I thought a lot about that question on Saturday morning, as I arrived at the 5K. Technically, this should be "easy." Some may sniff at a 5K - "just" a 5K; a short(er) distance to be sure, particularly when compared to a half or full (or, egads, an ultra). The longer the run, the harder it is, right? But while longer distances take more time, shorter distances can be killer, too. Replace distance with speed and it's by no means easy. For most people, this race will be over in less time than the most recent Game of Thrones episode, but that doesn't mean it's "easier."
As someone accurately pointed out, you have far less room for error in a 5K. Hell, consider a 400 meter dash: with milliseconds separating first from last, absolute perfection is necessary. (For you LEGO Movie fans, I just heard President Business's voice in my head: "All I'm asking for is total perfection.") 5Ks are more forgiving, but as my friend noted, screw up that first mile and you'll never recover.
I was a ball of nerves on Saturday morning. This felt anything but easy. Like, shaking hands, jittery, live-wire nervousness. I've had my fair share of pre-race anxiety, but this was different. I was actually experiencing physical symptoms, not just your standard negative thoughts. I don't like the idea of being perfect. The pressure? No thanks. I think that's why distance running is much more appealing; I can mess up six ways to Sunday before I ever get past the halfway point, and there's still a chance for redemption. This race was making me feel emotionally claustrophobic.
The course itself did not help either: it was tight. Shaped like an infinity sign, we started in the middle, did a loop uphill, came down that loop downhill, then went into our second loop before arriving at the finish. There were quite a few sharp turns as well, something I had no experience with handling. Passing was also problematic: with all those loops, faster runners were charging at you as they headed back in. When I got there and saw there wasn't even a timing mat, my heart pounded even faster. This was going to be a gun start? Aw man.
"Throw some elbows," Brian and Alex both encouraged. I shook my head no. Can't we all just orderly file into a nice, cooperative formation? I didn't want to throw anything, let alone an elbow, and I certainly didn't want anything thrown at me. Competition aside, I was mostly concerned about wiping out. My mind briefly flashed to the Girls on the Run 5K I did last year, the one where the runners and girls were so tightly packed, some 12-year old in lime and pink ribbons took me out. One moment I was chasing after my girl, the next, I was air born. The flight was fun, the landing was not. Scrapes on my knees, thighs, palms, elbows and chin (because if I'm going to fall, why not land on my face?) made planking very challenging for weeks. Not to mention the humiliation. Wiping out amid a crowd of girls wearing satin capes and hair bows is one thing, but I did not want to crash and burn among my peers. Also, I was wearing shorts and a tank. Skin on pavement at 7.5 mph = serious road rash.
Thankfully, the start went off without a hitch. My friend Kat inexplicably lined up behind me, one of the few people who actually had a chance to win the race. As soon as I realized this, I pushed her in front of me. Um, hello. I love my fancy new shoes and feel confident about recent speed work gains, but I'm not delusional. Kim does not need to be standing in the front of the fasties.
I attacked the first mile as planned. Considering I had run it a few weeks ago and couldn't get under nine minutes, I breathed a sigh of relief when my watch beeped 7:44. Making the turn and heading downhill, I allowed myself to relax into the run. Not listening to music was crazy helpful; I could hear the runners around me and was able to stay in the moment at all times. My form, my arms, my legs, my turnover. Pitball wasn't singing about going to da club; Ke$sha had been silenced. It was just me and the footfalls of other runners. Yes, a man pushing a double stroller passed me in the second mile, which I can tell you, is incredibly demoralizing, but the dude was flying. I had already told myself that this wasn't about me "beating" anyone else; I knew my goal and it was 23 minutes or less. Even if the whole field came in at 22 minutes and I finished dead last, sub-23 would still be a victory. Let's just all keep our elbows to ourselves...
Second mile: 7:08. The fastest mile I've ever run in my whole life. Holy smokes.
With just over a mile left to go, my legs started screaming. All of those fast-twitch muscle fibers (all 12) were pretty well fatigued at this point. Kenyan, I am not. This was also around the time I noticed I had somehow fallen into a grudge match with some 10 year-old kid. I'd pass him, he'd pass me. We were in the stretch where other runners were coming directly at us and it was getting a bit dodgy. I certainly didn't want to crash into a potential winner/placer but this kid was annoying me. Fall behind? Speed up? I don't know.
