Thursday, October 2, 2014

Race Preview: USA Masters 5K Championships

One of my goals for the 2014/15 racing season was to run in shorter races with much higher-quality fields than can be usually found locally. Last week's 5k win was great, but no one in my race (including me) broke 18:50, let alone my 17:49 PR.

So this year I decided to enter the USA Masters 5k Championships at the Festival of Races in Syracuse, NY. Last year the winner ran a 15:21, and the top Master was just behind him at 15:25. The top master in my age group blazed in at 15:29, an amazing 4:59 pace at 47 years old! There were 8 finishers within plus or minus 3 seconds of my PR. By contrast, at the Runway 5k where I PRed, only one runner -- Joe Rao, who was pacing me -- was within 10 seconds on either side of me. 10 seconds is an eternity in a 5k -- and Runway is one of the more competitive races in the Charlotte area!

I'm not in shape to PR just yet. I weigh about 6 pounds more than I did during last year's PR, and I can tell from my recent speed work (and last week's race) that I'm not as strong as I was last year. Last week my goal was to break 18:40 and qualify for Second Seeding at the Bloomsday run next May. Since I didn't make it last week, I need to make that my primary goal again this week.

Because of the field and the course, I should have a much better shot this week. There will be plenty of other runners at my pace, and the course is flat and fast, unlike LungStrong's rolling hills.

One of the commenters on my blog at MyFitnessPal, litsy3, an exceptional woman runner with PRs that beat mine at every distance except 5k, felt that my error at LungStrong wasn't merely running faster than my planned pace a couple of times during the race, but planning to start as fast as I did at all. She may have a point -- my planned 5:45 start was just 5 seconds per mile slower than my PR, set on a flatter course. On the other hand, that course started with a 47-foot climb that I ran at a solid 5:40 pace, so my effort there was probably closer to 5:30, whereas on the downhill, a 5:45 is more like a 6:15 effort.

So how do I break 18:40, which requires a 6:00 pace assuming the course matches my Garmin? I looked up a couple of Garmin plots of the course from last year, and it looks like everyone is getting in the 3.13 to 3.14 range for the course length. That means the pace I see on my watch should be something like 5:57.

I still believe that I do best when I positive-split a race on a flat course: My last mile should be slightly slower than my first mile. For my PR, my splits were 5:40, 5:41, 5:44, and that was with a downhill finish. On a flat course, I think I should be planning to slow by around 5 seconds per mile. That would suggest starting at 5:52, then 5:57, and finally 6:02. If I've got something left for that last mile, I can gas it and maybe take 10 or 15 seconds off my time.

But how do I control my speed during that first mile and avoid hitting a 5:20 pace for the first quarter-mile, like I did last week? I've seen a couple of tips for avoiding fast starts, but one that intrigues me comes from this article:
A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to breathe out of your nose for the first half mile -- if you have to breathe through your mouth, you've started too fast for your fitness level. You should be able to talk when running at the start of your race, but it shouldn't be comfortable -- if you feel capable of rattling off several sentences, you might want to increase your pace.
I'm not sure I want to try that in a race, though. What if my nose is a little stuffed up that morning? I think a better strategy may be to cue off the other runners in the race. Based on last year's results, I can expect that about 80 runners will be going faster than my target pace. So I should make sure to line up at least that far back from the start -- if not a bit farther, since there will inevitably be some folks who go out too hard. For the first quarter-mile, I won't look at my watch, but just look to keep pace with the folks right around me. Then I can readjust. I expect that my pace will be much closer to my target than it was last week.

I'm also going to assume this course is well-marked and turn off the auto-lap function on my watch (I can verify this when I do my warm-up on race day). I will manually press the lap button at each mile marker, which will give me my actual race time for the mile. If I'm hitting 6-minute miles, I'm on target to hit my goal pace.

Whether or not I match my target, it will be exciting to be a part of such a talented field of masters runners. I'm looking forward to seeing how I compare!

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