After being a runner reborn for just over 2 years and running in lots of races over the last year, I finally won an official 5K race for the 1st time this past Saturday! It is the 1st time I have won any kind of official race since high school track when I think I won the open 800 meters 1 time and was on the winning 4×800 meters relay team numerous other times. With the exception of my 2 marathons that have pushed me to my (current) limits, I have placed in the top 10 of every other race I have run this past year (a few 5K races, a 4-mile race and a 10-mile race), and I have always finished 1st or 2nd in my age group. I have also “won” some of the weekly club runs back in Indiana, including the mile and the 5K, but those are more like fast-paced training runs without everyone being overly competitive. So while I have had a little success road racing at the local level thus far, this was my first true victory, finishing 1st overall out of 127 runners.
This was also my very first race since my family relocated from Indiana to northern Alabama over the summer. Since we moved my running has suffered tremendously. From running daily in the 100º+ afternoon heat, to the humidity, to the hills, to the weight I gained, to the left Achilles Tendon injury, I have been forced to run slower, run shorter, walk more than I would like, take multiple 10+ day breaks and to basically feel like every single mile was painfully difficult. This was especially frustrating because right before we moved, I was running the best I had ever run. During my last 2 months in Indiana I set lifetime PRs in the marathon, half-marathon (distance, not race), 10-mile, 10K (distance, not race), 4-mile and 5K.
Then suddenly it was like my running completely fell apart this summer when we moved. It took a great deal of soul-searching to decide that I would just ride out the storm. I would run as slow as I had to run, and rest as much as I needed to rest, in order to recover from my injuries and setbacks. What I was not going to do was quit. So I took long breaks when my Achilles flared up. I started biking again, and I even started walking and running with our dog Lucy. I moved past the self-instilled notion that I had to keep getting faster and faster at all costs. I took a step back and re-learned to enjoy running for the pure and simple reasons. I went back to the basics.
DITCHING THE PAVEMENT
These past few weeks I have really loved running again, even though I have not been running nearly as fast as I was in Indiana. One of the best decisions/discoveries I made recently was to run on grass. Lucy (our dog) and I love running in grass, dirt and mud. We come home filthy, and it is great! I literally feel the difference when I step off the pavement and into the grass now. When I run on the pavement too long now, I just feel drawn away from the road. It was when I started running the bulk of my miles off-road that my Achilles Tendon started to really recover. I don’t know the science, but it also feels like running off-road is strengthening all the little muscles and tendons in my feet and ankles because the constant surface changes force my steps to adapt accordingly. Rather than running in a straight line on mostly flat asphalt, I am running through ditches, on roots and over various small bumps and dips in the ground. This causes my feet to land at different angles, and while this sounds like it is a sprained ankle waiting to happen, it actually feels great on my lower legs because the motions are not as repetitive as road-running. Also, since grass comes in lots of different heights, depending on when the city last mowed the park, sometimes I have to lift my feet higher every step. Basically this keeps things interesting, and no 2 runs are ever exactly the same. I have also noticed that while grass provides padding, it also provides a different type of resistance, like running on pillows, and then when I do run on pavement it just feels easier.
PREPARING FOR THE 5K RACE
Running off-road has helped me inch closer to my old mileage, and while my paces are still way behind, they are slowly getting faster again as my body is healing and getting stronger. The last couple weeks before this 5K race, I was finally able to do some double digit runs again. I also was finally able to start running a few faster miles again. Things really started to come together the week leading up to the race, and for the first time in months I was able to do a speed workout without aggravating my Achilles Tendon. Just 2 days before the race I endured a set of eight 400-meter repeats. It was a brutal suffer-fest, and I was worried that my legs might not recover quickly enough to run fast at the 5K race. I thought I might regret the decision to do my 1st speed workout in over 2 months just 2 days before the race, but what it did was remind my legs what it feels like to run fast. I have been running so slow that I simply forgot what some faster paces feel like. Running 400-meter repeats reminded me that running fast (Fast is relative, as what is fast for me is quite slow for many other runners I know.) is painful and difficult over extended distances, but it is also doable and leaves you with a very rewarding feeling that you gave it everything you had.
The biggest priority to me with my running, particularly when I race, is that I run to honor God. I believe that God has given me a beautiful gift with my ability to run, and the fact that He allows me to have any level of success with it feels like a great honor. So when I race, I view it as an opportunity to use my gift and to glorify God by running to the best of my ability, and sometimes better than my own ability. Win or lose, fast or slow, I hope that I always race in a way that is a light unto others in this dark world.
