Returning to Racing (Run Around the Square 5k Race Report)

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Newtons are ready with a race-specific timing chip!

The last two years of my training have largely been dedicated to ultra-cycling to prepare for Race Across America (2014) and Race Across the West (2015).  I dabbled in running here and there, but ultimately found it too taxing to try to add it into my training around high volume cycling.

After recovering from Race Across the West, I decided it was time to mix up my fitness routine.  I started CrossFitting (is that how you say it? Or should it be “I started doing CrossFit”?) for strength work.  I shifted my aerobic focus to running, since that is what I was craving the most.  To give myself some motivation and accountability, I signed up for one of my favorite 5k’s, Run Around the Square.  This has always been one of my favorite races in Pittsburgh, though it also the toughest 5k course I’ve done, with lots of uphills and a semi-technical downhill on park trails.  I signed up with full intentions of this being a “fun race” and a good measuring stick to gauge my run fitness as I transitioned away from cycling as my predominant sport.  But as race day crept closer, I could feel my competitive nature starting to nag.

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Getting ready at the starting line – the 1.5 mile family fun run!

Something I’ve learned over my years of racing, and something that I try to instill in the athletes I work with, is that goal setting needs to accurately reflect the type of training and the training volume leading up to a race, rather than wanting to get a personal best or looking at last year’s race and wanting to beat that time.  It is completely natural for anyone with a competitive streak (which I think is most people participating in endurance sports!) to want to continuously improve on their previous performance.  In some cases, “beating last year’s time” or “get a personal record” are realistic and achievable goals if the requisite training has taken place.  In other cases though, the stage simply isn’t set for a personal record (PR) or faster time than last year due to things like decreased training time, time away from the sport, or recent injury/illness.

Race day approached, and few days before the race, I couldn’t help myself. I looked up my previous race time on this particular course, which was also my course PR; 21:52 in 2011. Then I started analyzing split times and what I’d need to do to PR, despite knowing that beating that time was very unrealistic given my run training going into this race.

Do you know those cartoons where a character has an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other side?  This is how I felt.   Or more accurately, I could say there was the logical Coach Anne-Marie perched on one shoulder and the Rebel Athlete Anne-Marie on the other.

Coach AM was reminding me that it was only in early July that I started a running regimen again after a rigorous ultra-cycling race and months of cycling-specific training.  She also pointed out that I took a week off from strenuous training with a strained abdominal muscle and nearly another week off in August with a bad chest cold.  But Rebel Athlete AM was whispering… All that bike work and lifting has to count for something, right?  Run HARD – try to run faster than your pace in 2011! Maybe you’ll surprise yourself and have a really fast race!

But then I stopped and listened to my logical Coach-self: what evidence do I have to support any kind of time-specific goal for this race?  I’d been running 400’s and 800’s at the track at 5k goal pace but nothing longer than that at race pace or race intensity.  I needed to re-frame this race with its original intent: a measuring stick to gauge fitness and heart rate.  I decided that I needed to go by perceived exertion rather than watching the clock. That is, run hard, but listen to how my body is feeling and determine if the effort is sustainable, too hard, or not hard enough.

Standing at the starting line in the minutes before the race, I ran into an old friend from college and mentioned this was my re-entry into running races after ultra cycling.  I joked, “If I can ride a bike for 2.5 days, I should be all set for running really hard for 21-22 minutes, right?”

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My “that was tough but I survived and I hope this massive dose of caffeine doesn’t kill me” face.

Um, no.  These things don’t work that way.  And I’ve come to know that.  Endurance fitness is very sport-specific.  Cycling is great cross-training for running, and undoubtedly has aerobic benefits. But no matter how many miles I ride at endurance pace, it won’t compensate for 5k-specific run training.

Bang! went the starting gun.  I took off, found my stride, and hit the first mile marker at around 6:55 and was feeling decent.  This is when the course takes a turn into Frick Park and the uphills begin.  My heart rate climbed even more, and my pace dropped off.  The middle mile is undoubtedly the toughest and is nearly all uphill.  Running uphill felt really, really hard and my body felt like it didn’t want to kick into hard-effort running mode.  I ignored the numbers on my Garmin and tried to focus on maintaining effort and cadence instead.  The long climb finally ended shortly after crossing the 2-mile mark in just under 16:00 clock time, and the runners were treated to a sweet descent for the final ¾ mile or so to the finish area.  I felt a second wind on the homestretch and sprinted in as hard as I could to cross the finish line in 24:14 and an average 7:49/mile pace.

Did I want to be closer to my 2011 time?  Sure.  Was I secretly hoping I’d beat my 2011 time?  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was.  But I now I’ve got data to work with.  I’ve remembered what running a hard 5k feels like and how I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I have new threshold heart rate data and pace data to guide my run training which is key in working towards my goals.

My next 5k will likely be a flatter and faster course, so with that in mind, I’m looking forward to setting realistic expectations and goals, and working towards my ultimate goal of a sub-20:00 5k.

Thanks for reading!