Though I’ve been running for exercise for the past two to three years, it’s mostly been in the past six months to a year that I have done so with any real dedication, and in that time I’ve been amazed at the progress I’ve made. Not only have I been able to consistently run long distances (three half marathons so far this year), but I feel like I’m getting faster with every run I do. I’ve basically set a PR with every race I’ve entered this year, and that’s a trend that I don’t see ending in the near future. (If you want details on some of these PRs, you can read about half marathons one, two, and three, and then my 10k).
Though I’m sure a lot of the improvement has come just from running on a regular basis, another part of it is coming from the fact that I have been going to track workouts on Tuesday nights. These are generally interval workouts that focus on shorter periods of sustained running at a certain pace with recovery periods in between. That has helped me get used to running a little bit faster, and that seems to have gone a long way in dropping my race times.
Anyway, I say all this to lead into the fact that I have been itching to run a 5k (3.1 mile) race in order to see just how fast I can run one. My previous PR (set in November of 2013) was 30:03, which is good for a 9:40 pace, but seeing that this was now slower than my last half marathon pace and I had been running on the track in the low 8:00 range, I had a feeling I could blow my old PR out of the water. I knew for sure I could go under 27:00, and I was thinking that maybe I could even run under 26:00.
The Seascape 5k and 5 Miler ended up being the place where I would put that theory to the test. This was a small race put on by our local Fleet Feet that went out and back on Sumner Road in Aptos and finished on the coastal bluffs of Seascape Park. As with many of the local races, I knew it was going to be on the small side, and after looking at the spread of times for similarly-sized races, I started to think that I could actually be competitive in this race. Don’t get me wrong – I knew I wasn’t going to beat the 16:00 guy who wins just about every 5k in the county, but I thought I thought that I could finish much closer to the top spot than I had previously.
I got there early to help set up, did a warm up mile along the first part of the course, and then set up at the starting line to begin the race. One small difference from my previous races – I made my way towards the front of the line instead of hanging in the middle or in the back. I wanted to get a jump on this one.
The gun went off and the whole group (5k and 5 milers) went off at the same time. For me, the race started pretty fast; I was hanging in the high 7:00 range over the first mile with some variances to account for the hills. I was worried I was going too fast and would end up paying for it later, but I managed to convince myself to just go with it and see what I could handle. I checked my watch as I got to the first mile marker and saw that I had ran a 7:57. Which is easily the fastest mile I’ve ever ran in a race. Still feeling good, I pressed on and tried to maintain the pace.
One of the things I love about out and back races is counting runners as they come back on the other side of the street. It helps me know where I stand and gives me something to think about while I’m trudging along. Somewhere between the first mile marker and the halfway point, I started seeing the really fast guys coming back. First was The Guy Who Always Wins, but he was followed closely by a pack of women who always rank near the top. After that they were a little more spread about with only a person here and there.
I was running with a fairly decent-sized pack of people, but as I approached the turnaround point, I noticed that most of them kept going straight for the 5 mile course. I kept waiting for all of the people in front of me turn around, leaving me to fall further and further down the list of finishers. But they didn’t, and by the time I got to the halfway point, I realized that there were really not that many people in front of me; I didn’t have an exact figure, but it was somewhere around a dozen. I checked my watch and saw that I had reached the turnaround point in about 11 minutes, which is ridiculous; with more of the uphill coming on the return trip, I knew I wouldn’t hold that pace, but I was determined not to fall too far off.
A little ways in front of me after the runaround was a group of three pre-teen girls that were hauling butt. I focused on passing them, and by the end of mile 2, I had gone around them and built a decent gap. I’m not going to lie – it felt good to be passing people this far into the race, even if they were only tweens.
My second mile clocked in at 8:08 – a little slower, but still mostly on pace.
The third mile, however, was tough. The pace mixed in with the hills was enough to leave me winded, but I did what I could to press on. I didn’t see anyone within catching distance, so I didn’t feel pressured to try and pass anyone, but I was determined to not be passed (especially by the 12-year-olds!), so I kept going. As I got closer to the end, we crested a hill that had a big trailer parked on the side of the road. I went in front of the trailer (so that I wouldn’t be seen by anyone behind - I didn’t want to give my competitors a psychological leg up) and took a five to ten second walk break just so I could catch my breath. After that, it was back to the grind.
As the finish line came into few and I was panting for every breath, I kept looking at my watch and thinking that something wasn’t quite right with either the course or my watch, as the finish line was looking to come in a little sooner than 3.1 miles. After a sprint finish (I wasn’t intending to sprint, but those junior highers caught up to me and I couldn’t let them finish in front), I looked at my watch and saw that I had run 2.85 miles, about a quarter mile short. This seemed to be confirmed by my time, which was an inexplicable 22:52. A survey of some of the other finishers found that their watches gave a similar reading, so it seemed that the course was a little short and that everyone had insanely good times as a result!
To get a realistic time for myself, I need to add about two minutes onto my finishing time based on the pace I was running. That means that I should have finished right around 25 minutes, which is the best case scenario I had set for myself. This was obviously a huge success for me, as it was about five minutes and 17% faster than my last 5k.
But perhaps even more uplifting was where I finished in the field. The 5k had 138 participants (103 females and 35 males): I finished 12th overall, 7th in the field of men, and 2nd in my age group. That was a lot closer to the top than I was used to finishing!
Overall, the race turned out to be a great experience – it was a nice course with fun people and good results. Here are some things I walked away with:
- I am a lot faster than I used to be. It’s remarkable how much one can improve at something in as little as six months, and it feels good to see tangible improvement.
- I want to race more shorter distances in the future. For a while I felt that “running” meant “distance” and that I eventually had to run a marathon to really belong. But I’m realizing that half marathons are my ideal distance runs and that I like these shorter, faster 5ks and 10ks. I wouldn’t mind making improvement in these areas a focus of my future training.
- When I enter these races, I can be more than a participant – I can actually be a competitor. Sure this was a small race and there are a lot of other races that would see me finishing further from the top, but I feel that now when I enter in a race, I don’t have to accept irrelevancy as a given. I know I have the capacity to run a pretty good race if I want to.
- There are a lot of people who are really fast, and it makes me wonder how close to that level of fitness I can get in the future. Motivation!