June 1st, 2013 was the first time I ever did a running race. I’ve run hundreds of miles since starting in February of 2012, but I got injured before I could enter a race (had to scratch my first one due to a re-herniated disc), and a few injuries and surgeries since then have gotten in the way. Today, I completed one of the Susan G. Komen 5Ks (the most popular 5K series in the country) as my first race. It’s not the longest I’ve run (as it would have been when I signed up for it last year), but it was a totally different experience than running recreationally, and tougher in a different way than any other run I’ve done, distance and speed aside. I learned a few things (or was made aware of things I need to learn more about), and thought it would be valuable to share those things.
You will hear people talk after a race about how they “went out too fast,” or, “didn’t pace myself,” or, “didn’t stick to my plan.” I always thought, “How could you allow that to happen?” If you were aiming to run negative splits (getting faster with each successive mile to ensure you don’t burn out early), why would you go out at a pace you’ve never sustained before? If you were going to ignore other runners and ‘run your own race’ so you could manage to your goal pace, why would you allow yourself to get caught up in the game of picking people off to pass or pushing yourself to revenge-pass someone who just got in front of you?
Yeah, why, in deed. That’s a question a non-racer would ask. I went out with a pace in the 6s. I tend to run in the low 8s. That’s 25% faster than I tend to run. My speed work is in the 7s, and I was still running faster than that in the first mile. Why? Well, I got caught up in the dynamics – mental and physical – of the race. I wanted to break free from the crowd (which I kept telling myself to justify my potentially unsustainable pace – especially in 91˚ heat with near-100% humidity). Then there was the threat of a coworker in the race. Office gossip was that we were racing each other. He’s better trained (having just did a fantastic job at a recent Ragnar, and recently done a 5K race at 1 1/2 minutes faster than my best training run yet). Oh, and he’s not just a coworker, he actually works for me. While we said we weren’t racing, there’s pride in it under the surface, so that added pressure. Then there’s my concern that I’d crap out no matter what pace I was running at first, so I needed to get a head start so I could afford to walk a bit if I needed to.
In the end, I targeted a pace between 7’43” and 8’02” (what I needed to do a 24-25 minute 5K as I was aiming for a sub-25 minute finish as my goal). I turned in a 7’28”, finishing in 23:19 (according to my Nike+ SportWatch – still waiting on the official time). So, it worked out, but it was a VERY risky and foolish approach. If that was a longer race, I’d have failed to reach my target given the cost I was paying for that early pace in the first 1.5-2 miles. Part of my time is really owed to my upper body training as I was pumping my arms pretty intensely for the last quarter mile to the finish, bringing my pace down to high 5s. I easily cut 20-30 seconds off my finish with that last burst. I’m lucky I had it, and am just so glad I’ve been working on my arms, pecks and shoulders.
So what are the learnings here? Well, the first is not to underestimate the dynamics of a race or of your mindset in the race. There’s a reason why this is a typical newbie mistake – you don’t realize the draw the event will have on your pace decisions and adherence to your race plan. Nor do you realize the power of that little voice inside you that didn’t like getting passed by a guy pushing a stroller (yes, that happened to me at roughly the 1 mile mark). I even gave myself a talk beforehand about ignoring these feelings, and kept having the same talk as I saw my pace and knew I was asking for trouble. If you’re strong enough to run fast, you’re strong enough to run a little slower. It’s far better to have something left in the tank to push it in that last mile than it is to run out of steam and have no options left.
The counter argument to this is that I never walked, and finished with a good pace. My fastest mile was 7’18. My worst was 7’36”. That’s right, my worst was still better than the low end of my goal pace. What that tells me is that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough when setting goals or training because I can clearly do much better than I ever thought I could. I went into this race honestly thinking I could not pull off a 23-anything time. Even if all of my miles were at my worst pace, I’d still have been in the 23s.
But the learning stands that I should have avoided 6-something pacing for the first half mile. I had plenty of time to pass people, and was already out of the thickest bunch by the first quarter. I probably would have turned in a slightly faster overall time and could have pushed it to a full sprint for an other couple of tenths of a mile. It’s about balance and seeing the forest for the trees.
These learnings, like most of my posts, are presented a bit free-form. There’s no explicit “do X to avoid Y” teaching so much as me sharing my thinking to help provoke thinking on your part. After all, someone else telling you something will never allow you to develop as much as if you figure it out for yourself (albeit with a bit of guidance from a thought partner). That’s how you enlighten.your.body.