Kathryn Schulz, a writer for the New Yorker, recently asked the question, what do we think about when we run? The question is especially apropos of racing, which is all about execution, and which therefore requires a purposeful mindset and a well-considered plan of attack. Indeed, for a race the more relevant question might be, what do we think about before we run?
As point in case, let’s rewind to Thursday, November 26, 2015. It’s 7:35 AM Central Standard Time, and I’ve just pulled into a parking spot at the Lincoln Park Zoo, with the intention of racing the Turkey Day Run Chicago 5k….
I’m sitting in the car, listening to the tail end of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, as I cast about for the right set of goals for this event, including the all-important definition of success. As part of this process, a handful of data points come to mind:
- The week before I ran mile splits at a disappointing pace: about 20 seconds behind goal.
- But then a set of 200-meter repeats went swimmingly well.
- But, then again, a few days later, during a 3-mile tempo run, I just couldn’t maintain target pace.
Truth is, I haven’t been feeling great. A strange little virus has hacked its way into my system, barely betraying its presence — I have none of the typical symptoms, no sore throat, sneezing, headache, congestion — just a little tickle in the back of my throat that’s morphed into a throaty cough. And intermittent spells of lethargy.
Now, standing in the parking lot, I cough up a fleck of phlegm and spit it on the ground, where it stares up at me an angry yellow. Nothing is simple. A chest cold hadn’t prevented me from setting a personal record at Boston earlier this year. Boston was one of several PRs at distances ranging from 5k to 100 miles — in fact, since turning 50, I’ve set so many records I’ve lost count — until my last three races, which have been disappointments. I’d like to get back on that winning streak. Ideally, I’d like to finish the Turkey Day Run in 19 minutes, like I did in 2013, when I placed 2nd in the male 50-59 age group. But if that isn’t possible, I’d still like to place in my age group again. I’m visualizing a medal shaped like a small turkey.
It’s one hour until start and time to begin executing my pre-race checklist. The temperature is a mild 55 F, but it feels cold and raw I start jogging around listlessly. After a mile or so, I move on to dynamic stretching drills and warm up enough to remove my jacket. A 5k is close to an all-out effort, but it’s not the discomfort I worry about, it’s just the question of how I’ll do.
With the start thirty minutes out, I begin to run strides, with the goal of gradually getting muscles ready for speed. I’m surprised by how good my legs feel, and it doesn’t take more than a couple strides before my GPS watch shows an instantaneous pace of 5:20, much faster than target race pace. But then I stop and walk around, feeling drained.
10 seconds until the start: I’m standing in the first corral, mind blank, not really sure what to expect. The momentum of the start sucks me out and away; now I’m moving quickly and easily, watch showing 6:05, 5:50, 5:20, and now’s it time to ease back and settle in to race pace. The front runners are turning onto Lakeshore Drive; it’s a strange experience to be running on smooth white pavement. At start plus 90 seconds, legs are still feeling good, breathing ragged but regular — when suddenly a cry wells up in my chest. Deep within, some sensor is blinking red. Intuitive calculations have been taking place, and there’s an overwhelming sensation of despair.
My body has spoken. I stop looking at the watch; it’s too much data.
Mile marker one appears in sight. Legs and breathing are still good, but deep inside the sense of desperation is worse, I have to down-shift.
The turn-around point is here, and now the wind is in my teeth. I’m slowing down more, groaning out loud. The path transitions from pavement to slick wet clay, and the change in surface requires an adjustment in stride.
With the finish line in sight, I concentrate my remaining energy on pace — then my willpower sputters, eyes drop, I’m watching my feet. Consciousness jerks back and forth between purpose and anguish, until the finish line is crossed and I’m gasping and spluttering to a stop.
The benefit of racing, no matter the outcome, is clarity. The Turkey Day Run was a disappointment relative to past performances, with a finishing time of 19:45, which was slower than two years ago and nowhere close to my 5k record. The data from my watch showed a first mile at 6:00 flat, which was already behind target, then the second mile at 6:20, and the third at 6:30 — a pattern of “positive splits” that suggests I was trying too hard and as a result burned out early. A slower start might have yielded a faster finish.
But what was interesting was learning about what happens when I push my personal tachometer way up into the red zone. And it was nice to win my age group, coming in first of 189 males age 50-59, and overall, 24th out of 3,001 participants.
Two days later, I’m running quarter-mile splits. My legs feel tired, the pace is slow, and I continue to cough and wheeze. But that’s OK. My next race is in four weeks, and before then, I’ve got plenty of time to think.