Last Sunday, I joined the Steel City Road Runners for the first installment of their Spring Race Series. I’ve participated in several of these races in the past, in the summer and fall, with mixed results. The first couple were in the summer, and a few things really got to me: the heat, starting out too fast, and going into the race with unrealistic expectations. Fortunately the fall race went infinitely better.
Sunday was the Super Bowl, and Steel City decided to celebrate with a low-key 5k and tailgate food afterwards. Even though I had a 12 mile long run scheduled for Saturday, I decided to sign up. I told myself to just have a nice shakeout recovery run, instead of racing. However, the other voice in my head yelled “Ooooooh! A flat 5k! You should try to PR.”
I should back up a moment here and disclose the alarming yet awesome fact that I have yet to experience any significant soreness post-run this year. I’m officially six weeks into my training cycle for the 2013 Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, which means my longest run so far has only been twelve miles. I’m aiming for a rather aggressive time goal – a full hour and thirteen minutes faster than my current marathon PR – so my training paces have increased over last year. I’m not walking during my runs anymore. I’m running my runs.
This is not to say I haven’t had some tough runs, because I have, but I’ve made it through them without wavering. I’ve shed some poundage, so I’m sure this has helped a bit, but my fitness level has greatly increased. This is definitely the fittest I’ve ever been in my whole life, which is an amazing feeling, but the pessimist in me is kind of waiting for the bottom to drop out on me.
Basically I’m saying that I’m not training the same as last year. I’m actually running less. I’m following a specific plan, which outlines that I must run three days a week. The other four days are flex days, which means I can do pretty much anything I want – including resting completely. Some days I’ve done this, other days I’ve doubled on yoga, spin and weights.
This combination has resulted in faster runs with less effort. THIS EXCITES ME. My SCRR coach has incorporated one long run per month being done at race pace, to help prepare for race day running. I’m worried about the longer race-pace runs, but I was able to do the last one, which was eight miles in the snow and slush, with no problem.
So, imagine my excitement when I woke up Sunday morning with no soreness from the prior day’s twelve miles. I decided I would run the race at whatever pace my body allowed, with the thought that if I felt good enough, I would run hard. Originally the race was going to take place on a rail-trail, but with all the snow Pittsburgh had gotten the day/night before, the course was now on paved, plowed, less-traveled roads. Yay!
I arrived early enough to sign in and help out with signing in other runners. At the beginning of the year, I became a “mentor,” which has mostly meant being a pace group leader for the Saturday morning long runs, and occasionally on mid-week runs when there is a large group. I try to help out in other ways with the club, because it’s really benefited me and I want to give back. It’s been pretty rewarding, being able to reliably pace groups while sharing my experience and knowledge.
Soon we were outside, standing around the starting line shivering, and, as always, I questioned my outfit choice. I always think I’m under-dressed, even though I know I heat up quickly. Without too much fanfare, I started my first 5k of the year with a group of around 35 runners.
Like usual, I started out too fast. But like, really really too fast. My first quarter mile was sub-8:00 pace. Oopsie! That wasn’t going to last. It felt good at the time, and it didn’t really seem that fast. I settled into a pace closer to nine minutes per mile and tried to focus on my breathing. I felt some tightness in my hips which seemed to loosen out by the end of the first mile. I looked down at my watch and observed that I had run that first mile in 8:49. Oh dear.
Mile two included a brief uphill to cross the river onto Washingtons Landing, which I knew was coming and had run in the past. Instead of slowing way down, I shortened my stride and powered up the hill around a 9:25 pace. There was a downhill onto the island, and as the folks in front of me slowed down, recovering from the hill, I let gravity assist me and sped up into sub-9:00 pace. I’m finding that this is getting a bit easier, which is awesome, because last year, I simply avoided hills.
I came back off the island, again powering up the hill and speeding down, and suddenly mile two was over in 9:08. Yay! This is when I knew that I could keep it up for another mile and earn a new PR.
My existing 5k PR was from October of 2011, on a hillier course, in Shadyside, before I had begun distance running. I recalled my average pace for this race had been 9:39/mile, so I knew all I had to do was keep under that pace for the next 1.1 miles. And keep under that I did – my last mile was 9:08. My friend Michael spotted me as I rounded the bend near the finish line and cheered me on.
Since we all started at the same time, this was clock timed. According to my watch, I actually finished about 3 seconds sooner, but I will take this 1:36 improvement over my last 5k PR. I felt amazing! It was almost as though I had redeemed my former self.
Overall, I felt really good for the entire run, and not like I was overexerting myself too much. I ran hard and well. With the exception of the wind stinging my eyes with snowflakes, the weather was perfect. I left that morning feeling pride in my work, and positive that I could continue to improve as I keep training.