On Friday, I flew from Denver to Albany, New York – combining a week of workshops in NYC with an opportunity to visit my family in Saratoga. But while I was there, I also decided I wanted to try to finally go sub-20 in the 5K, and I found just the race in which to do it: the Flyin’ Fast 5K, a very tiny no-frills race organized by a local running coach who wanted to give his athletes the opportunity to test their fitness before diving into fall training. It was planned to be a flat point-to-point course with no turns, and offered chip timing and a registration price of only $15. Sold!
I got into Albany Airport at 6pm, and was picked up by my brother and nephews to go out to dinner in Saratoga. Knowing that I had a race the next day, my brother picked Wheatfields, an Italian restaurant known for their homemade pasta. Yum! I happily got the tagliatelle bolognese, while my brother and nephews all opted for chicken parmesan over spaghetti. My brother is one of the funniest people I know, and I was thrilled to get to spend time with him and with my nephews – so it was a great night.
We got home from dinner around 8pm, and after a bit of time flopped on the couch, we all headed to bed early. I was thrilled that I was sleepy at 9:30pm – the time change could have really messed with my sleep, but I think the glass of zinfandel I had with dinner helped, and I felt like I slept pretty soundly.
Before we went to bed, my older nephew begged to be allowed to come watch me race in the morning. I pointed out that it was super early, but he was undeterred – and my brother pulled me aside to tell me that my nephew is so proud of me and tells everyone that his aunt is a really fast runner. Aww!! I agreed to take him with me, and he delightedly set his alarm for 6:30am to make sure he could be ready to go.
However, when I woke up and got myself together, the house was strangely quiet – and when I peeked into the boys’ room, I found my brother sleeping in there with my little nephew, but my older nephew nowhere to be found. Turned out that he had a nightmare and went to sleep with his mom; as a result, I was just going to be flying solo for the race. I felt really bad that my nephew had really wanted to come, but I’ll also admit that the logistics were a bit easier to manage on my own.
I headed out at 6:45am, stopping at Stewart’s to get a caffeinated coffee to juice me up for the race. They had a flavor I hadn’t seen before, Maple French Toast, and while it was tempting to fill the whole 24 oz cup up with that yummy-smelling flavor, I put (regular flavor) decaf in about the top third, so I wouldn’t get too jittery. Good thing I did that instead of getting all caffeinated and telling myself I wouldn’t drink all of it – I ended up drinking the whole cup in the next five minutes as I drove!
As I drove into the tiny little town of Vischer Ferry, a big group of serious-looking runners (the women were all wearing booty shorts and sports bras) was already jogging from the parking lot to the trailhead where the race would start. “You’re late!” one woman yelled to me good-naturedly as I drove by. I knew I wasn’t late (it was 7:30 and the race didn’t start till 8), so I wasn’t worried, but that interaction ended up being the catalyst for me to meet a lot of other runners. After parking and heading over to the start myself, the woman who had yelled at me apologized profusely: she thought I was another friend of hers who had agreed to meet early, and felt terrible that she thought she had probably stressed me out with her comment! I reassured her that I wasn’t worried at all, but was delighted to get to meet her and her friends.
It turned out that I was really glad I had a few people to befriend, because this “low-key” race was actually a bit intimidating. The night before, the coach who organized the race posted on Facebook that it was a strong field, with the top men expecting to run in the low 17s and the top women in the low to mid 18s. Wow! Almost everyone in the start area was wearing either an orange or blue Nark Running singlet, and I kind of stuck out as one of the only people everyone didn’t know. Several people asked how I had heard about the race (it was publicly advertised on Albany Running Exchange), and seemed surprised that I had found it; apparently it was created by the coach primarily as a way for his athletes to test themselves before getting into fall training.
But in addition to the runners I was meeting through the woman who yelled at me, I soon realized that I actually did know someone here: my friend John, who ran the Minneapolis Marathon with me, was doing the race timing! We caught up for a bit, and John not only took a moment to introduce me to the race director but also tried to point out some female runners who he thought might run a similar pace for me to stick with. I was really happy for the distraction of chatting with people, as I was there early enough that I think otherwise I would have gotten pretty keyed up with nerves!
However, there were a few things I needed to focus on before the race start. Although I had hit the bathroom at home and again at Stewart’s, all that coffee meant I wanted to make one more trip to the bathroom at the race. I also wanted to warm up for at least a mile (maybe two?). After asking around and learning there was no bathroom at the trailhead, I joined two guys who were warming up by jogging back to the church parking lot, and hoped that there might be at least a porta potty there. No dice! So instead, I snagged some big maple leaves off a tree and headed into the woods to do my business there.
My jog to and from the church parking lot was about a mile in total, and while I felt like I should probably run more (especially some sprints to get my legs used to a fast pace), I got lazy when I got back to the race start and decided to instead spend the time doing some hip openers. My hips had felt really tight on the warmup jog (probably all that time on the plane the day before?) and I wanted to do my best to loosen them up. I did some standing hip cars, and then sat around in malasana for several minutes, but they still didn’t feel quite right. Meanwhile, while my Garmin was telling me I had an excellent “training readiness” score of 99, it also said my sleep was “fair” and that I was in “recovery” mode rather than “peaking” or “productive.” I didn’t totally know what to make of those mixed signals, but I judged myself to feel about a 7/10 in terms of readiness to race: I didn’t feel my best, but I didn’t feel bad either. I hoped that would be enough!
