course, not the one I’ve run 14 times before and had the utmost comfort and familiarity with, this shook my confidence just a bit. Then I reminded myself. 20 years. I’m not letting that go without a fight. So I lined up with that in mind.

The race

The air horn sounds and I’m off. Straight into the lead as usual and running hard from the gun. I quickly settle into an aggressive but not insane pace. I feel calm and relaxed but I know I’m holding a very solid pace. I follow the trail around some baseball fields, then out of the park and onto an old railroad bed. Up a quick, steep rise to the highway, then across with the assistance of a police officer as traffic control. I did notice that an SUV did not want to stop when the police officer stopped it but, as it was inching forward to make the cross, the officer stepped right in front of it and put his hand on its hood. That stopped it and I crossed without incident. There was a bike going across the far sidewalk and we looked like we were on a crash course but I didn’t break stride or adjust my path. Fortunately, the bike stopped very quickly right before we met and the guy on the bike cheered me on "Go number 34!" I cruise down the other side of the highway and I’m on the way to the mile mark.

There was someone there calling times but I couldn’t quite hear what he said. 5:24? 5:34? I thought it was 5:34. A little slow and I felt like I just ran a fairly fast mile. Not good but I’m not giving up this streak without a fight. I push harder, harder, out to the turnaround. This, fortunately, was not a hard turnaround. We come out to a road, take a left, then take another left on a spur from the trail before merging back in with the trail. Not as good as the old course with no turnaround but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Now, I’m on my way back and I can see I have a good lead as usual but not quite as big as usual. That’s fine, though. I know what I’m here for. Keep pushing with all I have. I see more of the runners go by, then I come up on the 1 mile mark. The guy gives me my split as I go by there, 10:20. At that point, I tell myself I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that’s not 2 miles. A little later, I see someone calling out "2 mile" and she gives me a split of 11:30. I instantly assume that the 2 mile was somewhere between 10:20 and 11:30 but likely not quite either one of those. Quickly after, I’m up the incline, across the highway and down the other side. I know I either have 5 minutes or less to go at this point or I don’t really care so I’m pushing with all I have. Then I start coming across walkers. Most move over and give me plenty of room but a few must be staring at their feet and don’t see me coming. I’m breathing so hard I can’t even grunt so I’m just working my way through. Fortunately, with no serious problem.

As I turn back into the park with what I figure to be about 1/2 mile to go (it turns out it was just a hair over 1/2 mile so that was a good guess) I pour it on with everything I have. Around the baseball fields, past the start line and onto pavement. Once I hit the pavement, I kick with whatever I have. Not sure if I got faster but the effort level definitely reached 100% there.

I couldn’t see the clock until I was almost at the finish line but, when I did, I saw it clicking through the 16:40s. As I crossed, it was at 16:45.

Result

So that’s what it was. 1st in 16:45. Just what I figured I was ready for. I didn’t let the course change beat me, I overcame the lower leg problems and I extended the streak to 20 years.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled with this race. 20 years means a lot to me. I’m so proud to say I’ve run a sub-17 5K every year for two decades (and counting). This means a lot to me and I look forward to extending it next year.

That said, I’m done. Physically and mentally, I’m ready for the 2015 racing season to be over. Time to take a break, then focus on 2016 with the goal of my 21st consecutive year with a sub-17.

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