Before the new year, I sat down and started to think about what sort of running goals I wanted to have. At the beginning, It wasn’t necessarily a matter of reaching them, it was just the idea of putting down on paper what I *wanted* to achieve. Whether I actually reached those goals was a totally separate matter.
Here’s what I came up with.
10k: sub-42 mins.
5k: sub-20 mins.
I’ve yet to try to figure out why I wanted to reach these goals I was setting for myself. I guess that didn’t really matter to me, but the more I think about it, I suppose it all goes back to the simple premise of what is the mental makeup of a person. Are you an achiever or, for the lack of a better term, a slacker?
There are plenty of times in my life that I have — at one point or another — been considered a slacker. I can still hear the words uttered by many teachers and my parents when it came to school: “you’re a smart kid, you just don’t apply yourself.” Very true. Academic slacker – guilty as charged.
But the idea of not “applying myself” never really applied to sports. Competing was always a passion. It helped that I was generally, if I can say this without sounded like a pompous jerk, above average at most sports growing up. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have to work hard at them. If it was something I loved (i.e. not school), I found it easy to want to work hard at it. It was a competitive rush.
Now at 38, the so-called competitive sports I play — hockey and golf — are mostly just leisure activities. When I lace up my skates and play with the over-35 crowd nobody really likes to play against the ultra-competitive guy. He gets annoying pretty quick and usually finds himself dealing with a swift stick to the rib cage. That puts an end to that idea in a hurry. We all have jobs and a family to worry about. It’s just not worth it to go 100 percent on the ice anymore.
But when it comes to running, there are other runners on the course during races, but the only person you are truly competing with most of the time is yourself. It’s the ultimate gut check. Do you have what it takes to push yourself beyond your comfort zone? In a nutshell, I guess that is the essence of my goals this year. Do I have what it takes?
This self-examination began in earnest with Saturday’s 9th Annual Chattahoochee Challenge 10k. What better place to begin my quest than at the very first race I entered exactly a year ago. The Hooch Challenge is a very flat, fast course. It was the perfect place to go after Goal #1.
A few days before the race, I saw that the Atlanta Track Club had published its qualifying times for the Peachtree Road Race. A sub-42 time would get me into the Sub-Seed group, the very first wave behind the elite runners. To get into the elite group, I would need a Sub-36 time! Even as a novice runner who didn’t pay attention in school, I’m smart enough to know that I wasn’t going to shave 7 minutes off my 10k time!
On race day, I get to the start with a couple friends from the neighborhood. We are all there for a fun morning run, but I had a goal in mind and had my “game face” on. I took a few warm up laps around the parking lot and was itchin’ to get to the start line. One friend would later say “yeah, you were in the zone.”
Being “in the zone” as a runner is something new to me. Based on my times in the races I have run over the past year, I’ve come to realize that I’m relatively fast. But due to the simple fact that I never ran track or cross-country in high school or college, I still don’t consider myself to be a “runner.”
Because of this, I always feel overmatched at the start line. When I look around and see the guys wearing small runner shorts and tank tops with their lightweight “fast shoes”, I always wonder if I should take a couple steps back off the starting line. Nah, “screw ’em” I think. Plus, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for the short shorts and tank top look. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Then, BANG! The gun goes off and I find myself near the front of the pack for the first half-mile or so. But very quickly you can see who the elite runners are. By the 1-mile mark, they are off in the distance. It’s truly impressive to be close enough to watch them run, but I know that I have no hope of staying with them.
On this day, there is a large field for the race. It’s a fast, flat course, so it draws a good crowd of about 900 runners. For the first mile, there are about 20 of us off the front. We are moving pretty quick, too.
(I remember running this race last year and hitting the 1-mile mark at 6:35 and thinking “holy crap, slow down!” With little training under my belt I had NO chance of keeping up that pace over six miles. Sure enough, I faded like a champ over the last 2 miles and limped across the line.)
