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A Tale of Two 5K’s: How a Change in Race Approach Led to a Near PR

Posted on April 22 2014

Sometime last year I decided that it was time to step away from the marathon for awhile and focus on shorter, faster races. I love marathons, but the training cycles had become a grind, and I was tired of focusing all of my effort on only one or two races per year. I have also come to realize that my body seems better built for shorter distances – I’m not a huge guy, but I have a large frame, and running fast for 26.2 miles typically knocks me out for quite a long time. I needed a break.

About a month ago I started training hard again under the guidance of my coach, Caleb Masland. I wanted an early-season test of my fitness, so I started looking for a local 5K. It was an interesting experience. I hopped on Cool Running to look at the local race schedule, and as I scanned the list of options my blood pressure started to rise. My heart was pounding and I had butterflies in my stomach. I was a little bit afraid, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. It had been a long time since I’d raced a 5K – well over a year since my last 5K road race. My primary recollection was that racing a 5K hurts. Really bad.

5K races hurt in a very different way than marathons hurt. You can run a marathon at what feels like a relatively moderate pace for most of the race. Pain doesn’t set in until around mile 18, and the pain is not like that experienced in a 5K.

In a 5K I tend to go out fast and focus all of my efforts on hanging on. It’s about managing the hurt and resisting the urge to slow down. It lasts only about 20 minutes if all goes well, but it’s 20 minutes of struggle. I was afraid of the pain because it had been so long since I’d last experienced it.

I lined up at the starting line of the SEA 5K two weeks ago without a strong sense of what I was capable of. I’d run through the winter, but not big miles and mostly at a pretty leisurely pace. I told myself I’d be happy with sub-20:00, so that’s what I aimed for. True to form I went out really fast. Well under 6:00/mile pace for the first half mile or so. I felt good, but it was just the adrenaline carrying me along. I slowed down a bit as the hurt started, and finished the first mile in 6:05.

Since I had set a “happy” goal of sub-20:00, I knew the average pace I needed, so I let myself succumb to the pain and slowed down in mile two – 6:34. As long as I came in below 20:00 I wasn’t going to be upset. I managed my pace accordingly

Pain intensified in mile 3, but I held on and sped up just a bit for a 6:21. At that point I knew I had my goal in hand, and I finished strong for a finish time of 19:43.

Overall I was happy with the race result, but I was 50 seconds off my PR, and I knew I had hard work ahead of me to chip almost a minute off my time.

I had tentatively planned to run another 5K two weeks later, but was wavering since it was an evening race and it would have left my wife home alone for diner with the kids two nights in a row. I had even told Caleb that I wasn’t going to race. But, my Taekwondo studio was a race sponsor and Master Jung wanted me to run as part of the studio team. Being an obedient student, I agreed.

The morning of the race I got an email from Lynn Jennings asking for some info for the Craftsbury Running Camps this summer. I mentioned that I was running a 5K later in the day, and she shot back an email with the the following line of advice: “Run strong and don’t ‘save’ anything for the last mile – it comes up too quick!” I figured advice from an Olympic medalist is worth listening to, and that line became my mantra heading into the race.

The course was similar, mostly flat with a lot of turns, but it had a big overpass that needed to be crossed twice. I thought the little hill might make things a bit slower, but I didn’t really have a goal time. I actually wasn’t feeling great before the race, almost fell asleep on the couch at home beforehand.

Once I got to the race location things perked up a bit. Saw a bunch of local running friends, including a number of people I’ve gotten to know via working with them in the clinic. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt a connection to my local running community, and it feels great to be getting into the local race scene again.

The gun went off, and just like the previous race I went out fast. This time I held on for a 5:58 first mile, and I kept thinking about what Lynn had said. I wasn’t going to back off to the extent that I did in the previous race – my goal was to hold a comfortably painful pace for as long as possible and hammer at the end if I had anything left. I ran miles 2 and 3 at right around 6:14 min/mile pace, and I think the overpass actually helped to mix up muscle usage in my legs.

Toward the end of mile three I was pretty sure sub-19:00 was going to be possible, and I was rather shocked. I hammered the final 0.1 at 5:26 min/mile pace, so I may have even had a bit left in the tank. Crossed the finish in 18:53, which is two seconds off my PR. Second in my age group for the second consecutive race, and I was thrilled with the result.

So the big question was how the heck did I shave 50 seconds off my 5K time in two weeks. I don’t think it was the course, as both are flat, measured courses and the races are both well-attended annual events and are part of a local race series. I don’t think I had gained 50 seconds worth of fitness in two weeks (maybe a little, but not that much). I don’t think the Saucony A6’s on my feet were that much faster than the Pearl Izumi N0’s that I wore two weeks prior. I think the biggest change was mental.

My approach to the first race was “Run under 20:00 and you’ll be happy.” So I moderated my effort to make sure that I came in under 20:00, but I didn’t strain. In the second race I kept thinking about what Lynn had said. My approach was more “Go out hard and hang on as long as you can.” Didn’t really have a goal time, just wanted to not ease off as much in mile two. And it worked. I broke the race up a bit more into segments, and once I got through mile two and realized that I was hurting but doing ok, I kept plugging along and finished strong.

I think what I’ve learned here is that setting race goals in the form of a set time can lead you to ease off so that you just beat the goal you choose. Your brain moderates your effort to meet the goal and doesn’t allow you to run your best. You’ll be happy, but you may not be satisfied.

However, much like I ran my breakthrough marathon at Disney in 2010 in a race that I entered with no goal but to have fun, the 5K on Friday was one that I entered with a sole goal of running hard and holding on. That approach gained me 50 seconds, and hopefully will lead to a PR in the coming months. It’s a PR that has existed since 2008, and it’s time for it to go down.

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