Race report: Shooting for 21 years

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

As most of you probably know, one thing I take great pride in is my consistency. I may not have the great peaks that some runners around me have had but I keep plugging away all the time. The best representation of that is my streak of consecutive years having run at least one sub-17 5K.

I never broke 17 minutes in high school. My first ever sub-17 didn’t come until I was about a month shy of my 19th birthday. However, once I went sub-17, I haven’t looked back. No, not every 5K I’ve run since has been a sub-17. However, for every calendar year since my first time under 17 minutes in 1996, I’ve managed to go under 17 minutes at least once. This year, as has been the case a handful of times recently, it all came down to my last planned race of the year.

Coming off subpar performances in both of my prior races this fall, my confidence was a little shaken. I’ve done this every year for 20 years, I know how to do it. However, do I physically have what it takes this year? Going into the fall, I felt my training was slightly better than last year but both races I ran were well off what I expected of myself and I just didn’t feel that quickness on race day.

After Al’s Run (I still owe a report on that, it’s mostly written up, I’ll post it soon) I was very concerned about the streak but I also quickly formed a plan. My endurance isn’t my limiting factor, my ability to get up to a quick speed isn’t my limiting factor. It’s my ability/confidence to hold that speed that’s lacking. So I set out a training plan with lots of half mile repeats at or close to 5K pace.

I started this plan 3 days after Al’s Run and ran enough half mile repeats over the next month that I think I burned myself out a bit. That said, I now had the confidence that I could hold pace and I could feel that pace in my sleep. With a taper, my legs came back to me and I was feeling ready. Mostly confident but not quite as sure of myself as I usually am.

On race day, I was still telling myself I know I can do this and my legs just know how to run sub-17 in October. The weather was nearly perfect. I convinced myself it was going to happen. It would be close but it was going to happen.

After a longer than planned warmup, it was race time. There were a couple high schoolers there. The grandson of the race director has been gunning for me for a while and he’s been getting closer every year. Another high schooler I talked with for a while before the race is a sprinter who does cross country for stamina training in preparation for the 400. He wasn’t expecting to be much competition for me. As always, though, this is where I go to run fast. I don’t care what the competition is. I’m going to run hard gun to tape and see what happens.

At the start, the director’s grandson went with me. I expected him to gradually drop back pretty early but he held on. And he kept holding on. I was a little worried that I might not be going as fast as I expected but I just focused on keeping a quick rhythm. I was trying to get out hard but, obviously, I don’t want to take off sprinting in the first half mile of a 5K.

Shortly before the half mile, we take a turn and leave the park where the race starts and head out to a bike trail. About this time, I noticed I was getting separation. OK, if things go to plan, I’m running the rest of this by myself. Just keep pushing. Up an incline to cross a highway, then back down the other side. I see the people who will be giving mile splits ahead and just keep pushing toward them.

As I approach them, the guy calls out 5:25. Given the fact that I thought I heard a 5:34 split last year and ended up with a 16:45, this means I’m either in good position or going to pay for the faster start later. Either way, the only thing that I can do right now is keep being aggressive. I keep pushing with the empty trail ahead of me to the turnaround and get around there while losing as little momentum as possible.

On the way back, I can see I have a respectable lead on second, the race director’s grandson, and he has a solid lead on third, the sprinter. I give both a thumbs up as I run by them, then try to draw on some inspiration from seeing the other runners go by. I keep pushing, reminding myself that every step counts, but feel like I’m fading just a bit. I remember that I have some cushion so that fade isn’t the end of the world but I can’t keep fading. That gets me going again.

Into the third mile, I keep fighting this. I feel like I’m fading but I keep pushing harder. If I am actually fading, it’s not much. I believe I can do this.

After crossing the highway, I’m back on the course with the 1 mile walkers heading out. They are using the whole trail but most see me with plenty of time and give room to pass. I’m a little worried at a few points about kids who seem to be all over the trail getting very close to me but, fortunately, there aren’t any incidents. At the turn into the park, I had to find my way through a bit of traffic but did so fairly easily and without incident. Then I have the park to myself. With about a half mile to go, it’s me against the clock. I push harder, harder, feel like I’m speeding up a bit. I see the mark I picked out as 1/4 mile to go during my warmup and push more. I get off the trail and know I’m at the 3 mile mark. I try kicking but I have nothing left. All I can do is hope that, when I see the clock, I like what I see.

Then I see the clock. Low 16:40s and I know I have less than 10 seconds to go. I did it! Even after the tough fall season I had, I came through again with another sub-17. I keep pushing to see how far under I can go but my legs are shot. I pretty much just maintain pace and end up crossing the line in 16:51.

That’s 6 seconds slower than last year after I believe being 9 seconds faster at the mile. I’ll take it, though. It’s a sub-17 and I really think I needed a fast start this year given how my past two races went. I needed to get the legs fired up, then just do what I can to hold on.

If the mile split was accurate, I did something else interesting. It looks like I averaged 5:25 per mile, matching my first mile split. I knew I didn’t fade much, if at all, when I felt like I was fading. I knew I managed to get the pace back up. I didn’t realize it all worked out to be overall such an even race.

So the streak lives on. 21 consecutive years with a sub-17 5K. Now, it’s time to start planning my path toward my 22nd consecutive year. Maybe I’ll come up with a strategy that won’t have me waiting until October.

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