When I was putting together my training schedule for my next marathon—next Sunday’s City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina—I, like many other runners, dreaded the final few weeks of training that focused on fewer miles and more rest. The recovery serves its purpose, though, and is designed to give one fresh legs leading up to the marathon.
I couldn’t help myself, however, when I decided to shift goals in a local 5k this past Saturday; changing from a fun run with a bunch of friends to a competitive 5k with a new PR in mind.
After this summer’s Pikesville 5k, where I set a new PR and managed to place third in my age group, I learned I still have a lot to work on in regards to pacing and racing smart, though I also found that I’m capable of pushing myself harder than I thought possible—especially when the lead runners are really going, too. In the Pikesville 5k, former Baltimore Marathon champ Dave Berdan led the pack and helped me to a 6:01 first mile and a 19:50 finish.
As Saturday’s Oktoberfest 5k—sponsored by Charm City Run and Frisco Tap House—grew closer, I figured it was worth a shot to put my pace to the test again and see if I could hit the next gear.
After a Friday night with one or two pumpkin ales—gosh, I love the fall—I laid out my running clothes for the race. I knew it was going to be cold Saturday morning, but I wanted to run pretty bare as next week was the marathon and I needed to be prepared for sub-45-degree temperatures to start things off.
I experienced pretty typical pre-race sleep patterns Friday night into Saturday, but eventually managed to fall asleep before waking up 10 minutes before my alarm was to go off. One Royal Farms coffee and several pump-up songs later, and we were off to nearby Columbia. The 5k was point to point—with the start at Charm City Run being about 1.3 miles away from the finish at Frisco Tap House—so we parked at the finish and jogged to the starting line. There were a handful of other like-minded runners who also already had their bibs on as they ran alongside us to Charm City Run.
Eventually we made it to the store, met up with our friends also running in the race, and killed some time in Starbucks before making our way back outside to stretch and get used to the weather; it wasn’t absolutely freezing, but it was also not comfortable. It didn’t help that I was wearing a singlet and 7-inch shorts, so I didn’t have a lot of coverage. Between the cold air from the wind and the cold stares from other runners who thought I was crazy for my choice of apparel, I had no choice but to own my decision.
It was both encouraging and discouraging to finally see a few other runners in similar clothes make their way to the start area. Though it made me feel more at ease that I wasn’t the only wacko to voluntarily freeze to death, it meant that there were more people who stood a chance—probably better than I—at running fast. But then again, it meant I’d have someone(s) to chase.
The organizers got on the microphone and told everyone to assemble by the start, so I took my position in the second row of runners—behind the other singlet-wearing jocks. Just like that, the organizer said, “runners on your marks, get set, go,” and we were off. I should have known there wasn’t a timing mat—because I didn’t see one—but I never put it together.
Though I lost a second or so with the rolling start, I very quickly gained time back as the course started off on an easy downhill and the lead pack must’ve been pushing a 5:30 pace. I tried to not chase them, but I got too excited—sounds familiar, right?—and found myself right among the top seven or eight guys.
Towards the end of the first downhill, I noticed my watch hadn’t started properly, so I had to fiddle with that while making sure I didn’t trip over my feet to get it started.
The course leveled out, and then took its runners over some rolling hills, and before the first mile-marker, the front male was off—a clear 30-seconds-per-mile faster than the rest of us.
A little after mile No. 1, my watch beeped that I hit my first mile in a time of 5:48. In the moment, I registered that was fast—the fastest I’ve ever run a mile—but I didn’t have enough time to really absorb what it meant beyond the fact that such a first mile would put me in contention for a competitive finish if I maintained some energy. That turned out to be a big “if.”
I was soon huffing and puffing right behind four or five runners as we took some more rolling hills, ran under a bridge, and hit an out-and-back turnaround. I was hurting, but I guess the beauty was that it wouldn’t last too much longer. I might’ve been passed by one runner before the second marker, but everyone was still relatively close together.
We hit mile No. 2, and then I hit my second delayed mile in 6:16—still fast, very fast, but clearly a drop-off after my first turbo mile. I can’t really remember much else during this stretch beyond some more climbs, maybe of 30 feet or so—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it certainly felt like a lot.
Finally, it was time for the last mile. I could feel the energy leaking out of me with each stride and exhausted breath, but the thought that it was almost over and that I had a chance to place or set a new PR pushed me to at least run as hard as I could in the moment, although it was proving to be slower than those around me.
The group that I had been right behind started to distance themselves and I could sense one runner coming up on me as the course took us up a brutal incline that really slowed my pace during the climb. After I slogged through it, I gave all I had and continued pushing through a neighborhood before making a turn and setting my sights for the third mile marker and volunteers indicated the final stretch.
I could tell there was someone gaining on me, so I did a quick look back to see the challenger had plenty of grey hairs—suggesting he wasn’t in my age group. Not that I had a choice in the matter, but I let him pass and just focused on running onward, closer to the finish. We made our final turn into the tap house parking lot and I crossed the finish line. I stopped my watch, grabbed a bottle of water from a volunteer, and—before sucking wind for about 10 minutes—tried to count how many runners finished ahead of me. I counted fewer than 10, but my brain wasn’t working and the curb just looked so comfortable.
I sat down, tried not to pass out, and watched other runners—including my friends and Mrs. Cereal Runner—finish. Together, some of us went back to the end of the course to jog in some of our other friends. After we were all together, we waited in line for some beer—it was an Oktoberfest 5k, after all—and then I noticed they posted the results up on the wall. I jumped out of line, jogged over to the results, did a quick scan, and then jogged back.
Everyone knew I did well because apparently I had an ear-to-ear smile on my face. It turns out I finished in 19:07, good for a 43-second personal record, seventh overall, and first in the male 20-29 age group. I felt like a champion for a few minutes before I then started downplaying my run, saying that I could’ve done better if I paced myself. It’s probably true.
We got our beer, from the local Push Brewing Company, and waited for the awards. I happily skipped up to the awards table when they announced my name and graciously accepted my prize: a nice pint glass with the tap house logo and an “Award Winner” seal.
Mrs. Cereal Runner wouldn’t let me pour my beer into my new favorite glass, but I still managed to take some pictures with it and the food and drink spread of the morning.
Eventually, it was time to head out, and just like that it was back to recovery mode. In eight days, I’d be running the City of Oaks Marathon.