In running as in medicine, sometimes the more you think you know about a particular subject the more you realize that you know absolutely jack squat!
In all honesty, by the time I lined up at the start of today's 5k race in Washington Heights, (even though this was to be my first "official race of 2010" and first as a Saucony Hurricane, I already accepted the fact that this was not going to be a stellar race for me. Given that I had been bothered all week by some discomfort in my right ITB and Achilles, likely secondary to pushing my pace too hard in the last miles of my 22 miler last week, and had gone out on a sixteen mile long run less than 24 hours ago, I had no wild preconceived notions of turning in a spectacular time on this tough and hilly course. My plan was to run this race without trashing myself physically and get to the post-race party as fast as possible...so I can trash myself there with the free beer and brunch at the Irish bar that was sponsoring this race! Last year, in my first 5K race ever, I ran this course in an amazing 18:34 (avg pace 5:59 min/mi). This year, given my injury concerns and sore legs, I was just hoping for anything less than 18:40.
Race weather was perfect this morning as we nestled ourselves inside our respective color corrals, waiting for the race start. It was sunny, it was warm (mid 40s), and I saw a few pigeons bustling about in the blue sky overhead - a sure sign of spring! Although I was in my starting corral a full ten minutes prior to the start, I still found myself at the back of the pack. I had expected this to be a crowded race, given the popularity of the post race party and the race being a points race for the local running clubs, but when you can't even see the stage from the first corral, that's a little ridiculous. I tried inching myself closer to the front once the opening ceremonies started and the Star-Spangled Banner began to play, but all that did was encourage everyone else to do the same. So I resigned myself to my position, gave my sore calves a good stretch, rubbed my new Saucony Fastwitch 4 racers (love these) for good luck and redirected my thoughts on formulating a game plan for this course.
I was in the midst of my thoughts, trying to remember what I had learned from watching a replay of the Boston Marathon on Universal Sports the night before, when the starting horn sounded. Amidst the thunderous applause of nearby spectators and a make shift Irish band playing loud bagpipe music in the background, I followed the swarming masses staggering towards the starting line. A few seconds later, I found myself crossing the mats and officially beginning my racing season for 2010.
Mile 1 - As it is with any NYRR race, the first quarter mile was crowded and congested, and it was all I could do to find some room for myself to run. Choosing to be safe rather than risk an injury to myself or others, I started my race conservatively and waited patiently for the pace of my neighbors to settle. As I did, I used the time to find out if my knee and ankle had sufficiently warmed to give forth a solid effort on this day. After a quarter mile of heavy contemplation and no pain, I dared myself to open up the pace to my perceived 5K effort.
Unfortunately, this was also where we encountered the first major hill on the course. The rise isn't big, but if you're not ready for it, it can easily sapped your energy and kill your race. I didn't consider it much, but judging from the heavy breathing and the occasional swear escaping from the mouths of my neighbors, I know they would beg to differ. Perhaps that's why I caught back up to many of the initial speedsters who had blasted off right from the get-go. After the ascent, we were treated to a nice steady downhill. I extended my stride and fought my heart to flow down the hill as fast as I could. (Mile 1 - 5:57; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 1 - 5:55)
Mile 2 - The cruelty of the second mile is that as soon as you cross the mile 1 marker running downhill, you can see the second mile marker directly on the opposite side of this out-and-back course. In the middle of this descent, I can vaguely make out the super elite runners fast approaching the hill from the other side. Last year, I bombed this section of the course. Last year, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. This year, upon seeing fort tower a bit in the distance and the elites on their return journey back to the start, I vowed that things would be a little different.
Once the descent was over and I found myself revolving around fort tower on flatter ground, I shortened my stride and increased my turnover in anticipation of the big ascent up ahead. As I did, I reminded myself to imagine myself a cyclist shifting down gears in response to a big hill climb. A big swarm of people, larger than before, was now rolling down the big hill on the opposite side as I began my battle. Off in the short distance, I can clearly make out a couple of my Flyer teammates who have already begun to wage their own wars.
And then it was time for me to go. A half mile up a grade 3-4 hill. Hmmm, I thought, haven't I done this before? Why does this feel so familiar? Of course, of course, this is exactly what I've been practicing on the treadmill for so many weeks. The hill repeats up a level 4-5 hill. I know how to do this. Short strides, quick steps, controlled breathing. Yes, yes, I can do this.
Maybe it was the weekly hilly sets working wonders. Maybe it was just how I like to fake it until I make it. Whatever the reason, I rocked the hill climb like I've never rocked one before. The funny thing was I didn't even need to check the Garmin to tell me this. I passed so many people during this elevation gain that I felt I was literally on a bike while others were running! While others were grunting, and breathing so ostensibly loud that I almost couldn't hear myself think, I was repeating my own hill climbing mantra to myself - short strides, quick steps, controlled breathing - and maintaining my effort running up the hill. Seeing the official clock at the mile 2 maker in the 11:50 ranges only served to confirmed my suspicions. (Mile 2 - 5:57; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 2 - 6:08)
Mile 3 - At the end of the hill, upon seeing my mile 2 time, I knew I was in line for a big PR. For a moment or two, I couldn't believe I finished that stretch at the same time as mile 1. Maybe I should recheck the Garmin, maybe I had miscalculated. No, I didn't have time. Instead for the first time in the race, I was feeling some fatigue in my quads. So I pleaded with my legs to keep the faith and keep the pace. Instead of acknowledging the soreness, I finally thought about how I wasn't supposed to be doing so well so late in this race. Didn't I run 16 miles the day before? Wasn't my knees and ankles supposed to be tight and sore? Instead, I was having no tightness, no pain, and running victoriously on the way to the finish line. I had overachieved beyond my wildest expectations. I felt instantaneously at peace. (Mile 3 - 5:56; Coogan's 2009 5K Mile 3 - 5:56)
Last 0.1M - As I approached the finish, I could once again hear the bagpipes and the wild applause of the spectators gathering in the streets on either side. I noticed that the sun had risen higher now. Neighbors from the apartment buildings on other sides were looking out onto the streets and clapping their hands in exultation. The entire street was turning into a spring carnival right before my eyes! I pumped my fists and gave a last kick on my way across the finish line to claim my first race PR of 2010. (Last 0.1M - 0:36; Coogan's 2009 5K Last 0.1M - 0:35)
Finishing Time - 18:26 (PR by 8 secs)
Average Pace - 5:56 min/mile
Overall Place - 186/5629
Gender Place - 172/3017
Age Place - 33
Age Graded - 71.1%