Me and the 5K have a very short history. A 19:02 from 2007 and an 18:24 from earlier this year. Technically, my fastest 5K is not even logged in the archives because it happened during a longer race.
Less than two months after running my furthest ever distance of 200 miles around Lake Tahoe, I wanted to challenge myself once again at the other end of the spectrum. I had two goals for the race. PR and break the 18-minute barrier.
I spent the majority of September off my feet trying to wrap my head around what I had just experienced and accomplished in Tahoe. When I did choose to run, I followed no agenda, either logging a 4 miler or a 20, nothing in between it seemed. My legs were jelly with zero speed but on the plus side, I knew I could run for hours on them still if I so chose.
Quickly enough though, October rolled around and I realized there was that 5K race I’d signed up for, now only one month away. To say I was in no shape for it was an understatement. I decided to meet up with my longtime training partner, Gary Berard, for his speed workout in his final preparation for the Chicago Marathon.
The pre-meet up text read “2E, 2M, 2T, 2M, 2E”. This is the language of Coach Jack Daniel’s to which we abide for our marathon training. Decoded, E stands for easy pace, M, marathon pace and T, threshold pace. The 2 in this instance stood for the miles.
Going from the occasional slow run to this workout may have been a little extreme in hindsight, especially considering Gary was in peak condition. Needless to say, by two miles of marathon pace, I was barely hanging on to him. Mile 3 was an achievement in itself just to make it and by halfway through mile 4, I was keeled over in defeat as Gary continued up the hill in perfect form towards what would ironically be the finish line of my 5K race. Failing a workout is never fun but it was the wake up call I needed.
I retreated home, showered, complained to Tiffany how I was way out of my depth and then grabbed my Jack Daniel’s book flipping to the 5K training pages that unsurprisingly, were in immaculate condition (you should see the marathon section). The 5K training plan started 16 weeks out and here I was beginning my plan with only 4 of them left to summon something up. I simply decided that was to be my training plan and dove straight into it.
Naysayers told me this was wrong, you should do this or you should do that. Most actually laughed in my face when I confessed I was training for a 5K. I think that’s a compliment to my ultrarunning endeavors. But the truth is, no one I spoke to or even Google knew how to go from 200 miles to 3.1 so here I quote Frank Sinatra because “I did it my way”.
Over those next four weeks, I traded my very well-trained slow twitch muscle fibers for fast twitch muscle fibers with up to three speed workouts a week, clocking 40 miles a week. In comparison, I train at about 90 miles a week with one speed workout for ultras. I did my training completely solo, largely because all my other friends were gearing up for the New York City Marathon the day following my race.
Every speed workout got a little better with a little less effort (except for those Friday morning 5:28 interval repeats. They sucked!) But by the end of October, I knew I was in way better shape to take on the clock and finish my race in 17-something. My mini training program was done, it was now showtime in the best city for just that.
With the race on my doorstep, the logistics couldn’t have been any easier. I woke up at 6:15am to the sound of raindrops, threw on some sweats and left HQ to go and get milk so I could eat my cereal two hours prior to the race start (8:30am). From the Food Emporium to Whole Foods to Duane Reade, everything was closed and I thought New York was the city that never sleeps. My logistics just got harder. A random deli was my savior in the end with the added bonus of a coffee and banana and back home I ran to get out of the rain. It wasn’t pretty out. My blood glucose levels were pretty however. They were right on cue all the way up to dropping a bag off in Central Park (the finish). From there, I zigzagged my way south and east across to the start at the United Nations building on 1st Avenue getting in an easy mile or so warm up. The weather was cold but the rain had eased somewhat, but by no means where these ideal conditions to run on slippery roads. At least it was looking somewhat better than the predicted high winds forecast for the main attraction on Sunday. I hung out with Brian Rosetti of The Run Smart Project (think Jack Daniel’s coaching online) at the start and we caught up waiting for the gun.
The midtown course is one for the sightseers for sure from the UN building, across 42nd Street past Grand Central Station, the Public Library at Bryant Park and now looking straight at the lights of Times Square in the distance. A ninety degree turn right on 6th Avenue aka Avenue of the Americas is a straight shoot to Central Park past Radio City Hall and the ‘LOVE’ symbol before winding right past The Plaza Hotel and up the southeast entrance into the park before doing a half lower loop clockwise up to the impressive and heavily marketed NYC Marathon finish line, hence the name of the race; Dash to the Finish Line 5K.
