Sunday, September 28, 2014

Race Recap: The LungStrong 5k

I thought I was entering the LungStrong 5k with a modest goal: Finish the race in 18:40 or less, 51 seconds slower than my PR. That would qualify me for the Second Seeding at the Bloomsday run next May. But circumstances never seem to work out quite the way we think they will, and today was no exception.

My plan was to start off the race at roughly a 5:45 per mile pace. That would allow me to slow down to 6:00 on the mostly-uphill second half and still come in at a 5:52 pace for the whole thing, which should mean hitting my target time even if the course was a touch long (as it is reputed to be).

At 7 am, a big group of DARTers joined me for the warm-up, running the entire 5k course at a nice, easy pace. This turned out to be a lot of fun as I tried to take a group selfie while on the run:

Running-group-selfies in low light are more difficult than you might think!
Soon we were back at the starting area and I laced up my racing flats and ran a few strides before the starting gun. For this race I decided to try taking two caffeine tablets 45 minutes before the race, plus eating a GU 15 minutes before the start (a total of 450 mg of caffeine) -- this is the dose recommended by at least one study, about 6 mg per kilo of body weight. I've never taken that much caffeine before a race, so I was curious if it would help.

I'd find out soon enough. LungStrong is a combined 15k and 5k, and both races start at the same time. I knew the 15k would probably have the strongest runners, and a pack of about 10 of us were near the front within about 100 meters of the start. At a quarter mile, the two races split apart, running for the next half-mile on opposite sides of the street. There was just one runner ahead of me on the 5k, Mike Beigay, who I knew from the Charlotte Running Club. Looking down at my watch, I could see I was running about a 5:20 pace, and Mike, 20 meters ahead, must have been doing 5:15 or better. I reminded myself that my strategy was to run 5:45 for the first half of the race unless it was feeling really easy. This wasn't feeling easy. We hadn't actually hit the first downhill yet and I was laboring for breath. I slowed down a bit and let Mike pull away. Across the street, the top 15kers were also pulling away. Fine, that was the plan.

About a half mile in, we finally started to hit the downhill, and I tried to relax and let the hill do most of the work. This worked okay, and my watch beeped 5:44 at the end of the first mile. Slight problem: We hadn't actually reached the mile marker; my actual time for Mile 1 was more like 5:52. 

As we turned off the main drag and into a neighborhood, I found myself gaining on Mike. Looking down, I saw that my pace was still about 5:45, just fine. Then the cyclist turned around and said "Clockwise this year." He must have been referring to the little lollipop that the course followed as it turned around:

The course starts at the green dot and ends at the checkered dot
But he was headed down Meta Road, just below where the lollipop actually starts. "TURN RIGHT" I said. I had just run the course as a warm-up and I knew that was the correct route. The biker yelled back "Clockwise!"

"No, that's later," I shouted. "I just ran it this morning!" I was now even with Mike and told him "I don't care where the bike goes, I'm turning right. We both made the turn, and in a minute the bike caught up with us at the point where the real lollipop started. "Oh, you were right," he said as he passed. "Sorry."

I didn't realize it at the time, but this incident must have given me a jolt of adrenaline. Looking at my GPS record, my pace picked up to 5:15 a mile. I think I slowed down again before I looked at my watch, because I just remember going slower on Mile 2 than Mile 1. In fact, I did slow considerably as I headed back towards the finish, and for Mile 2 my average pace was 6:00. As before, my GPS beeped well before I reached the second mile marker, and I probably actually reached that marker in about 6:10. As we turned back on to Jetton Road, there were still runners and walkers four-abreast in the lane coned off for the race, so the lead bike rode onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, that made it impossible to follow any tangents on the course, and the sidewalk also wove back and forth. I don't think it cost me a lot of time, but any little thing like this can be very frustrating, especially when you're heading uphill and struggling to maintain pace.

My pace was getting slower and slower, 6:05, 6:10, 6:15. Much slower than the 5:52 I was looking for. I knew there would be one last downhill after I made the sharp left turn off of Jetton Road, so I tried to push myself to maintain the pace by reminding myself that I would be able to recover there, but it was no use. I just kept getting slower.

Finally I reached the turn and took the opportunity to glance back and see where Mike was. Obviously he had slowed as well, because he was now about 50 meters behind me. With less than a half mile left, I knew he had no chance of catching me, so I just cruised down the hill and tried to rest up a bit for the final sprint to the finish. Garmin beeped 6:18 for Mile 3, and I was still short of the real mile marker. I picked up the pace as much as I could for the final tenth of a mile, and tried to remember to raise my arms in victory as I crossed the line.

I had won, but I was 19 seconds short of my goal: My chip time was 18:59, officially a 6:07 per mile pace. The Garmin said I had averaged 6:01, which, if the GPS had actually matched the course distance, would have just been good enough to reach that 18:40 goal. But GPS records don't qualify you for the Bloomsday run, so I would have to be happy with the overall win. I think this course really is a bit long, but not outrageously so. I had it at 3.17 miles, or .07 over the official distance. I'd much rather run a course that is a little long and know my time is legitimate, than run a "PR" on a course that is actually too short. 

Here's the photo Chas caught of me receiving my race award:

That's Mike to my right, and the third-place finisher whose name I didn't catch
I knew I had made a couple of mental errors in this race. The first was going out too fast. I should not have been lured to a too-quick pace by Mike and the faster 15kers. When the bike took a wrong turn, I should have kept my eye on my pace and held steady instead of picking it up. I think these variations in pace, even though they were perhaps only a quarter-mile each, took a disproportionate amount of energy, which I desperately needed on the finishing uphills. It's possible that the extra caffeine might have contributed to my bad pacing, but I think I should be able to handle the caffeine as long as I can focus and run a smart race. Hopefully I'll be able to use that knowledge next week as I head to Syracuse for the Festival of Races and the US Masters 5K Championship.

That said, a win is a win; it's exciting to place first in a race with hundreds of participants, so I'm glad to have gotten it. It's a great start to the fall racing season, with hopefully even better results to come!

My Garmin record of the race is below.

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