Some races represent the culmination of weeks, months, or even years of planning. And some races pop up in the schedule at inopportune times, conflict with the demands of a busy schedule, and frustrate efforts at proper preparation. When I find myself driving to some far-away race knowing that I’m in a sad state for racing, I’m tempted to line up all my excuses in advance as a way to protect my fragile ego and marginal reputation. But then I tell myself to keep an open mind: almost every race offers an opportunity to learn something.
On Sunday morning, August 9, I left my house in the quiet early morning for the drive to Narragansett, RI, to run in the Bobby Doyle 5M, this year’s host race for the 2015 USATF-NE 5M Championship. The race had been on my calendar for a while, but that didn’t mean I was ready for it. I had spent the previous week in the wilds of Northern Vermont at the Northeast Kingdom Running Camp, running slowly up and down hills (and sometimes mountains). I’m not sure I ran faster than 8:00 mile pace all week, but two runs a day up and down Northern Vermont’s rugged terrain had left me tired and sore, a flatlander trying to adjust to early morning shakeouts that were hillier than any hill workout I’ve done in the past six months, and afternoon runs that were hillier than that.
I don’t mean to complain; I was enjoying myself thoroughly and figured that all the hills were doing me good. But with fatigue accumulating in my legs, I became increasingly nervous as the week went on. With the upcoming race on my mind, on Friday I took it easy by skipping the afternoon run. But on Saturday the camp held its “graduation run” — a 4.5 mile effort that featured 2.5 miles of steady climb and an elevation gain of 700-800 feet — and there was no way I was going to miss that. I’d never scheduled such a run the day before a race, and I knew that I might pay for it on Sunday, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ascend the mountain in the company of the campers and group leaders with whom I had developed a bond over the past week. No, I wasn’t going to give up Saturday morning for a slim chance of being slightly better on Sunday.
The next morning as I headed out to the car, other than some stiffness, I didn’t feel too bad. Still, I couldn’t quite imagine running seven-minute pace, let alone six-minute pace. On the other hand, the magic of competition and a flat course might make seven-minute pace seem laughably slow. I decided that I would be content (not happy, but content) with anything under 32:30, which seemed like a reasonable compromise.
After an uneventful drive, I parked, picked up my number, stood in line at the port-a-potties, and returned to my car to prepare for my warm-up. While fumbling with getting my number pinned to my CSU singlet, Kevin and Patrick showed up and helpfully pointed out that I had the singlet on backwards. Maybe I was nervous, or maybe just preoccupied thinking about the race, but focused I was not.
We warmed up a couple of miles, dispersed for the change to racing shoes, drills, and strides. In another departure from routine, I did only two strides. I had felt some tightness in my calves during the warmup and drills, and I didn’t want to overcook my strides and tweak something. I figured I would start the race slowly, anyway, and I didn’t need to do more to be ready for that. Finally, I took my place well back from the starting line and waited for the gun to send us all on our way.
In many of my runs and in almost all my races lately, I’ve felt listless at the start, and weighed down by a feeling of fatigue that makes it hard to imagine running at anything faster than jogging pace. This lasts for a few seconds or a few minutes, and then the fog lifts and I feel myself again. Whether this is psychological or physical, I don’t know, but I’ve learned not to panic, and instead, to keep running and see what will happen.
What happened was that I felt very slow for the first 4-5 minutes or so, which included a slight uphill (laughably flat by Vermont standards), and slipped back even further as other runners passed me on both sides. My stride felt out of sync and inefficient — perhaps I was over-striding? — and I tried to find a rhythm that I could imagine keeping up for another half hour. Then, in an instant, my breathing smoothed out and the sense of fatigue melted away, and I was just running and it felt good.
I passed the mile mark in about 6:35 (slow!) but I was moving well now, and was starting to pass people more often than I was being passed. I guessed that I had picked up the pace, although it actually felt easier, and I went by the two-mile marker in about 12:53. At this point, I remember doing a kind of inventory of my potential trouble spots. My hamstrings were a bit tight, but 6:20 pace wasn’t fast enough to be aggravating; my quads hurt a little bit, but the flat course presented nothing particularly troubling; my only real worry was my right calf muscle, which had twinged ominously when I stepped on a bit of uneven pavement. I’d had issues with that muscle earlier in the year, so was mildly alarmed to feel it again, and tried to step more carefully from then on.
The third mile was slightly downhill, taking us out to the ocean for a half mile stretch along Narragansett Bay. I ran the third mile in 6:11, and was picking off people now. Even better, I knew that I could maintain the effort for another two miles, as long as my calf muscle behaved itself. I focused now on little racing things: keeping my head up, running tangents, maintaining the pace around turns. I tried to pick out people ahead of me and work on catching them. Well up the road I could just see another old guy that I wanted to catch, if possible. I ran the fourth mile, slightly uphill, in 6:19.
The final mile just felt like the end of any race, a normalcy that was welcome after all my worry. With an almost imperceptible rise, I managed to close in 6:12, and passed a few more people along the way. I finished well back of the other old guy, though, and felt a bit of disappointment about that. My final time was 31:35, which left me unmoved one way or the other. Later I would feel a bit of disappointment that I had run almost a minute slower than I had three months earlier, when I’m sure I was in worse shape. On the other hand, I’d run the final 5K about as fast as I had run a 5K race on July 4th, so it wasn’t like I was disintegrating.
I asked myself what I had learned, since my premise was that you always learn something from a race, no matter how fast or how slow. I decided that what I had learned was that it was OK to have the race be my second-highest running priority for the weekend. I suppose that simply reflects the changing circumstances of an aging runner, slipping back into the pack in competitive terms, but still enjoying the company of others along the running journey. Even if I had known with certainty that my mountain run the day before might cost me half a minute and many places in the race, I was at peace with having done both, and happy that I had kept an open mind and hadn’t bailed on either the mountain or the seaside.