One of my major goals for the 30@30 campaign is to break 19min for a 5K.
Despite a strong 19:06 performance early in the Spring season, the barrier has remained elusive. So I scheduled race #29 on a flat 5K course in NYC, hoping that I could overcome my recent setbacks and finally get it done.
However. I’ve struggled in the past month or two. My training has been sub-optimal, I’ve drifted further from my ideal racing weight (thanks, wedding), and I’ve been psychologically exhausted.
Heading into this race, I predicted a time that could be anywhere between 18:40 – 19:30. That’s a big window.
To break 19 minutes (6:07/mile pace), I would need to have a performance that drastically exceeded recent results. I would have to run very aggressively from the beginning. Typically, breakthrough performances at the 5K distance involve fast starts and hard finishes. Basically, I was going to have to red-line (be in significant pain) for a long time. No more starting slower and trying to pick up the pace.
Gun time on Roosevelt Island (the New York City one… not the DC one…) for the Running of the Balls 5K (race in support of testicular cancer, amazing pun) was at 8:30 on a slightly cloudy, drizzly morning. We arrived shortly after 7am for bib pickup.
Bibs were not ready yet.
I decided to extend my warmup a bit. First, I jogged a half mile and then went through my dynamic stretching. After another failed attempt to pick up my bib (now 7:45am), I went for a longer run of about 1.5 miles at a slow pace interspersed with some speed bursts just above race pace. Didn’t feel great.
Next, I went back to grab my bib and then do some sprint drills and strides.
Not so fast. Bibs not there. Have to wait. Now 8am.
Finally (8:15), bibs arrive. I get to wait in line and pick mine up. Fun.
Racing buds Patrick, Kelli, and Kapelman all arrive and Russ (the pup) is happy to see them. At 8:20, I finally have my race bib. I throw on my singlet, rub a combination of weird creams on my body, and devour some Run Gum (one mint and one fruit – my new favorite combo).
Thanks to a snazzy wedding gift, I could race with music again! Our new GPS watch also stores music, meaning that I can run with tunes without strapping my bulky phone to my arm. Only downside is that I was having playlist issues and couldn’t get my planned playlist to load properly. Oh well, any music is better than none, right?
Didn’t feel great or fully warmed up, but oh well. Go time.
I couldn’t get to the very front of the start line, meaning that I would have to weave around a few slower runners and foolish children at the start.
My goal was to be aggressive, knowing I would probably blow up (the runner’s term for hitting a wall of pain mid-race) and have to hang on. I wanted to be slightly ahead of 6:07 pace by the end of the first mile.
We round a series of tight turns to start and I am moving quickly but feeling okay. There are a handful of runners just in front of me when I look down at my watch at the half mile mark to see that my “current pace” is averaging about 5:55. Okay, I say to myself, that’s okay.
Two runners pass me just before we hit the one mile mark. I am working hard but I don’t feel awful just yet. I can tell that I won’t be able to keep this pace up, which worries me. My watch buzzes: 5:45.
Woah. What happened to that 5:55 average pace? My GPS must not have fully accounted for the fast start at the outset of the race.
This is good, I say to myself. I know I can’t sustain this pace, but I’ve given myself a solid cushion off of the 6:07 average I need to hit.
Another minute passes…. and suddenly I really feel it.
My abs ache and I am working hard to sustain this pace. This isn’t good. I fiddle with my music (on shuffle) to try and find a song with a slightly faster tempo. I chew down hard on my gum, hoping to tap into a hidden crevice of caffeine.
I consider slowing down a ton and giving in to the pain. I tell myself that I had planned to pick it up at the 1.5 mile mark so I can hold this pace at least until then.
After about what feels like an hour later, we hit the 1.5 mile mark and the course turns south back toward the Start/Finish area. I get a nice boost when my music shuffles onto a favorite running song (Kid Ink’s ‘The Movement’).
I know I have slowed down a bit and turn my focus toward external stimuli. I pick a point ahead on the course and concentrate on running toward it. Get there. Pick another point.
It’s not going too well.
I feel heavy and out of shape. The two mile mark comes and my watch beeps: 6:15 for that last mile.
I feel terrible and I’m not sure I can hold this pace… but a little quick math and I realize that I’m still averaging about a 6min/mile pace. If I can improve a little bit, I’ll be where I need to be.
Now, it’s time to play mind games.
I try counting my steps in sets of 18. It helps a bit as I try to synchronize my steps to the music, but the tactic doesn’t work all too well for too long. I am really tired.
My pace begins to get a little erratic as I slow down for 100 meters or so, only then to tell myself to pick it up just for a short while. These bursts probably last for about a half mile.
I really just want to quit. Not just ease up – completely quit and walk. But I tell myself just to hold on and give myself a chance at a sprint finish. You’ve already done all this work, I tell myself, don’t undermine it by slowing down. You’re going to be so mad at yourself if you’re close.
2.5 miles complete and I peek at my watch: pace says about 6:20 for this mile. Ugh. Maybe I should just quit.
Time to try some positive self-talk – which is known to be helpful. “You got this,” I tell say out loud to myself.
Then, my personal favorite: “This ain’t shit. Gimmie more.”
I can begin to see the finish area as the course takes a few winds around some nooks and crannies. I look down at my watch which says we’ve gone 2.77 miles. Just a little more than 400m to go. Pick it up, Jake.
A runner passes me. Shit.
Then, I finally get toward the finish area and can see Jess and Russ, which gives me a huge boost and helps me maintain pace.
While the finish line is in sight, unfortunately, the course involves a series of tight turns just beginning about 200m from the finish line. Terrible setup.
We have to turn 90 degrees left, run 80 meters, then make a hairpin 180 turnaround and head back for 80 meters, before finally turning left again 90 degrees and then hitting the finish line 40 meters later.
Navigating the bizarre turns just before the finish line.
I look down at my watch, expecting to see about 18:30 and dreading a tight sprint finish.
Watch reads 17:59.
Oh! I’m ahead of pace!
I try to pick it up as best I can around these tight turns. When I finally round the last turn, I can see the clock ahead next to the finish line reading about 18:34.
I don’t know if it’s completely accurate, but it’s accurate enough!
Seeing the finish line clock with 30 meters left.
I barrel through the finish line and nearly collapse from exhaustion. I lean against a barrier railing and try to catch my breath. I finally remember to stop my wristwatch. Relief.
I wobble over to the hydration station in search of some watered-down Gatorade (Pepsi: I am still available for sponsorship, just sayin’).
I stagger over toward Jess and Russ and we go to cheer for the rest of the crew.
Kelli put in a strong race (ending up 3rd in her age group!) as did Kapelman (who ran a comparable pace to a competitive 5K he ran recently) and Patrick (who stuck to his plan and definitely had the last laugh, finishing without the same exhaustion as the rest of us fools).
My final time clocked in at a season’s best and barrier-smashing 18:41. Good for 9th overall and my best 5K in a dozen years.
I’m trilled with the outcome but still suffering from the process. Going out so fast was a gutsy, uncomfortable strategy that paid off… but made for a miserable racing experience. I hope that the next big barrier can fall without such a brutal effort.
Overall, a good learning experience. One that I’ll probably be much happier about once I can shed the memories of pain and focus on the outcome.
My incredible thanks to Kelli, Kapelman, and Patrick for coming out to join me. And of course, to my wife (it feels really cool to write that), for coming along and supporting me.
Race crew, Russell, and the Testicle Mascot.
Next up… race 30! The final race! What should it be? TBD.