So, I'm going to try to make this one short and sweet (yeah, right). I set a goal shortly after running the Boston Marathon that I was going to run a sub-20 min 5k. After speaking with a friend, teammate and co-worker who told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn't do it and should probably re-adjust my goals, I decided I was going to go for it and either accomplish it, or die trying. The Summer went by, and once the air started to get crisp and I decided I was going to spend the fall working on my speed and going after that goal. Besides, it's the fall 5k/charity run season and if I run the same races I ran last year I'll have 3 maybe even 4 opportunities to get it done, on courses that I'm familiar with.
I started to really believe that it was possible at the beginning of October. My coach, knowing what my goals are, scheduled me for 800 meter repeats and mile repeats in back-to-back weeks. I learned something. Actually, I don't know if I "learned" something as much as I had a realization, an epiphany really, or learned something about myself. We'll call this "the BIG moment." During "the BIG moment" it was suddenly clear that in order to be fast, in order to actually run fast, I had to suffer. I mean, I had to really BURN! Everything had to burn: My legs, my lungs, my arms, my stomach and even my hair had to feel like it was on fire. Over the past year I'd read, talked about and heard runner's talk about "suffering" and "pain" while they were turning-in the best performances of their careers. I truly didn't know what they meant until somewhere into the second or third 800m repeat at a 6:40/mile pace.
My instructions from my coach were to run these 800m repeats at my "all-out 1 mile pace." Since I had no idea what pace that was, I just went out as fast and hard as I could and tried to settle into a pace I felt I could hold onto for 1 mile. The first one I ran at a 5:54/mi pace. I knew that this was too fast. I went out too fast (after the first lap I saw 5:25/mi pace on my Garmin) and basically crashed on the second lap of the track. I could barely even jog my recovery lap. I found my "all-out 1 mile pace" to be about 6:40/mi on my second repeat. But it was really starting to hurt. Everything was on fire. Then my third 800 repeat hurt a lot more and I felt a lot slower, but it came in around 6:40/mi again. I had to do everything I could not to collapse. Lex ran over to me with Iz and Chralotte in tow and asked if I was okay and I said "no!" She said "what's wrong?" To which I replied simply "it BURNS!!!" Of course she said, "what burns?" I replied "EVERYTHING!" and took off on my recovery lap.
It was on this recovery lap that I realized I was truly running outside of my "comfort zone" for the first time, I think ever. I was on fire. I was deep into the pain cellar with no way out and I was able to keep going by simply focusing on things like my cadence, breathing and foot turnover. In fact, I had to focus on those things in order to move past the pain. If I had even acknowledged the pain I would've quit. Plain and simple. It was this pain that had creeped into me in previous races that had caused me to back down, caused my self-doubt to override my training and ability, and kept me from performing at what I know could have been my best. I mean, I've felt pain before, what I've called my "mental" and even "physical" walls. I've described them before as the "lactic acid flush" where suddenly everything just explodes in pain. But usually I've felt this, as many others have, late in a long distance race like a half-marathon, a 16-miler, or a full marathon. This pain was different.
Honestly, the "walls" that I had previously pushed through, in retrospect, were most likely do to nutrition or electrolyte imbalances often experienced by endurance athletes. The kind of pain that caused my epiphany, was the kind that sets-in immediately. An exquisite pain that causes you to battle with yourself mentally the whole race or workout. It's uncomfortable from the get-go, and the only way to get over it is to get through it. Let me tell you it is all about mental toughness. With every step you take your mind and body want to quit. The internal monologue can be summed-up like this: "Quit. No. Please quit. No. If you don't quit you're going to injure yourself. Shut up! Really, this sucks, there's no shame in backing down. Goddamit! You are not going to rule my life. No, really, if you don't quit, I will. I'm not quitting! Don't you feel your heart pounding? It's about to explode! Knock it off! I'm going to run this race with or without you! Your lungs are burning. I know. Your legs are burning. Get used to it! How do you like that diaphragm cramp? I love it!" And, well, I think you get the picture...
The next week during my mile repeats (at 6:40 pace) it was there again, from start to finish. But on my 800m recovery jogs, my heart rate returned to normal, the pain went away, and I felt like a million bucks by the time I started my next repeat. And there it was again. I realized, in order to run fast I had to live in this place for whatever length of time the race was. But I suddenly had a knowledge that I didn't have before: I would survive. I could live with this level of pain for however long I had to, and not die. This was the key. I decided I need to love the pain. I know now that I have to expect it, even welcome it. Bring it on! So I added "Bring the Pain" by Method Man to my running soundtrack:
"I came to bring the pain hardcore from the brain
let's go inside my astral plane...
Check it... Just how deep can shit get?
Deep as the Abyss and brother's mad fish, accept it...
