Over the weekend I took another small step along the path back to normal racing, lining up early Sunday morning with 700 other shivering ectomorphs to participate in the “An Ras Mor” 5K in Cambridge. What would bring out so many runners so early on such a bitterly cold day in March? Why, the first race in the 2015 New England Pub Series, of course!
(Speaking of the Pub Series, it was at this race in 2009 that the young Tyler Andrews (just shy of his 19th birthday and with only the consciousness of greatness within him) expressed amazement that adult runners had such an affinity for beer before 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Such debauchery!)
But I digress.
When you pre-register for a mid-March race in New England, you never count on great weather, but even so, the forecast for Sunday morning was bracing. The temperature for the 9:30 start was expected to be about 25 degrees F, with wind gusts of 15-20 mph out of the North. Warming up and staying warm would be the order of the day, and to that end, I planned my pre-race routine carefully.
- Step 1: Pick up my number the day before to avoid the need to arrive early and waste time and body heat walking back and forth between car and Race HQ
- Step 2: Choose my layers carefully
- Step 3: Allow for an extra-long warmup, with a quick shedding of outside layers as late as possible
As I look at that list now, I realize that actually running the race was not high on my list of worries. I guess I’m still in the low expectation phase, where all I want is to have a solid effort, finish without dying or feeling like I didn’t work hard enough, and gather additional information about my fitness level. And, of course, hang around with my good friends, whom I love dearly, even though they have become so much faster than me.
I arrived, as planned, at around 8:50, which gave me plenty of time before the 9:30 start. I hopped out of my car, and immediately began jogging. I timed my jog to the start (about six minutes) and then continued on a longer loop that got me back to my car at about 9:10. I dropped off some stuff, grabbed my racing shoes, and headed back to the start. With about ten minutes to go, I switched into racing shoes, did a few drills and strides, and insinuated myself into the crowd of runners now massed at the start. I was far from toasty, but I wasn’t shaking, so that was OK.
When the gun went off, the packed crowd began unfurling forward like a carpet being rolled out,and I began shuffling and then running, my hands up to maintain space between myself and other bodies careening nearby. After 100 meters we turned left onto Mass Ave and into the wind and I settled into a sluggish trot that felt neither fast nor slow, while trying to find a pack in which to draft.
Up ahead, I could see my teammates — Patrick, Kevin, Terry, and Amory — as well as other local runners I knew. I had the distinct impression that all of them were pulling away at a rather alarming rate. Nevertheless, I made no attempt to speed up. I still didn’t feel completely warmed up, and — more importantly — not having raced a 5k for a while, I didn’t have a very good sense of my pace and how my body would respond to the sustained effort.
Not for the first time it struck me how important and interesting “pace sense” is when racing. In any race lasting more than a few minutes, we adjust pace based on continuous evaluation of how we feel and on our expectation of how long we must maintain the effort. If we are out of practice, it’s as if we are running “blind,” with no clue about how we’ll feel even five minutes down the road.
I passed the 1M mark hoping I was running 6:00 pace and was chagrined to hear 6:16 instead. That was slow! No wonder everyone had been pulling away. On the other hand, we had been running into a headwind and perhaps the first mile had been slightly uphill. I tried not to be discouraged and instead focused on maintaining my effort and running tangents. As we approached the turn around near Harvard Square, I also passed a couple of people I knew, which bucked me up considerably.
The second mile felt hard, but better than the first. It was probably a combination of things — being warmer, having a tailwind, and starting to pass people — that translated into a better race mentality. I passed the 2M mark in 12:16 — a 6:00 mile — and that was much more encouraging.
I ran the last mile at what felt like a good, hard pace. At the same time, it was here that my pace sense felt most rusty. My thoughts yo-yo’d between feeling great because I could feel I was working hard, and feeling terrible because I didn’t think I could maintain the pace another minute. I became frantic for landmarks on the course that would show me how far I had left to run. You wouldn’t think these things would be so significant in such a short race, but my brain was working really hard to figure out how much I had left and whether I would run out of something or other before I arrived at the finish. Instead of getting out of the way and letting me run, my brain was thrashing, issuing contradictory demands, and generally being a distraction.
I passed the 3M mark at 18:15 and took the final right hand turn. I realized that I would run under 19 minutes, which felt like a moral victory of sorts. A hard sprint and I was done. After a couple of minutes walking through the corral and congratulating Amory, wh had finished about 20-30 seconds ahead of me, I realized that my hands were really cold and I jogged off to put on an extra pair of gloves.
Unlike the half marathon a week ago, which felt like it was just too far for my current training, this race felt just right. The time was way slower than I’d like it to be, but I chalk some of that up to the cold, and even more to needing to become familiar with race pace again. As I cooled down along the frozen Charles with Jonathan, we began talking about other races we’d like to do soon.
In the end, we decided to skip the beer (something about being very cold and not even 10:30) and get on with our days. But we assured ourselves that one of these days it would get warm, we’d shed all these extra layers, and we’d race like the wind again.