Every year, my company forms a team and hosts events to raise money for the annual Denver Heart Walk. In the past, I’ve donated money, but this year, I decided to also sign up for the “competitive” 5K run that’s offered.
The night before the race, I started thinking about what kind of pace I wanted to run. Although I ran a 5K in April and shocked myself with a crazy fast new PR, I had rationalized that I was running that at sea level rather than at altitude, and didn’t dream I’d come anywhere near that in Colorado. However, two weekends ago in Colorado I ran a two mile speed test on the treadmill and finished in 13:07… so maybe I was faster than I thought.
Although I’ve done a lot of races, I am really bad at actually “racing”. During pretty much all the races where I’ve set PRs, I’ve still left something on the table. A great example is my marathon PR: while I’m really proud that I ran a 3:48, I finished the race and then ran back to mile 25 to meet my then-boyfriend and run him into the finish. So I ran an extra two miles on top of 26.2! Clearly I should have gone out harder sooner, and so for this race, I decided on a fairly aggressive strategy: I wanted to do a 7:00 pace for the first mile, then see how well I could hang on and perhaps do 7:30s for the next two miles. That would result in a sub-23 minute finish, or about a minute slower than the PR I had set in Dallas. However, I also knew that I didn’t care that much about time; I would be happy with anything under an eight minute pace, and I really just wanted to see what I could do at altitude.
When I got downtown on Saturday morning, I found street parking easily right across from the Denver Performing Arts Center where the website said the event would be… and was confused because I didn’t see any kind of hoopla. After going the wrong way toward some kind of street fair that was setting up, I found the event on the grassy area behind the DPAC. It was actually pretty huge – tons of sponsor booths (including lots of free snacks and goodies), a huge finish line arch, and even some “selfie stations” and cool art installations. I headed over to my company tent to check in with our organizer, and then onto the packet pickup.
I had been rushing to get downtown in time for our company’s group picture (which I missed), and my next priority was to make sure I didn’t miss the 8:00am start of the 5K run, since I didn’t want to get caught up in the crowd of walkers when that wave started thirty minutes later. When I picked up my race bib, I was told that the 5K was actually at 8:15am – so I hadn’t needed to worry about that at all. And as time went on, it became clear that I really didn’t need to worry!
At 8:10am, there were still no announcements and no sign of anyone moving toward the start line. My coworkers and I headed over anyway, and around 8:15am, more people started joining us in the runners’ corral. And at 8:20am, the pre-race announcements/national anthem started, so I finally thought we’d start. Nope! These were the longest race announcements I have ever heard in my life. There were multiple speakers and one of them had a sheaf of literally FOUR pages of notes to read. Meanwhile, I was starting to get a little nervous because I had only fed my parking meter with enough money for an hour… should have spent the extra buck rather than cheaping out, ha! But just after 8:30am, we seemed to be about to start, so I figured I’d be okay if I ran fast and then hightailed it to my car after.
I had lined up sort of near the front of the corral, but there were two women directly in front of me on the front line, discussing whether they wanted to try to run a 10:30/mile pace or stick with an 11:00/mile pace. I considered pointing out to them that they might want to not be on the front line, but decided against it. Maybe no one was planning on running this thing very fast? But now I really wanted to!
The race finally started, and I quickly dodged the two women in front of me to take off with a few guys who I thought were about my pace. The race began on a gradual incline, and I just enjoyed listening to the great music on my new wireless headphones (I started with “Some Nights” by Fun, which has always been one of my favorite racing songs). I was trying to push the pace really aggressively, so I stuck with the clearly-fast guys around me. How hard could I go? I was eager to find out!
We got to the top of the hill and started on a long flat section. I tried to catch my breath, but my lungs were burning. So I looked at my watch to see what kind of pace I was running, hoping it was around 7:00/mile or maybe a little bit faster. I was running a 6:18 pace! Um, no wonder my lungs were burning – come on, Laura, you can pace yourself better than that! I slowed down significantly once I realized I was way out of my league. Look at me thinking the women at the starting line were foolish; I had made pretty much the biggest rookie mistake of them all by going out so needlessly fast! I ended up finishing the first mile around 6:40 – definitely not sustainable.