My brain had woken up by this point as well and was trying to sell me some incredibly unhelpful thoughts. "This is tough," it yawned. "You're tired. Give yourself a break! You're doing a good job. You can slow down." I grimaced and fought to ignore that awful voice. "Really, no one will stop loving you if you come in over 23 minutes. You are really pushing yourself. Slow down, you've got nothing to prove."
Stupid over-sized, protein-saturated organ. Always fighting for my safety and survival, even when it's not necessary. This was not the time or place to conserve energy, though I knew I was fighting against years of evolution. Running, in so many ways, is kind of like dunking your head into an ice-cold bucket of water and keeping it there. Your brain screams at you to pick your head up and breathe. Live. But in running, you have to override that survival instinct, push past the pain, and keep going. I think that some of the best runners aren't the ones have the best conditioning or fastest legs, but the ones who are simply willing to suffer the most. At its most basic, running is about compartmentalizing pain for pre-determined amounts of time and then managing it. But it's not all bad; don't think I'm some masochtic martyr in sneakers. We runners know there is an incredible, endorphin-soaked tiki party at the end of that pain train.* That's the part we live for and the reason we keep lacing up.
Thankfully, just as this war waged in my brain, my eyes noted Kat's boyfriend Alex was standing at the corner, waiting for me. Incredibly speedster that he is, he finished the race in under 18 minutes. Instead enjoying his victory and relaxing, he trotted back on the course to find me and bring me in. Now that's a friend.
Seeing him wave shut down that negative internal voice. I concentrated simply on what he said and pushed harder. He cleared the path for me literally and metaphorically; with about 200 meters to go, he actually deflected a small child that had accidentally wandered onto the course. I would have laughed or at least smiled at the irony, but in the moment, that took too much energy.
Running as fast as my legs could take me, I crossed the finish line at 22 minutes and 58 seconds, two seconds faster than my goal time.
This time, I really did think I was going to vomit. Not because I had consumed wine the night before (which I hadn't), but because for the first time ever, I had really, really, really pushed myself. Of course, I'm a terrible puker and an even more awkward spitter, so I stood next to the finish line, gracelessly dry heaving and ineptly wiping saliva off my chin. Who loves running? This girl!
We stood around for awhile, congratulating other runners, taking pictures, and reliving moments from the race. So many people shouted hopefully cheers to me while running; Lulus, FN racers, Ninjas. I wish I had been able to return their enthusiasm, but I couldn't get a single word out. The running community here in Las Vegas is pretty incredible and this race certainly brought out the best.
Brian, Scotty and I walked to a nearby restaurant for breakfast before the parade started. As we ordered, my phone chirped.
I put my head down on the table, mostly laughing but crying a little too. Seriously? Seriously?! First? I don't think I've ever taken first place in anything in my whole life. That third place finish at the Memorial Day race was pretty awesome and I thought I'd never get a chance to experience that again. And this...this was too much.
Also, clearly all of the other 35 to 39 year old female runners slept in. There are at least 23 women my age in town that I can name instantly that would have crushed me like a grape in a foot race. But they weren't there so there you have it. It's funny and silly and crazy, all at the same time. Mostly silly.
Kat and Alex both placed first in their age groups as well, and Alex was 4th overall. Kat and I both PR'd, which was crazy. A ton of Lulu runners also had PRs and placed, and the overall female winner was an incredible runner I see during my Tuesday morning track workouts. Very cool that so many friends ran strong, and a totally awesome way to start the Fourth of July. Maybe I'll make it a habit to run on every American holiday. Note to self: check availability of local 5Ks for Labor Day weekend.
The video was horrifying yet helpful.
Lots of room for improvement, friends. So much room. In fact, if improvement was a room, I just bought a mansion.
So to answer my friend's initial question, when does running get easy? I don't know. Saturday was killer. I have yet to have an "easy" race. I don't think running is ever easy. You just get stronger.
**I've found the French braid is the only way my hair will stay out of my face during a run, without having to use an elastic band (which breaks tiny baby hairs). Also, the more I sweat, the tighter the braid becomes, which is strangely awesome yet very helpful. Yes, I feel kind of weird braiding my hair, but it works, you know?