Too soon, it was time for us to line up; John helpfully asked people to come to the very front if they were looking to finish in 18 minutes; then people hoping to run in 19 minutes; then people hoping to run 20 minutes. I optimistically seeded myself with the 19 minute runners: my plan was to shoot for a 6:07 pace (the exact pace of a 19:00 5K), and give myself room to fall off the pace and still go sub-20. Based on a bunch of time playing around with the Jack Daniels running calculator, I was estimating a finish of 18:30-19:30, so targeting 19:00 felt reasonable… even though that was a scary fast time for me to wrap my head around.
As the clock ticked over to 8am, we were off – and I found myself passing several of the people around me / ahead of me in that initial start. But as with the Holy Cow Trail Stampede 10 Mile the week before, I didn’t feel like I went out way too fast – this pace felt challenging but likely sustainable. I didn’t look at my watch here, but Garmin says I ran the first quarter mile at a 5:50 pace, then slowed down just a tad to hit the first mile in 5:58. That pace was basically right where I wanted to be, but it didn’t feel as easy as I would have liked. Although it wasn’t hot, it was really humid out, especially compared to dry Colorado, and I had felt sticky just from my warmup.
The night before the race, some road construction had forced a change in the course from a point-to-point to an out-and-back. I was actually pretty happy about that change: it meant that there would be absolutely no asterisk next to my time if I PRed (the point-to-point was supposed to be flat, not net downhill, but who knew). Plus, it meant I could break the race up into small chunks: 0.5 mile meant one mile to the turnaround; 1 mile meant only 0.5 miles to the turnaround, and then 1.5 miles meant go back the way we came, where it should all be familiar and go by fast. The first half mile took us to the parking lot I had already been back and forth to before, and the second half mile took us to a slight descent (20 feet, lol) that I knew would be a slight uphill on the way back. Unfortunately, I was already feeling rather hot and tired on the descent; I hoped it wouldn’t be too hard on the way back.
I got to the turnaround in 9:33, which meant I was on track for a 19:06 finish… if I could keep it up. One thing that’s nice about running this fast is there isn’t that long to “hang on” – I just needed to keep the pace for about another two songs on my racing power songs playlist, which I was listening to on my Aftershokz. But oof, this was definitely a moment of gritting my teeth and not looking pretty to get it done! After the turnaround, I was now getting to see the other runners who were behind me, but for once, I wasn’t cheering for them; instead, I was occasionally giving a weak thumbs up as we passed, but mostly just ignoring them and focusing on trying to keep my legs going. I clocked mile 2 in 6:14: slower than my first mile, and also slower than my goal pace of 6:07, but still with plenty of room for me to go sub-20. Come on, Laura, dig deep!
I flipped through songs a bit on my playlist to try to give myself some energy (flipped through with the button on my Aftershokz, that is; my phone was securely tucked away in my flipbelt), finally coming to a pause on “Wake Me Up” by Avicii. But in spite of the driving beat, I still felt tired. When I headed up the “hill” (put in quotes because I know it was barely anything), I felt like I was slowing to a complete crawl – indeed, I dropped to a 7:12 pace, but I was only slower than 6:15 pace for about one minute, so I was still on track for sub-20. The half mile increments were no longer short enough to be reassuring; instead, I told myself that 5 minutes left was like doing a longer Peloton interval, and focused on getting to the next minute.
But finally, I saw the church parking lot coming up on the right, and just beyond it, the stop sign where we’d veer left and head for the finish. Almost there! A few spectators were here, and I tried to feed off their energy to really make one more push. I knew I was going to be sub-20 (yay!), but I wanted to be as far under it as I could possibly get, and I didn’t want to feel like there was more effort I could have given.
When my watch finally hit the 3 mile mark, in spite of my split being a significantly slower 6:31, the total time was 18:44, which was awesome. I managed to pick it up to a 5:38 pace for the final tenth of a mile to the finish, and was careful to stop my watch right as I crossed the mat… but also keep sprinting through the mat so I wouldn’t lose a single second to an early slowdown. And when I stopped running and looked at my watch, I saw an amazing sight: 19:22! More than a 90 second PR! I couldn’t believe it.
After I caught my breath, I just kept looking at my watch over and over again. Going sub-20 has been such a long time coming, and I was thrilled to come so far under my goal. But I also recognized that while this was an awesome course, the conditions actually weren’t quite ideal: I was inexplicably tired and tight, and the humidity had made things feel pretty tough throughout. So… did that mean I’m actually capable of sub-19 if I could get ideal conditions?? I’m inclined to think yes, and I’d love to find another race to test that hypothesis.
On Saturday, though, I settled for hanging out for fifteen minutes or so at the finish line and cheering in the other runners coming in. And then, the coach instructed all his runners to go out for a cooldown run on the towpath – so I followed. It was actually really fun to run with a group and chit chat, and we did an easy two miles, bringing my total mileage up to 6 for the day. I really ought to have the discipline to do my own cooldown runs after races, but I was proud of myself for at least sticking with the group to do this one!
So… what’s next? I’m not sure. I was considering signing up for a trail ultra in Colorado in September, but now the idea of finding another flat and fast 5K is appealing. Or perhaps at least doing a treadmill time trial over the next few days while I’m in New York? I’ll let you know if anything comes of it!
Distance: 3.1 miles
Pace: 6:12 / mile
Overall place: 19/58
Gender place: 3/23