Race report: Shooting for 22 years

As many of you probably know, I take incredible pride in my streak of running at least one 5K every year in under 17 minutes. Before today, that streak stood at 21 years and counting. After today, it would either stand at 22 years and counting or end at 21 years.

Before today, I was already thinking of sharing why sub-17 means so much to me so let me start there. Then I’ll get into today’s report.

When I was in high school, I had the best coaching a high schooler could ask for. In the fall, I had a hall of fame coach (Dan Conway, inducted 1998) who knew how to motivate runners and get them to do what was necessary, as well as seemingly had a sixth sense for knowing exactly what a runner needed to get the most out of his or her ability. In the spring, I had a coach who, in my opinion, was hall of fame caliber and was a master of getting runners to peak at the right time. That’s a task that any coach knows can be a bigger struggle than it seems like it should be.

Even with this outstanding coaching and, thanks to Coach Conway’s motivational skills, some extremely hard work, I never broke 17:00 in a 5K during my high school years. My 5K PR upon high school graduation was 17:06.

Once I broke 17 during track season of my freshman year of college, though, there was no looking back. I’ve always taken pride in my consistent training and the best indication of my consistent training was the fact that, from my freshman year of college on, I ran under 17 minutes, breaking a barrier I could not in high school, for 21 consecutive years and counting.

No injury ever sidelined me badly enough to keep me from breaking 17 minutes. No life event kept me from breaking 17 minutes. Nothing. At 39 years old, I was still running faster than I had in high school. At 40, I lined up today eyeing my 22nd consecutive year breaking that barrier that, even with great coaching and a lot of hard work, I could never do even as a 17-18 year old high school senior.

This year was not the year I was looking for in some ways. I had a good but not great winter of training that led to a good but not great spring of racing. Over the summer, I made a few training mistakes, trying to squeeze a little more out of these 40 year old legs than they were ready for.

This led to an interesting fall. My racing was bad. Last year, my racing wasn’t great heading into my final 5K of the year but I felt like I had a small miracle in the final month and I managed to pull out a 16:51. It felt like a miracle to get under 17 minutes last year.

This year, both of my races leading up to this were almost exactly 10 seconds per mile slower than last year. I needed to find the same miracle as last year plus some to pull this out. However, when you’re staring at a 21 year streak, you’ll go out in search of a miracle and then some.

I did everything I could in the final month. My workouts were coming around but not quite where I needed them. I felt like my final workout had me close. I had run the same workout at the same time last year and was only 3 seconds per mile faster than this workout. That meant, if the workout was an indication of race fitness, I was ready for exactly 17:00. How about that for cutting it close?

However, the day after that workout, I knew I extended myself more than last year. I was beat up from that workout like you wouldn’t believe. Fortunately, I had a week and a half to race day and I took advantage of that time with a serious taper to get my legs under me. I felt like I had a shot. I knew it was a long shot as I woke up on race day but it was a shot and I was going to take it. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

Race Day

As I warmed up, I could feel that my legs weren’t great. However, as the warmup continued, my confidence built. As I was doing some strides as race time approached, I felt quick and smooth. Was it quick enough? I wasn’t completely sure.

As we lined up for the race, the horn sounded before anyone was ready. I wasn’t even facing forward, kind of off to the side instead. Still, this didn’t affect me much. I heard the horn and I was off. Not being ready couldn’t have cost me more than a second.

I quickly settled into the lead and found a rhythm. I didn’t know whether this rhythm was fast enough but I knew it was the fastest I could possibly sustain. If anything, it was faster than I could sustain. Again, I’m going to take risks and not go down without a fight.

By the ~1 mile split, I heard a 5:43. I knew this split was a little high from previous years, I think they have that split a little long. What I know more, though, is that I have probably a little over 30 seconds of running on this out and back course from the time I cross the start line on the way back until I get to the finish line. So I set my goal. I want to be to this spot on the way back in 10:30 or faster. If I do that, with another 6:15-6:20 to go, I’ll be in line for that sub-17 if I can finish at the same pace I started at.

I get to the turnaround, the only turn on the course that is any trouble at high speed, and cruise through. I swing a little wide coming out of it but otherwise get through fine and am on my way back. Seeing some traffic on the way back, I try to give a thumbs up to some people but mostly am just focused on simply running as fast as possible through this stretch. For me, I want to think of that ~2 mile split being my finish line. Get to there at 10:30 at all cost. If I blow up after, I gave myself a chance and just didn’t have it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a split at that point. It just wasn’t called out. So I was running blind. By this time, though, the mission is simple. Run every step as fast as I can. I hit some traffic with walkers in the last mile and had one close call but I don’t think it cost me more than a second.

As I came around a gradual bend, not yet knowing what the clock could read, I saw what I feared. The clock was already reading 17. I still booked it in with all I had, probably the slowest pace I ran in the race but “kicking” for all I could, and finished in 17:36.

To be honest, I probably slowed in that final mile. Not because of the walkers or the close call but because I just didn’t have it. However, I gave it my best shot. I just didn’t have it.

In some way, 17:36 is kind of a relief. If it had been 17:01, I probably would have been second guessing everything I did today. At 17:36, I know it wasn’t there. I still have lessons to be learned from this year’s training but, as for today’s running, I gave myself the best shot I could and I came up short. It wasn’t going to happen no matter what I did.

So the streak ends at 21 years. I’m confident I haven’t run my last sub-17 5K but it’s not going to happen this year. That’s life. I’ve come to grips with this. In some ways, I began preparing for the streak to end over a year ago since I didn’t think I was going to get it last year. I’m disappointed the streak came to an end but I don’t view this as a failure. It just wasn’t meant to be.

The biggest issue I have right now is setting goals for 2018. For the past several years, I had a pre-built goal. Now…I don’t know actually. I might do something different for 2018.

2 thoughts on “Race report: Shooting for 22 years”

  1. Nice try, Ryan.

    I was pulling for you as I read the report. As someone who has always trained very inconsistently, I greatly admire and respect that streak. Just to have maintained that level of fitness year after year is a great accomplishment.

    Good luck getting back under 17 minutes next year.

    Steve – finally motivated to run again after a few years mostly off

    1. Thanks Steve. I’ve always taken great pride in my ability to stay consistent and this was the best example of that. I’ll keep the consistent training going and we’ll see if that leads to a return to sub-17 in 2018.

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