The race draws in people from all over the world because of the marathon. Friends and family not logging 26.2 miles on Sunday usually do this race as well as hardcore marathoners as their shake out run. However, the most competitive runners of them all are the local elites who are 5K, track specialists with lean bodies and flatter than flat racing shoes from the likes of NYAC (New York Athletic Club) and CPTC (Central Park Track Club). Standing in the corral being ushered forward to the start line a few rows back, I had no idea if I was standing too close to these types but screw it, here I was pretending to be just like them.
They say the first mile of the 5K should be the easiest and although I respected whoever ‘they’ are, I didn’t want to be fighting for space along 42nd Street. I knew that my true competition was myself and staying on pace to run between a 17:29-59 window was going to be my biggest challenge.
The mile one marker hid just out of sight after the turn up 6th Avenue so when my GPS clocked me at 4:41, I knew better than to think that was an amazing change of pace from training runs. GPS and NYC do not play well together. And so, as I did my turn with the upmost care on the wet roads I saw the mile 1 marker and took note of my watch once more showing me at 5:35.
Having run the course midweek, I decided that mile two was my ‘push mile’ because it was the flattest. I was ready to go up a gear now but I didn’t plan on getting a gust of wind in my face. A pack of six or so ran twenty yards ahead and I envied those sitting on the back of that. I looked around for a screen and all I saw were female runners half my size cranking away not giving a damn about trying to block the wind. It was time to man up!
I felt solid up the long stretch, my watch pace was more or less useless to me and so I went back to what Ian Sharman had drummed into me all Summer and focused on running on feel. I know what 5:15 feels like (horrid) and I know what 6 flat feels like (too easy for this situation) so I had to trust my running knowledge and try and stay locked in at 5:30 or so pace.
Just before the right turn into Central Park south, my friend Gary, who rightly gave me a whooping four weeks prior was out with his umbrella in the early hours of Saturday cheering me on. I knew now was the time to give it everything. A slight downhill to the corner of the park and mile 2 would be done. Two volunteers stood perfectly in front of the time clock which was probably not their actual job. Never the less, I caught a late glimpse of it reading 11:22. The wind up 6th Avenue had slowed me down more than I bargained for I guess.
With two uphills and one down remaining in the park now, I was pretty sure my 17:29 A goal was a wash (side note: Tiffany’s best college friend Fick, ran 17:30 in college and let me know about it leading up to the race!) Another great friend, Francis Laros was watching here and gave me my second boost of energy. I ran that first hill hard that I have run countless times over the years but never this hard. I passed a handful of runners now suffering apparently greater than me. I pretended to myself that the top was the end because I knew what followed was a long swooping downhill which we be somewhat of a recovery section.
I gave it everything now and was already beginning to regret not pushing even harder up 6th Avenue. But I knew of one thing for sure, and that was, this was going to be 17-something on the clock and I was on my way to a PR.
Around Columbus Circle corner with a young buck by my side (later found it he was a 14-year old from the UK) and a girl from CPTC slightly ahead, I struggled to move clear of him and gain on her. A random spectator, ironically also from the UK, came to my aid with great words of encouragement “Come on! Back on your toes, catch her” It sounded like strange advice from a stranger but I decided to give it a go. To my amazement, I found not one but two higher gears with this change in my biomechanics and tore up that one last famous painful hill to the finish taking four or five more places in the process.
The huge electronic clock above the finish read 17-something and that’s all I knew or particularly cared about as I hung my arms over my legs in exactly the same way I had done so four weeks before. But this time, the feeling was achievement and not failure.
The final stats had me at 17:40 (5:41 pace) which put me in the top 100 of a field of almost 8,000. Later on that day, I reviewed my year of racing. This ended up being my 7th PR from 16 outings and somehow, this one was truly one of the most satisfying of them. Perhaps because I don’t consider myself to be a 5K runner, perhaps because I had just run 200 miles. Whatever the reason, I’m back in the park up to my old mischief in two weeks for the NYC 60K because what else would I rather be doing!