This past Monday I took to the streets with 358 other runners to celebrate Memorial Day by participating in the first annual Special Operations 5k race hosted by Boston Street Running. It was my first race (ever!) and my first athletic competition since playing soccer in eighth grade, so I had no idea what to expect. I knew about my fitness from training, but I didn’t know how I’d deal with the stress of race day.
Adam has been racing for over a decade now and I’ve been to many of his races, but I never felt inclined to participate myself. I certainly had no chance of making the podium and didn’t see the point in paying to do what I could do for free. The idea of racing was never motivating for me like it seems to be for some people. You know what I mean – sign up for a race so you have to train for it. No, I would rather just keep running because I enjoyed getting faster and feeling strong. In fact, the thought of racing had the opposite effect on me: rather than inspiring me to train, it would make me feel uneasy about my current fitness (I’m not fast enough or training hard enough) and make running feel like a chore. No thanks.
So what changed? Well, the race was sponsored by a local minimalist shoe store that I fully support and the registration money would go to the Navy SEAL Foundation. The race also pitted the police against the firefighters in a friendly cross-country-style competition. Adam’s brother, Shane, is a firefighter and was really excited about this. I also knew a number of people who would be racing with me (below from left to right: me, Adam, Abbey, Anysia, and Shane). It sounded like fun so I signed up.
I knew of the race six weeks ahead of time, so I was able to run the course twice as part of my Sunday long runs. It’s straight and flat and mentally challenging since it has long lines of sight – you can see the turn-around point from a mile away. The first time I ran the course was on 04/21 at the end of my eight mile run. I really pushed it and was able to finish in just over 29 minutes. The second time I ran the course was on 04/28 at the start of my long run. This time I wanted to save enough for the following five miles, so I cruised the 5k in 30 minutes. After running those times as part of a longer run, I was hoping I could sneak under 27 minutes for the race.
The big question I had was this: how would I handle running in a crowd on race day? I’m good at pacing myself when I’m alone on the road (or with Adam), but would I still be able to gauge my pace with the confusion of the crowd? I was worried I would go out too hard and break halfway through the race. And if I did go out too hard, would my asthma act up? My asthma has stopped me in my tracks multiple times when running. It’s almost always when I get stressed out about something, and it thankfully passes within minutes once I stop to calm down and catch my breath. But who wants to do that in the middle of a race? Not me.
I decided this race was a good time to answer that question and I was prepared to deal with my asthma if it did act up. It was going to be a learning experience. In the two weeks leading up to the race, I made sure to run a few 5ks to get used to the distance. The times surprised me – they were fast. I was excited about the upcoming race, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.
Everything was going according to plan… until the weekend before the race.
On Friday, our research group went to a nearby Japanese/Korean place for lunch. I’d eaten there multiple times before, but I’d recently cut out much of the salt and sugar from my diet. That lunch was just too much for me. I don’t know if it was salt or sugar or MSG, but I had a terrible headache and stomach ache for hours afterwards. I was barely functional. Overall, not a great start to the weekend.
Friday evening my family arrived for the weekend! They came into town for Adam’s and my engagement party the next day. Saturday was a wonderful day of fellowship and food – lots of food. I’m sure I overdosed on sugar and salt, but I wasn’t too worried about it. It was a special day. In fact, it far exceeded my expectations.
As Saturday night came to a close, though, my asthma started acting up. I laid in bed for an hour before I fell asleep, just fighting with my breathing. It was just bad enough to keep me awake – not enough to be real cause for concern. I didn’t feel stressed at all. No, this time the trigger was either alcohol or allergies (probably both). Eventually I fell asleep and I hoped everything would be better in the morning. Well, I was half right. I wasn’t wheezing in the morning, but my chest was still tight. In fact, it remained that way for most of the day Sunday. I was also feeling a bit shaky – probably due to more sugar than I’m used to the day before. With my family in town, I was determined to put it behind me and make the most of the day. I made sure to drink a lot of water and appreciate every minute I spent with them. If the race didn’t work out as planned, then so be it.
Sadly, Sunday night eventually came to a close and I had to say goodbye to my family. Again, I’ll say that this weekend far surpassed my expectations and that Adam and I are incredibly blessed to have such wonderful families. I wished mine safe travels on their trip home, and I made it to bed well before ten. The race was just a few hours away.
Adam needed to help set up for the race, so we planned to arrive at the course around 6am on race day. I laid out my clothes and gear the night before, so I was able to sleep until 5:15 or so. I grabbed a bottle of water and a bagel for the car ride, and we were off! We arrived without trouble and I spent an hour reading Smithsonian Magazine in the car while Adam worked. I finished the bottle of water and nibbled my way through half a bagel before 6:15, so I wouldn’t be thirsty or hungry during the race. I also made sure to use the bathroom well before the race (since there are always long lines right before the start time). Everything went according to plan. The weather was pleasantly chilly so I had sweats on before the race, but I knew a tank and shorts would be comfortable once I was running.
As soon as I ventured out from the car I ran into Adam’s family. Not only were his siblings running, but his 83 year-old great uncle was, too. And not only that – he rode his bike to the race from Dundalk, MD. Awesome. At 7:30, I warmed up with Shane, Anysia, and Abbey by jogging for eight or nine minutes. My legs felt good, but my breathing was definitely tight, a remnant from the day before. I let it go and accepted whatever was about to happen.
We lined up ten minutes before the 8:00 start to listen to announcements and speeches. The weather was perfect. I was feeling good. Shane suggested that we run together since we would be about the same pace. It sounded like a good idea to me, but once the race began, he was off. Apparently I’m not so great at dodging the other runners. Plus, I wanted to go out conservatively and do my best to run an even pace.
Throughout the first half of the run I was completely calm. When I looked at my watch three minutes into the race, I noticed that my GPS and heart rate monitor had turned off some time between my warm up and the start of the race. All that was left was the time. Oh well. I wouldn’t have any data to examine afterwards, but I also couldn’t obsessively check my pace during the race (probably for the best). By the first turn (about a half mile) everyone had settled into place. The fast people were way ahead and I had plenty of room to run where I liked. At this point, to my surprise, I slowly began passing people. I held my pace steady, monitored my breathing, and freed my mind. I kept this up until what I would guess was the 2.4 mile mark. At this point four or five people passed me and running became harder. Thankfully, I noticed Shane just a few meters ahead. It took a couple minutes to close the gap, but eventually I caught up – just as we turned back onto Boston Street.
It was only a half mile to the finish. The end was almost in sight. Shane and I were both uncomfortable at this point, but we pushed forward together. We managed to (thankfully!) pass a couple of eleven year-old girls on the way to the finish line. Other than that and a painful stitch in my ribcage area, the finishing stretch was uneventful. Shane and I crossed the finish line together and that was it.
I had just completed my first 5k race in 25:14. That’s 8:07 min/mile pace. I never would have hoped for a time like that – especially since the fastest I’d run up to that point was 26:54 (8:40 min/mile pace). I finished 11th in my age group (F20-29), 24th among the women, and 99th overall. (see the results here)
Abbey finished second in her age group (F15-19) in 28:09, and Paulee finished fourth in his age group (M20-29) with an impressive time of 19:05. All in all, it was a successful run for all of us.
The best part of the whole experience was certainly spending time with people after the race and enjoying the shared celebration of running and of Memorial Day. The weather was perfect and there were dozens of people I knew.
So will I race again? Almost certainly, but this race is going to be hard to beat.