Monday, December 26, 2011

About Freaking Time

Round-number time barriers are a little ridiculous, if you think about it. They seldom correspond to a round-number per-mile (or per-kilometer) pace. Unless you're trying to qualify for something requiring a qualifying time, the difference between just-over that goal time and just-under it is a few meaningless seconds. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the difference between just-over and just-under is generally within the margin of error of the overall time. Like if my students tried to make the distinction between the two on an exam, I'd take off a half point for abuse of significant figures.

But rational analysis be damned, because obviously I'm as obsessed as the next runner about these kinds of goals.

I have been trying to break 21 minutes for a 5K ever since I got serious about running again after having kids. OK, to be honest, my real goal is to break 20 minutes, but even an irrational pursuit deserves a dose of rationality, so at some point early on in my endless string of 21:XX races it occurred to me that I should deal with the 21-minute barrier first. I think I've only broken this barrier twice: one 20:29 cross country race in college (which barely qualified as cross country; I don't know if Wesleyan still has the same course, but it was basically a flat road race), and one 20:04 cross country race when I was running for Boston Running Club and ran in the open division of a college invitational on the well-known-to-be-fast course at UMass Dartmouth.

I am not someone who cares enough about barriers to seek out specifically fast courses to deal with them. Actually, that's wrong; I care so much about the barriers that I won't try to cheese my way through them by purposely picking a fast course. I want to own the barrier, not sneak my way past it.

Which brings me to this year's Hot Chocolate Run, a local 5K that is not pancake flat. The last 3 years I have run between 21:00 and 21:20 at this last race of the season, and for the past two years I've focused on this race. I've done killer track workouts, real tapers, you name it, and then I finish just over 21 minutes. This year for a variety of reasons I decided sort of to cool it--I kept training and did speedwork of sorts, but at my request my coach gave me speed workouts off the track. I felt like I needed more endurance work, and I also felt like I could get enough intensity from timed intervals on the road.

My lead-up to this race was not exactly inspiring--my last race felt fine but was slow, as I whinged on about in gory detail here. I have felt exhausted all fall, and by the time December rolled around I was just hoping to hang on through the end of classes. But don't let that fool you: I still thought I could break 21 minutes, and that was still my goal. The thing is, I have been racing 5k's for. . . yikes, for 27 years. Time for a picture; judging from the uniform and the hairstyle, I am pretty sure this one is 26 years ago, not 27:

No, I'm not leading the race--I'm leading the back of the pack.

While all that experience hasn't made me that fast, it has made me a little bit wise. I think I can break 20 minutes--I know I have to be in tip-top shape, and everything has to come together, but I think I can do it. I am pretty sure I can't break 19 minutes, so that's not even something I think about. I'm not delusional, thank you very much. But I also feel very strongly that I am a person who should be able to break 21 minutes if I execute well even from a sub-optimal starting point. In fact, I hate it when my students say "I feel," so let me restate that: I know that I can break 21 minutes on a routine day. Which sounds sort of cocky, given how many times over the last 3 years I have failed to do just that.

But I did. Which is kind of obvious from all the foreshadowing, because this would be a real buzzkill of a post if I ran 21:03 again. I didn't, though; I ran 20:55. And that 5 seconds has kept me feeling happy and chipper all the way into 2012.

Like I said, I felt kind of physically like crap going into the race. But mentally I was in excellent shape. I had actually spent time visualizing the race beforehand--like serious time. I met up with Lisa before the race, and I made her take a picture before we left our cars to go warm up:

It was excellent to have Lisa to warm up with, because she hasn't done a ton of races, so she had all kinds of questions about where and when to do stuff, and that distracted me from my own edgy self. Before we did our final strides, I changed into my brand new racing flats:

These things feel so fast, I think it's possible I owe 4 of those 5 seconds to the shoes. I love them! And yes, they're on a box of grapefruit (artfully posed in our train wreck of a mudroom). I bought those from the basketball team and have been eating at least half a grapefruit per day for the last, I don't know, 8 years. Or 3 weeks. Back to the race: when I left my running shoes under a tree (I left 3 different piles of clothes and shoes at various random spots as I gradually disrobed for the race, which I think utterly horrified Lisa), an older man said to me, "You just changed shoes!" Without missing a beat, I smiled at him and said, "Yes, I am taking this very seriously." Because I was, and I think part of owning your goal, of knowing you can break 21 minutes, is to be honest about it with everyone. Even random strangers who probably just wonder why you left your shoes under a tree.

The race is big enough that you seed yourself by time, so naturally I seeded myself just in front of the 21 minute sign, somewhere near Lisa, near my friend Greg, and near Linda. There were over 2,000 people doing this race (more in the walk), so I just love how easy it was to find all my friends in that melee. The first mile has a short steep uphill and then a longer more gradual one, and I just ran within myself, aiming to go just under 7 but focusing more on being conservative. A lot of people passed me, and I ignored them. I hit the 1 mile mark in about 6:55, and I felt terrific. I picked up the pace a little bit, but with all my pre-race visualization my plan was to really pick it up once we turned this corner somewhere around the 1.5-mile mark. By that time my breathing was getting pretty Darth Vadery, but I still felt awesome. I ran the 2nd mile in 6:39.

And then you hit the last set of uphills, right through the campus where I teach. I had shamelessly lobbied for the students in my intro chem class to come out there and cheer for me, so the whole way up those hills I just told myself, "Get to the top and your students will be there." Vanity is a powerful motivator--I didn't want to look like a slug when I passed them. I worked the flat between the two hills especially hard, and sure enough, as I started up the 2nd hill, I heard a group of students screaming my name. That got me up the rest of the hill, where we turned onto the final stretch--a long flat followed by a long downhill to the finish. All those students have an A in the class, obviously--I'm not even grading their finals. Kidding. But really, I did make them pancakes at our review session during reading period, as they requested.

Last year I lost too much time on the uphills, but I was pretty sure I had done better this year, and then my plan was just to run as hard as I possibly could from the moment I turned the corner. I didn't check the watch at all--I just ran. As I pounded down the last hill I thought about something blogger Ange posted once about the end of a race: how it hurts so freaking much, but you know that slowing down at that point isn't going to make it hurt any less. The faster you run, the faster you get to stop, so I just leaned forward and kept my legs turning over. Here's the oh-so-attractive shot of me within about 200 yards of the end:

I'm in purple on the side. I kept up about 6:40 pace for the last mile plus, even with the big uphill, which was great for me. I didn't stop my watch at the end, but when I saw the clock time was just over 21, I was pretty sure I'd made it in 20:xx.

And then I think I didn't stop smiling for at least a week. This is such an awesome race--it raises money for an organization that helps women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, and it raised $160,000 this year. They give out wonderful coffee mugs, designed by this cartoonist, filled with super-yummy hot chocolate. And this year the race was won by a guy in a banana suit.

Don't let the banana suit fool you--this guy is fast. Actually, there are a ton of fast runners here; I barely cracked the top 200 with my 20:55. They give out awards for the top age- and gender-graded performances, and this is both inspiring and humbling. It's also very suspenseful, which makes everyone want to stay around--I think more race directors should do this. The overall winner this way was a local 57-year-old woman who beat me by over 30 seconds. Some guy in his 60's ran under 18 minutes. My coach got 4th, and Joellen was 6th, rocking a 19:45 from her late 40's. Lisa and I made Joellen join us for a post-race photo:

Lisa set a new 5K PR as well. I'm calling my time a "PRAK," or PR After Kids. And of course about 20 minutes after the race, I was all, "I totally could have gone under 20:30. . . . "