Not this year, I thought. I hit the 1-mile mark again at about 6:25. But soon after we hit this point, I found myself being dropped off the back of what I considered to be the lead pack. I wasn’t concerned though. I felt strong and settled into a comfortable pace of about 6:35. Turns out, I was being used as a rabbit/pace-setter for a second group of about 15-20 runners that were slight behind the lead pack. This was odd to me. People were actually using ME to pull them along? But don’t they know I’m just a recreational hockey player and not a runner? Silly people!
We hit the 3-mile mark at about 19:30. I feel ok, but will I be able to keep this up for another three miles? Soon after we passed 3 miles, I notice a tall, older guy (in his late 40s, I figure) who had been hanging on my left shoulder for the past mile or so. We get into some banter about how strong the wind was coming off the river now and I tell him that I’m not much of a drafting shield for him. We smile and he says “I’m just trying to hang on man.” I hear ya brothah! I HEAR ya!
Now, I ain’t no dummy. I watch enough cycling to know that part of being at the front of the pack means that you have to share the workload. He was much taller than me and I wanted him to get out front for a bit so I could get a break from the wind. He obliged, thankfully. I ran just off his shoulder for the next mile or so.
This was a good break, but I soon find myself slipping back too far. He creates enough of a gap and I can’t catch him. Darn. I push on. This was a killer pace! I briefly think about pulling back off the pace, but can’t stand the thought of having the group behind me swallow me up.
At Mile 4, a pig-tailed woman in her mid 20s pulls up alongside me and we run stride for stride for a while. This is an odd feeling. I run by myself so often and had been basically alone (the elite runners were far in front of me and the others were directly behind me) for most of the first 4 miles. Now, here comes this chick itching for a race partner for the final 2 miles. We’re shoulder to shoulder, stride for stride, going pretty fast. I think this is where being a “runner” would have helped me. I’m not at all used to this scenario and would actually rather have her go out in front of me. Instead, she was intent on staying elbow to elbow. What’s up with this chick, I think?
Finally, I decide to slow it down every so slightly to let her get out front. She quickly senses this.
“COME ON!” she blurts out.
What the heck? This girl is crazy!
“Just 2 more miles,” she says matter-of-factly.
But I’m spent and tell her I’m saving myself for the hill at 5 miles.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” she utters, as she slowly pulls out in front of me.
Truth is, I know who is out front and am very aware that she’s actually in third place among the women at this point, so I feel a little better yielding to her and her crazy pigtails. Plus, I’m almost 40 and she’s in her 20s! This is the logic I keep telling myself to justify getting BEAT BY A GIRL!
Uh-oh, now there are two guys coming up alongside of me. They also slowly pull past me. I start to yell at myself inside “COME ON!” They catch crazy-pigtail-girl and give her the racing partners she was looking for. I watch the three of them run stride for stride in a tight pack about 10 feet in front of me. I desperately want in, but just don’t have that little kick I need. This is disappointing. I figure that these are the types of moments that runners are used to and know what to do. But I’m just a slacker hockey player, what do I know?!
We all power our way up the course’s lone hill and head for the last turnaround. I loop around the cones and realize how fast the group is closing behind us.
A year ago, this is the point where I REALLY faded. Not this time, I tell myself. I actually find enough energy to push hard back up the hill on the way back. I’m determined not to get passed at this point. But on the way back down the other side, another woman in her early 20s flies down the slope like an out-of-control gazelle. I’m tempted to let her go, but decide to let gravity take control and soon finding myself in a controlled arm-waving stumbling sprint downward. I know that this is suicide for my quads and calf muscles.
After passing the 5-mile mark at about 33 minutes, I know that my sub-42 goal is going to happen. I’m psyched! I try to chase down gazelle girl, but she’s really pushing it. I’m a few strides back, but I keep the gap relatively close and empty the last bit I have in the tank to cross the line in 41:13. Pigtail girl gets me by about a minute and gazelle girl edges me by about 10 seconds.
I finish 29th among the men, 33rd overall and 7th among my age group.
Goal # 1 – DONE!
The next time somebody pulls up next to me over the closing miles of a race, I figure I’ll know what to expect and will be able to rise to the challenge. But for now, I’m more than pleased with my effort.
Even better, a neighbor of mine broke the 1-hour mark for the first time in a 10k. I was psyched for her, too! It was a great race and look forward to returning next year.