Monday, March 5, 2012

Capturing the white whale

There are two reasons to run fast at the Coogan's Salsa, Blues and Shamrocks 5K. The first is to stay with the lead pack and not get dropped. The second is to get a seat and a first shot at the free hot breakfast, beer and coffee served at Coogan's Pub immediately following the race.

Those factors in mind, I knew going into Sunday's race that I was fit. In the weeks prior to the event, I had put in three solid weeks of high mileage and hard workouts before dropping the mileage by about 30% for race week. But, despite feeling like breaking 16 was entirely possible, I was sure this would not be the course where it would happen.

As the first team race of the season, this 5K generally boasts big crowds but not fast times. The race takes place in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, starting and ending at the Armory. It begins with a climb under the George Washington Bridge. That's followed with a generous reprieve into the Cloisters and descent to the river, then another climb out of the park, a flat stretch and then the pièce de résistance, a steep climb for the first 1/4 mile of the final mile of the race.

I met teammate and training partner Josh at the Armory shortly after 8am. Following a decent stretch, we headed out into the sea of people gathered outside for an easy two mile warm-up. The weather was shaping up to be perfect. With the temperature somewhere between freezing and forty, it would be just warm enough to wear my preferred racing outfit of a simple singlet and shorts.

Following bag check, we made our way to the line where I was frustrated to find that my bib number did not get me into the "competitive runner corral". The reason for this, and it is a legitimate one, is that I don't have a long enough history of NYRR races to get me into the corral, so even though I had a seed time in the low 5's, I wasn't recognized as one of the top 100 runners in the race. I asked a volunteer to make an exception, but he turned me down. So, I took my place in corral one. Truth be told, the difference between the two corrals is negligible. For me, it was more of a mental thing than anything else. Growing more and more annoyed, I attempted to sneak under the thin paper barrier that divided the two corrals just minutes before the race. As I did so, I snapped the tape thus, turning the two corrals into one big one. Fortunately, the officials didn't notice.

At the horn, there was a traffic jam in the front. It felt like a high school cross country race, as I bumped my way past people who were not concerned with a fast start. My plan was to run the race with Josh since we have been training together well, but less than 1/10th of a mile into the race, I was struggling through the crowd to catch up with him. Well before the 1/4 mile mark, we were shoulder to shoulder in our red Urban Athletics singlets and right on pace. Even though we both thought today wouldn't be the day to break 16, we had calculated what we had to do to make it happen just in case the stars aligned. We went through the first mile in 5:05. I felt pretty good and was relieved that I hadn't gone out too fast.

At the beginning of mile two, I threw in a mini-surge to get through a group of runners. The second mile is the fastest mile on the course and knowing this, I wanted to take advantage. As we went through the Cloisters and passed by several of the bands lining the course, I did my best to make this mile faster than the first, but not so fast that I had an empty tank by mile three. My Garmin registered a 4:56 for this mile, but the course clock said 5:07. Either way, I had gained some ground and with just under six minutes of wiggle room to break 16, I started to think that if I could maintain form and attack the upcoming hills, today might be the day after all.

I attacked mile three with gusto. I knew I'd have to run in the low 5's, then kick it in if I wanted to finish under 16 with room to spare. The beginning of the mile is flat and fast, but in the distance I could see what appeared to be a wall of asphalt. A steep climb was quickly approaching, but I had time to mentally prepare for it and convince myself I could maintain my pace on the ascent. I would conquer the hill. It would not conquer me. When we hit the hill, I kept it in gear, running at a steady 5:02 pace. Josh was still right next to me, and we worked together to stay motivated and not fall apart. At the top, there was just about 500 meters to go and it was all downhill. I was tired, but not winded. I could see the finish line in the distance. Josh was able to open a small gap on me while I did everything I could to stay on pace. I went through mile three at 15:12, a 5:00 mile according to the course clock. 48 seconds to spare. This was going to be it.

The feeling of elation when I crossed the line in 15:51 was one I haven't felt in a 5K in a long time. 16 minutes has been my white whale since I started running competitively again in 2008. I ran 16:07 on a fast course in China Grove, NC in June of 2010 and hadn't run a 5K I've been happy with since. Of course, no race is the perfect race. I learned a lot from this one, mainly, I need to continue to work on my finish speed. But, I was happy enough to feel like the celebratory Guinness at 9:45am was well-deserved.

Race Stats:
Time: 15:51
Pace: 5:05
Place: 18th
Age Group: 10th
Age Grade: 81.46%
Team Position: Urban Athletics Open Men, 4th Place

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