Monday, October 6, 2014

Race Recap: The USA Masters 5K

The USA Masters 5K is a race I have been targeting for some time. I've been doing well in local races but I wanted to test myself in a race with a national field. For master's runners, the fields don't get any more talented than this. This year, ten men finished with age grades above 90 percent: That means they finished within 10 percent of the world record for their age. The women were even more impressive, with three women getting age grades above 100 percent, meaning they broke world records for their age. Libby James, age 78, ran a staggering 24:00 5k for an age grade of 106.76!

The weather was almost perfect this morning as we lined up for the race: 45 degrees and sunny. The only possible negative was a wind of about 8 miles per hour -- enough to notice but probably not something that would slow us down by much. My goal for the race was 18:30, which should handily qualify me for a second seeding at the Bloomsday run next year; an 18:40 is the qualification standard. 

An 18:30 would require a 5:57 pace per mile. Since I generally expect to slow by a few seconds for each mile, my plan was to start at a 5:52 pace, then run 5:57 for Mile 2 and the final 1.1 miles in a 6:02 pace. This also gave me a decent margin for error: Even if my Garmin's measurement was a little off, as long as the course came out to 3.13 or less on the Garmin I'd still finish under the required 18:40 time.

USA Masters 5k
It's the start! (Actually the start of the women's race, but you get the idea...)
I wanted to avoid starting too fast, so I lined up about four rows back from the start line. I told myself not to look at my watch for the first quarter of a mile, and just keep pace with the runners around me. The race started right on time, and I stuck to the plan. I stayed with the runners around me, just passing a few folks who had obviously started too fast. A quarter-mile in I was just a touch over my planned pace, around a 5:45. Now everyone was settling in, and I tried to relax and ease my pace back just enough to hit the 5:52 target.

The course had been set up nearly perfectly, with signs at every kilometer mark and markers every mile. An orange dashed line indicated the perfect tangent path along the course, and all the roads were completely closed to traffic.

I passed the Mile 1 marker at 5:53, almost exactly on pace. I felt strong, so I decided to try to keep up this pace for Mile 2, just to bank a little time. I was starting to pass some runners who had overestimated their ability to maintain this pace. Near the halfway point, we did a sharp u-turn and headed back towards the start line. I passed the halfway clock at 9:09, well under the pace I would need to finish in 18:30.

At Mile 2, my Garmin showed me running a 5:55 pace, right where I wanted to be. But now we were heading into the wind, and there was a large gap between me and the next runner ahead of me. It was also a slight uphill at this point. I needed to hang on to for a 6:02 pace, but my watch showed me going closer to 6:08. I knew that once we rounded the final corner we'd have about 400 meters of downhill to the finish, so I just tried to focus on hanging on. I was gasping for breath, nearly grunting each time I exhaled. 

The runners ahead of me seemed impossibly far away. It was a painful struggle to stay on target. The slowest pace I noticed on my watch was a 6:09, but this was an average for the mile. Looking back at the Garmin record, it appears I slowed to around a 6:30 at a couple points. I tried to focus on the corner ahead, which I knew was just over a quarter-mile from the finish; it was all downhill from there. It seemed to take an eternity to get there. Finally I did round the corner. It wasn't quite downhill yet -- there was a level stretch that was probably only 100 meters long, but it seemed like a mile.

After what seemed like an eternity, I passed the "400 meters to go" sign. I knew this was where I was supposed to start my kick, but I just couldn't accelerate like I wanted to. Slowly, slowly I increased my pace. I passed the "200 meters to go" sign. There was supposed to be a 3-mile marker somewhere around here, but I didn't see it. Now the finish line, and the finish clock, were coming into view. Did it say 18:17? No, it was 18:27. I was probably 100 meters from the finish. No way I could go 100 meters in 13 seconds; hopefully I was actually closer than that. Finally I was delivering that kick, and the clock ticked forward: 18:30, 31, 32. Now I was in an all-out sprint. 18:39, 40, 41... I crossed the line and stopped my watch.

It said 18:41. Later I'd find my official time was 18:42. Two seconds too slow.

USA Masters 5k
Me after the race. A little disappointed but glad to have run it

My plan had been to run splits of 5:52, 5:57, and 6:02. In fact on my Garmin I had run paces of 5:50, 5:55, and 6:03. I had executed the plan nearly perfectly, despite my struggles in Mile 3. The only error I made was assuming the course would come out to 3.13 miles on my Garmin. In the end, the Garmin measured it as 3.15 miles. 0.02 miles doesn't seem like much, but at 6 minutes per mile, it takes 7.2 seconds to run 0.02 miles. Garmin splits aren't real splits -- the only splits that count are when you pass the actual mile markers.

So what were my real splits? I hit the "lap" button on my watch at the Mile 1 and 2 markers -- I never saw Mile 3. Mile 1 came at 1.01 on the Garmin, and I was there in 5:53. Mile 2 was at 1.02 miles on the Garmin, and my time was 6:02. From there to the finish measured 1.12 on Garmin, and I ran it in 6:45, so my pace for the final 1.1 miles was actually 6:05. Overall my average pace was 6:02 (or 6:01.14 without rounding). What I needed was a 6:00 (or more precisely, 6:00.49). It was that close!

I'm quite sure I can hit that 18:40 mark this season with a little more training. I'd like to be in good enough shape that I can run it with a much larger margin for error, so I don't have to worry about tenths of a second. I'd like to beat it by 20, 30 seconds. Then instead of hitting a qualifying time I can start thinking about another tough time to beat -- my PR of 17:49!

My Garmin record of the race is below.

...and here's a bonus video of the start of the women's race:

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