Saturday, October 29, 2016

Race Recap: The Runway 5k 2016

Three years ago I was at absolute peak form. I came in to the Runway 5k with the plan of setting a PR and going faster than 18 minutes for the first time. And I did it! I ran the race in 17:49 and won my age group in a very competitive field.

Unfortunately, a little over a year later, things weren't going so well for me. In February of 2015 I fell in a trail race and badly injured my hamstring. After limping four miles to the finish, I wasn't able to run for several weeks, and I began a rehab program that would ultimately take over 18 months. I ran my slowest-ever road marathon, did a few triathlons, but never came close to the form I had back in 2013. Would I ever come back?

As I trained over the summer of 2016, it didn't seem likely. My runs were anemic, and it seemed like any time I tried a tough workout, my hamstrings would stay sore for days, if not weeks. But of course I was running in the summer heat. Maybe as things cooled down in the fall I'd see some real improvement in my foot speed. Gingerly, this past fall I added some speed work back into my regimen. As in the summer, I found I was taking a long time to recover from these workouts, but I was getting faster. Perhaps I just needed to acknowledge that, at 49 years old, recovery was going to take more time, but it didn't mean I couldn't return close to the form I had shown not so long ago.

A week and a half ago, I had a breakthrough workout, 6 x 1000 meters at a sub-6:30 pace. I nailed the workout, but again took a long time to recover. In the past if I had been able to do a workout like this, I was confident I could complete a 5k at the same pace. Maybe the same would be true now. I had signed up for the Runway 5k months ago, so now was the time to find out. It was a fast, nearly flat course that set up exactly the way I liked: A slightly uphill start, a flat middle, and a slightly downhill finish. My plan was to go out at roughly a 6:20/mile pace, then see if I could pick things up about halfway through. If I just maintained that pace or even slowed a bit, I should finish in under 20 minutes -- a time that many runners see as separating "serious" runners from recreational runners.

Me, Chas, and Richard arrived at the Charlotte-Douglas Airport about an hour before the race. It's a dramatic setting for a race, with planes taking off and landing nearby, and giant hangars looming over the finish area. I took a little warmup jog around the tarmac, then found a foreboding location for a pre-race photo:

Apparently I can't run here and there is an emergency evacuation

Then I put on my racing flats and headed to the start. I decided to line up about five rows back. The biggest danger for me in a 5k is to start out too fast over the first 800 meters, so by lining up in a spot a little slower than my planned pace, I can help avoid that. Plus it's fun passing all the folks who started too fast over the course of the first mile. Chas and John were up in the front row, which made sense for them, since they were looking to run the race in around 18 minutes, nearly two minutes faster than me.

The plan worked well for me. About a quarter-mile in, I looked at my watch and saw that I was running at about a 6:15 pace: Slightly faster than planned, but not obscenely fast. I had felt a bit of an ache in my "good" hamstring just before the race, but this had gone away with my warm-up, and now my bad hamstring was starting to make itself known. Nothing debilitating or seriously painful, but definitely a reminder not to do anything stupid.

Soon we were up on the runway and next to a parked jet. It's still a thrill to be running next to such a massive flying machine. Airplanes were taking off about a quarter-mile away. The morning was cool, but not cold -- maybe around 52 degrees; nearly perfect for a 5k! The crowd of runners (over 2,000 were competing) had begun to thin out. As I had planned, I was now passing folks right and left. I was beginning to labor a bit with my breathing, but nothing unexpected given that I'd already run nearly a mile at 6:15 pace.

I was up the first hill and onto the flat second mile, continuing to cruise at 6:15. I checked my watch periodically, and each time the pace dropped below 6:20 I picked things up just a touch. It was definitely starting to get tough to maintain this pace. A couple of folks passed me, including woman in a long-sleeve printed shirt. I let them go; I needed to run my own race.

Soon we were off the runway and back onto the airport access road. I passed the 2-mile mark, finishing Mile 2 at a 6:21 pace.

Now was when things really started to suck.

Everything just seemed a little harder. And weren't we supposed to have a downhill finish? The road continued, straight and flat, with no downhill in sight. A few more people passed me, and my pace dropped to 6:30. I began to think about just giving up. Could I really keep this pace up any longer? When was that downhill going to show up? Finally we turned a corner, and we did hit a gradual downhill stretch, at last. I looked at my watch and saw my pace had slowed, to 6:35. Ugh. I pushed as hard as I could, but every step just seemed labored and awkward. Somehow I improved to 6:31. Would I miss out on a 20-minute 5k? That requires an average 6:26 pace, and this 6:31 just seemed to be at the edge of my abilities. We headed through a gate back onto the tarmac, and I caught a glimpse of the finish area, still apparently a long ways away. I was probably only about a third of a mile from the finish, but it seemed much farther.

Two more turns, and I was headed straight for the finish line. I don't remember my watch beeping "3 miles", or seeing my 6:32 split, but somehow I did speed up a bit, to faster than a 6:00 pace for the last tenth of a mile. I crossed the line and stopped my watch. I looked down and saw 19:49. I had done it! Chas and John were there to give me congratulatory fist-bumps. Richard arrived soon after me, and I congratulated him, and some other runners I recognized, like Chad Champion.

My official chip time was 19:47 for the race, good for third place in the 45-49 age group. Not bad for a division with 82 competitors! Chas finished in 17:43, and he was thrilled that he had not only PRd, but beaten my three-year-old PR by 6 seconds. John also broke 18:00, and Richard was close behind me at 20:05, tantalizingly close to that elusive 20-minute barrier. Another buddy, Bryan, PRd with a 19:09. Here's a photo of some of us after the race:

From left: John, me, Chas, and Richard

Even though I'm still nearly two minutes away from my form of three years ago, I'm happy with my race. Did I mess up my pacing by "positive splitting" the race and going slower with each mile? I don't think so. I went 6:15, 6:21, and 6:32, not much of a decline. I also think that if I had a little more recent 5k experience, I would have been able to suck it up and keep my pace closer to 6:20 for that final mile, realizing that you have to go all out and knowing that it will be over soon.

I also have realized that there is no point in continuing to see myself as "injured." Yes, I do face aches and pains that require my attention, but they clearly aren't stopping me from running solid races among competitive fields. I just need to continue to train smart and not overextend myself. I've set the ambitious goal of running a sub-18-minute 5k some time after I turn 50, which is three months from now. I don't see any reason why I can't do it.

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