Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Love 'em or Leave 'em Valentines 5K (or, It's All About Me)

I have always considered 5K races to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are easy and go by quickly—less than 30 minutes even on a bad day. On the other hand, I find them frustrating because it seems just impossible for me to get a decent time, even though conventional wisdom would have you running a faster pace in a short race than in the longer 10K's and such. In fact, the only way to do well in a 5K is to run all out from the beginning.

But that doesn't really work so well for me. In fact, I rarely hit my stride until at least two or three miles into a run. Accordingly, the second half of a 10K is frequently my best 5K.

But even so, I was shocked after the New Year's Day Resolution Run to end up with a final time of 26:17—my fastest time even in a 5K and the only the second time I've broken 27 minutes (the first time was last year's Race for the Cure when I was just a few seconds under the 27 minute mark).

Finishing so close to 26 minutes on January 1 led me to wonder if I could actually beat 26 minutes the next time around. And I knew the next time around would be February 10, the Valentine's Run.

This run would in fact be an ideal opportunity to try a new scheme—turning the 5K race into the second half of a 10K, by running the full 5K distance (or more) before the race as a warm-up. This would be particularly easy to do at Green Lake, where the race course is a loop around the 2.8 mile lake perimeter (with an extra little out-and-back to make up the extra .3 mile).

The day before the run I went down to Road Runner Sports to pick up my race packet and buy some new running shoes (I don't think I've had new ones since the Fairhaven 15K last fall). Lucky for me the race number included a 30% discount on a pair of shoes when you buy two—and lucky for me I was more than willing to buy a pair of trail running shoes in addition to my new Asics Gel Kayanos. (I have had at least three, maybe four, pairs of these shoes and I just love them. I tried on a couple of other kinds but nothing felt as good!) Since I am so familiar and comfortable with the Kayanos, I had no qualms about wearing them brand new in a race.

Over the last year I have succumbed to the pre-race pasta dinner theory. I think the first time I did it was before the Tulip Run 5-mile last spring, and I ran my best time ever in that race—so I was sold on the pasta plan. This also gives me a rare opportunity to indulge in "regular" pasta (as opposed to my usual version, which is spaghetti squash, or Fiber Gourmet pasta, or at the very least/most, whole grain or whole wheat pasta, and that very rarely). I had a $10 coupon for Lombardi's that expired on Saturday, so the plan was set—although by the time we added my parents and sister and her husband to the list, my $10 was not going to go too far!

But Lombardi's it was. I had the very tasty Penne Siciliano (I like penne because it is nice bite sized pieces that you don't have to wrestle with like spaghetti and other stringy pastas). I also had a little bite of heaven when I tasted my sister's order, butternut squash ravioli. Not only was each little pasta pillow filled with butternut squash puree, there were pieces of delicata squash throughout the dish. I am already contemplating a return trip before my next 10K in a couple of weeks so I can order the butternut squash ravioli (and I hope it is still on the menu by then!). I am even willing to overlook the naughty creamy sauce. It was just exquisite.

It so happened that Lombardi's was pretty busy that night, and we were squeezed into a four-person booth with a chair at the end (me in the chair, which actually was not so bad, because the upright chair provided nice back support). But I guess we looked a little crowded at that little table, because after we finished our dinner the nice waitress came back and said that the management wanted to buy us a couple of desserts. We hadn't planned on dessert, but what the hey—we could hardly say no thanks! (Well, I guess we could, but we didn't really want to.) I took charge of the selections and picked the apple crisp with ice cream (my #1 choice) and pannacotta. Pannacotta is an Italian eggless custard, essentially a gelatin of cream and sugar, and it is delicate and delicious. The apple crisp was far from delicate, but it was warm and cinnamony and laden with oatmeal crumble. My father, of course, was grumbling about a third choice, and I don't know if she heard him (I hope not), but after I gave the order she offered a third dessert, so I threw the menu at him and said "pick something." Under pressure, he chose spumoni (a traditional choice in an Italian restaurant!).

My share of three desserts was more than enough to leave me stuffed. (I did take away a small carton of leftover pasta, which I ate for breakfast on Sunday morning before the race.) I found it a little bit ironic that although I was the one who wanted the apple crisp—and nobody else seemed particularly excited about it—I had to reach to the far end of the table to even get my spoon into it! (In the end I dragged it back for the last few bites.)

You'd think this was a restaurant review instead of a running blog, wouldn't you?

So. Sunday morning, race day. We had to leave for Seattle early to allow plenty of time for my pre-race run. I wanted plenty of time, so that there was no risk of getting stuck on the wrong side of the lake when the run was about to start!

Even with a stop at Starbuck's we got there around 8 a.m., plenty of time to get a great parking spot and run as much as I wanted to. So after pinning on my race number (I was probably one of the first to do so) and using the bathroom (no line this early), I headed out at a slow run. No need to wear myself out, all I wanted to do was warm up and get into the zone.

I couldn't remember where exactly the out-and-back would be (and I was earlier than the people putting out race markers), so I took a couple of loops off the path in the general area that I thought I remembered from last year. (It turns out that I was right, so I actually doubled the out-and-back.) By that time I was far enough around that I was only about a mile from the race start/end point. And since I was already wearing my race number, I became the contact person for people trying to find the run! I think some people had parked over by Road Runner because that is the direction they were appearing from. A couple of the people I talked to headed back to their cars, but most of them took my advice that it was only about a mile away to the starting point, and chose to walk or jog that way.