We headed down a big underpass, giving me a tiny break to catch my breath, but then had to immediately go back up on the other side (ah, such is the nature of underpasses) before popping out on Little Raven Street. This was a familiar sight – I often park my car on Little Raven when I’m going into the office, since it’s one of the closest streets where there is free two hour parking. The sun felt hot on my face/chest as I pounded down the street, but I reminded myself that I was already nearly halfway through the race – just needed to gut it out at this point. Adam has told me repeatedly that to do well in a 5K you need to start out sprinting and then somehow hang on, and I was doing my best to live up to that.
But a 3:14 first half mile was just way too fast for me to “hang on”, and I was now running about an 8:00/mile pace – still with lungs burning. We turned around Confluence Park and started making our way down Platte Street back toward 15th, and I watched several people gain on and pass me as I did so. That’s what I get for starting fast and slowing down, rather than keeping a steadier pace like all the smarter runners!
Finally, I turned on 15th, headed down and up the underpass, and made it back to the stick part of the lollipop course. All the walkers were now on the course, and that cheered me up a bit and reminded me why I was really out there. The point of this event wasn’t to be some big athletic feat, but to get everyone out there raising money for the American Heart Association. It was amazing to see so many people out… and also amazing that it meant I was getting close to the finish 😉
Although there were hundreds of walkers on the left side of the road, there was almost no one on the right side as the runners had spread out. I could see one guy wayyyy up ahead, but he was the only one, and I kept being worried that I’d miss whatever the turn to the finish was. Sure enough, the guy eventually vanished, but I wasn’t sure where. There was a lot of random construction cones in this area and it was hard to tell what orange cones/sticks were for construction, which were for the outbound of the event, and where I was actually supposed to turn. I had a few bad moments thinking I was going to be totally lost and end up going the wrong way, but after taking a guess on a turn, I saw lone runner dude way up ahead. If I was wrong, then he was wrong too and we could find our way to the finish together! Fortunately, we had both picked the correct right turn, and then there was just one more left turn and a straightaway to the finish line on the grass.
I had checked my watch a few times to know that I wasn’t going to surprise myself and turn in a fast time (that I would regret not being faster), so I knew I didn’t have to push it hard for every second I could. But still, I wanted to finish strong, so I picked it up after that final turn for an extra hard sprint to the finish. I crossed the line with my lungs on fire, like they had been from pretty early on in the race, and felt good that at least I had given it everything I had. My watch time was 24:05, and I rationalized that it was still under an 8:00/mile pace, which wasn’t bad for a 5K at altitude.
What surprised me, though, was that the burning in my lungs didn’t go away quickly – in fact, my throat was rough the entire rest of the day, and I had a hacking cough for the rest of the weekend. I’m still not sure if that meant I was some sort of sick, or if that’s just what my lungs do when I run so hard like I did at the beginning of the race. That’s a new to me feeling!
It was much later that day, when I saw the results online, that I started actually feeling a tiny bit proud of what I had done. I had taken 18th place overall and 4th in my gender – which put me well within the top 10% of both categories. Plus, since the walk registration was separate from the run, I feel like the field was probably self-selected to be a little bit faster than most 5Ks? (Don’t burst my bubble here.)
But beyond my results, I was really excited that I had finally, for once, managed to push it really hard, and see what it was like to go out so fast that it was completely unsustainable. I am admittedly a wuss when it comes to pushing myself – I start to sweat or get tired and I think “oh, okay, that’s as fast as I can go.” Never before had I done a run where I burned out so dramatically, but instead of being disappointed, I’m actually psyched that I got to see what it feels like to push that hard. I’ve always used running as a way to test my limits, and now I feel like I finally found the limits of my speed, rather than my pretend “ehhhh I’m kind of tired now” limits.
This morning, five days later, I went for a run before work. A June run in Dallas is never quite ideal weather, but this morning was particularly brutal: at 6:45am, it was 80 degrees and 70% humidity. Yikes! I was dripping sweat within five minutes of starting to run, and in the past, I would have taken that as evidence that I should slow down. Today, though, I recognized that my lungs weren’t burning and that I was not, in fact, pushing the pace too hard. When it’s that hot and humid, even an easy run is sweaty! I didn’t ever push hard or get to a burning lungs point today (which was fine, since this was my second workout of the day anyway), but I’m proud that I at least recognized that it wasn’t my all-out effort. And I still finished 3.85 miles averaging an 8:20 pace per mile – not too shabby.
So maybe now that I’ve learned what my all-out effort is, I can use that knowledge of my limits to really see my potential? I’m hoping so!
Distance: 3.1 miles
Overall place: 18/248
Gender place: 4/138
Age group place: 2/40