Going into the Apple Foundation 5K Race this past Saturday, I was very nervous. I always get nervous before any race, but this time I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect. While I was regularly running right around 20:00 for 5K in Indiana this spring, the absolute fastest I had run in Alabama was 22:35 (7:17/mile pace). Going into the race I thought I would have to run my absolute best just to break 22:00. So I went in with the relative goal of maybe breaking 22 and getting my average pace right at or just below 7:00/mile. Looking at last year’s results I thought that if I did this I would have a shot at finishing near the top 5. If I did all of this, I would feel like it was a successful race considering all I have been through with my running these last 3 months, and the fact that I took a 12-day complete running break for my Achilles just a month before the race.
I usually listen to music when I run, and if I wear my headphones in a 5K race, I load a playlist of very fast songs. I do listen to plenty of upbeat Christian music when I am running, but I also have some favorite rock songs that particularly fire me up to run fast. Since this was like a comeback race for me, and my 1st race in my new town, I decided to keep my priorities on putting it all in God’s hands. I made a new playlist of all upbeat worship songs that progressively built up from medium speed to very fast from 17-24 minutes. My plan for the race was to follow the beat of the music, starting slow and progressively building faster. I knew that I was not in good enough shape to run the 1st mile fast without burning out, so I felt that this progression was the best option for me. I hoped the music would aid my pace progression.
I tried to do everything else right leading up to the race. I carb loaded with Mexican rice the night before, following it up with a huge cup of fruit/veggie juices and chia seeds before bed. This included the dreaded (but magical) beet juice that I still have not acquired a taste for. Jennifer was making fun of me for carb loading before a local, small-town 5K race where I was not even expecting to run very fast. For me it was more a matter of comfort and routine, or “this is what I do before a race.”
Beyond carb loading, properly warming up and stretching before the race and my new playlist, I knew I was only going to run as well as God helped me to run. I never start a run without praying, but this day I prayed that God would give me speed and endurance that I had never felt since we moved to Alabama.
I started very slow, running the 1st quarter mile at just a 7:40 pace, and along with my music I progressively accelerated all the way through the starting line to the finish line. I was about 10-15 people back at the beginning, and I had fun picking everybody off 1 by 1, passing the last 4 people in the last mile. My overall plan to make this a progressive 5K run also meshed perfectly with the race course. The 1st half of the race was mostly a gradual uphill climb, while the 2nd half was mostly a gradual decent that helped me really speed things up toward the end.
As I approached the leader after the 2 mile mark, I strategically stayed back and waited to pass him till I knew I could run all out the rest of the way. I didn’t want him trying to chase me for a mile because I thought I might burn out if we got into a back and forth battle. So I waited and with a half mile left I kicked it into another gear and flew past him, quickly putting 100+ yards between us. Maybe it was the beet juice, or the lone speed workout 2 days earlier, or maybe it was the fact that I had lucky #7 on my bib (and it was my son’s 7th birthday). Perhaps God heard my prayer that morning and gave me back some of my speed that I had been missing all summer. All I know is that I have never finished a 5K race with this much strength and speed the last half mile after I passed the previous leader. I knew I was running my absolute fastest down the stretch because my arms, shoulders, chest and back muscles were all burning as bad as my legs. I don’t have an exact split for the last quarter mile, but it must have been in the 68-72 second range, probably the fastest 400 meters I have run since high school track 13 years ago. I had no idea how fast I was running till I saw my split for the last 0.10 mile, which I ran in 25 seconds, a blazing (for me) pace of 4:10/mile. Despite not passing him until the last half mile, I beat the 2nd place runner by 24 seconds.
I knew I had run the absolute best race I could have run that day, no matter what place I finished, but I actually did not know if I had won when I crossed the finish line. I knew that last year someone won the race around 18:30, so a part of me thought there might have been another runner who ran so much faster than me that he was beyond my field of vision. I asked the timekeeper if I was 2nd, and they confirmed that I had won the race.
While overall this time (20:58) is still a minute behind where I was in Indiana a few months ago, it was 1:37 faster than I have ever run 3.1 miles in Alabama and a full minute faster than my best-case goal for the race. I went in with moderate expectations, and then everything just clicked. I am hoping this helps me get out of this running funk I have been in all summer down here! It gives me hope to get back under 20:00 if I can drop the extra 15 lbs I’m still carrying, continue building my endurance, work in some more speed sessions and stay injury-free. I hope I get there again, but right now I rejoice knowing how good God is to me and blessed I am to be a part of this amazing sport.
Mile Splits: 7:14, 6:54, 6:25, 0:25 (4:10 pace for final 0.10 mi)