It was still early when I got back to the start, so I ran for another half mile or so (then back), before standing in line for the bathroom and then meeting up with my mother. It was a bit of a dilemma, trying to balance my desire to stay warmed up, with the need to line up for the race start... so after one last 5-10 minute jog, I planted myself halfway between the 8 and 9 minute mile markers. (Later on, after the race started, as I was passing people in front of me, I wondered where those runners had chosen to start? At the seven minute mile sign?)

Three miles is nothing. It passes in a blink of an eye. It is the distance it takes in the beginning of a long run to get going. It's less than half an hour, for heaven's sake. And the faster you run, the shorter the time (obviously).

But yet in a race every moment is a lifetime. You are aware of every step, every inch of pavement in front of you, every mile as it passes (seemingly oh so slowly), every breath going in and out of your mouth and lungs.

I forgot to check my watch as I crossed the starting line. So I had no idea as I ran whether I was running "fast" (with a possibility of breaking my record) or "slow" (that is where you feel like you are running hard but end up with a disappointing time). I certainly knew I felt like I was pushing myself as hard as I could.

About a mile into the run I picked a blonde-haired girl in front of me as my pace person. I was running so close on her heels that when she paused a moment to look back I almost ran into her. After a while I was able to pass her and felt good about that. But then around the two-mile point (just after the out-and-back segment), there she was sprinting past me. She was going fast enough that there was no chance of catching up to her again. Apparently she just used that time when I was ahead of her to catch a second win and prepare for her big finish!

Then I was at the 3-mile point. Only a tenth of a mile to go—easy peasy! This was where I had my mother stationed to try to take a picture or two. It is too hard to get finish line photos in a big crowded race like this one. Gulping air, my heart pounding in my ribs, I pushed myself toward the finish mark. As I flew across the finish mats (a little poetic license there), I saw that the clock read 26:17. How fateful—that was my exact finishing time in the New Year's Day 5K. It was low enough that I was sure my chip time would be under 26 minutes, which was my goal. Hurrah! My plan worked. (My final time, which I looked up on the internet later in the afternoon, was 25:39.)

The other part of my plan had been to possibly take another loop around the lake after the run to make up a genuine long run for the day. But I didn't want to start out right away while there were still runners out (and look like a very slow finisher). So I browsed through the tables, grabbing a few bottles of Talking Rain water and a couple of satsumas, as well as another handful of chocolate hearts from the Road Runner table (did I mention the first handful?).

The line for free massages was non-existent, so I took them up on it. But first I succumbed to a posture check. This was a rather fascinating process where you first stand on a scale (one foot on each side) and they determine whether you carry your weight evenly, then they use a system of strings to measure whether you are aligned in your shoulders, hips, etc. Not surprisingly, I am rather crooked (any of my friends, or my hairdresser, could have told you that). I carry 20 pounds more to the left, and everything else is slanted so that I am higher on my right side than left. I think it's partly due to years of carrying shoulder bags on my right side.

The consulting chiropracter (not surprisingly) recommended I get an evaluation. He said he was surprised that I don't have more problems with back and hip pain. I said that it might be because I do a lot of hip stretches in yoga. I also suspect, though I didn't think of it then, that my Pilates strengthened core (rock hard abs, covered with a layer of fat of course) helps minimize potential back pain.

Then the massage. I am used to a female masseuse, so the male masseuse (I don't know the proper terms, masseuse, masseure, etc.) had a much deeper presser than I am accustomed to. And apparently I had some tight knots in my back! I actually had to ask him to lighten up a bit because I was too tender.

After all that, quite a bit of time had elapsed and I was no longer warm and sweaty from the run. Actually I was a bit cold and clammy, especially when the wind blew. It seemed like the moment had passed to go out for another run. And my poor mother had been standing around for at least half an hour waiting while I wandered and got massaged!

So we headed back to the car and over to Sunflour Cafe for breakfast/brunch. We got there at 11 a.m., which is probably the peak time because there was a long wait. But we managed to get a spot to sit while we waited, and I ordered a latte and had brought in the Sunday paper, so it wasn't too painful. By noon we were seated at a corner table and had our order in front of us—a cinnamon roll to share and yummy omelets. The cinnamon roll seems to be a race day tradition—possibly contributing to the post-race weight gain. Sigh.....

I finished the afternoon with a long walk on the beach. My legs were a little tired from the racing effort, so I dawdled a bit, strolling and climbing on logs. For a while I played the game where you have to walk only on the logs without touching the sand ("there are sharks in the sand"). But that was slow progress, so eventually I returned to the sand and rocks. I walked until I could go no further (without walking right into the bay), then turned back. I hadn't really planned to walk that far, but on my way out there was a strong blustery wind at my back which almost blew me onward. Of course, that meant on the way back I had to walk into the wind, which was a struggle at times! But once I rounded Mission Head the wind dissipated, and I didn't have to fight it so much.

By the time I got back to the house the final race times were up. I cheered my 25:39 time, my fastest 5K ever! The chip timing helps, of course, because you get credit for every second, and don't have to pay the price for a slow trip to the start line. I doubt that I could sustain this 8:17 pace for much more than a 5K—it's certainly not a half marathon pace. But organized races like this are my best opportunity to really push myself to run fast, in a way that I simply can't do running on my own. I don't delude myself that every 5K is going to be under 26 minutes. But I can't help but wonder—what would it take to get under 25?????

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