Is it real son, is it really real son
Let me know it's real son, if it's really real..."
So, on Saturday October 30th when I toed the line at the Oak Scare 5k, the sight of my first 5k race just one year prior (29:00), I knew how I was going to feel for the next 20 minutes or so. I lined-up at the front of the pack for the first time. As soon as the horn went off, so did I. I took off. Fast. When I passed my friends Mary and Tom McManus, who were cheering near the finish area, I was in first place (about 0.25 mi into the race)! Things changed fast. Two really fast guys passed me going into the Oak Square rotary, as if I was standing still, and steadily pulled-away from me going up Washington St. Suddenly, I found myself in third place, I looked around and noticed I had about 100 yards on the rest of the pack. As I got to the first hill going up to Foster, I got passed by a guy dressed-up as Steve Prefontaine. For a second I thought I was hallucinating and it really was Pre. I couldn't get pissed, after all it was Pre so I didn't even try to answer. What really pissed me off was when Spider Man passed me like I was standing still, but it wasn't in fact Spidey that got to me, it was the asshole with his 5 year-old kid in the jogging stroller who was keeping pace with him while chatting away with his kid about the plot line of the Spider Man movie as if it was nothing. I know how heavy those things are.
Passing the 1 mile marker in 6:50 I was still around 6th place. Then we headed-up the huge hill onto Comm Ave. and I lost it. No matter what I tried, I couldn't keep my pace, or my cadence. It seemed like people were passing me in droves on that hill. Nothing got to me until these three girls, all wearing bright pink Saucony Kinvaras and coordinating outfits went by me holding a full-on conversation. Really? I could barely breathe and here they were having a chat about what they did last nioght and what they were doing later. Ugh. By the time we turned onto Comm Ave. they had about 100 yards on me and I made it my mission to reel them in and pass them on the downhills before the finish. Apparently they had the same idea and the reeling-in was slow.
My second mile came in at 8:00 even, which surprised me because it felt like I might as well have been walking up that hill. At this point I knew 20:00 was out of the question. Actually, I knew it on the hill. It was bigger than I had remembered. I resolved myself to at least finishing with a PR (< 23:32) which meant I only had to run faster than 8:40'ish for the last 1.1 miles. I really turned it on once I adjusted my goal. Turning onto the homestretch the girls were within 40 yards or so. I began reeling them in. Mile 3 came in at 7:14 and I started to really kick. They didn't even know what was coming, 30 yards, 20 yards, 10... I could hear them still jabbering away and it infuriated me. I ran the last 0.1 miles in 46 seconds (6:26/mi pace) faster than any portion of the race so far. But it was just too little too late. They all finished just ahead of me. I think i actually bumped into them in the chute. but I did have a new PR by 40 seconds (22:52). Not to mention a 16th place OA finish and 4th in my AG.
The following Sunday saw me lining-up here in my hometown for the Veteran's Memorial 5k. A race I had run last year in 30:04. It is a notoriously tough course that starts with a long sweeping downhill for the first mile, followed by a nice, rolling section for about 0.5 miles until all hell breaks loose. Right at the 1.5 mile mark you are brought to a hill that is somewhere in the range of an 8-10% incline for 0.25 miles, followed by an equally steep downhill section and a long, steady uphill for the final mile or so. (with a slight downhill to the finish). My plan was to go out as hard as I possibly could and then just hang on through the hills and finish strong. this time I lined-up "toward" the front as there were a lot of my fellow Central Mass Striders (who I knew were fast) and literally 50 or 60 ROTC kids from all branches there trying to impress their CO's. I knew I couldn't compete. However, when things started to shake out around the first mile I found myself near the leaders (6:24). As soon as we hit that first hill I got passed for the first time. It was a female ROTC cadet, so I was totally okay with it.
I hit my second mile in 7:41 even with the huge hill and I'd only been passed once. Heading-up the long hill, I turned the corner and was eventually passed by the pink Saucony Kinvara mafia once again. This time there were only two of them and they were both wearing Timberman finisher shirts. This didn't piss me off as much as you'd think it would. Instead, it actually helped me as I latched onto them and let them pace me up the hill as I drafted them. The third mile clicked off over the top of the hill in 7:46 and I turned it on. I reeled-in and passed one of those Saucony mafia girls and almost got the second one, running the last 0.1 mile in 0:48 seconds (6:41 pace). After the race I saw the mafia and the girl I passed (there were actually about 5 of them). She said "there he is" out loud so I turned and shook her hand and she gave me a "good race." When I read the results on-line later, I found-out she was only 15. Awesome! Most importantly, I had garnered another PR with a 22:42, a 35th OA and 16th in my AG.
I've got at least one more shot, possibly two at that 20:00 BHAG! And at least one of those races is almost perfectly flat! Consider it done.