Replaying some of the aspects of the race as we waited in line for pancakes, my dad made a confession. “Truthfully, I thought you were going to be a few minutes later,” he said. “Truthfully dad, so did I.” Yet the Polar Bear 5K turned into one of my best races in a very long time. And it really had nothing to do with how fast I ran.
I had wanted to do this race for two reasons. First, it’s in Niagara County. And while I now live in Buffalo and Erie County, I grew up a Niagara County girl and always will be a Niagara County girl. Second (and admittedly more important perhaps) there is a post-race pancake breakfast. I am easily bribed and pancakes are a sure-fire way to get me to do almost anything. Granted, a 5K isn’t usually a big part of half-marathon training. In fact, three miles usually is my easy or off-day run. But my best running buddy Sue helped devise a plan for the race. After a pre-start warmup, I’d begin the race slow and controlled for five or 10 minutes. Then, I’d program my watch to beep every minute. She called it run on the beeps. Watch beep. Run hard. Watch beep. Run easy. Continue to alternate until the race is over. I am confident there is a great physiological benefit to this type of run. But more important to me was the chance to practice my race day mentality, to work on my focus and the emotions of the run, all the stuff which goes on between my ears which gives me permission to hold myself back.
One of the fun aspects of the Polar Bear 5K is the person who runs dressed in a polar bear costume. This provides most of the pre-race conversation as a major focus of participants revolves around beating the damn bear. I smiled during such talk, resigned to the fact that the bear would probably beat me but more importantly, secure in the fact that the bear wasn’t part of my race plan.
It was cold and gray with just enough wind to sting when you ran into it, which we did for the first part of the race. The pack took off and I focused on staying light and easy, allowing people to pass me if need be. I was wearing just my good old Ironman watch, not my fancy Garmin, so I had no idea what my pace was. No numbers to mess with my head. Just me and my plan. I stayed within myself for the first five minutes then started my repeating watch timer. One minute hard. One minute easy. Go.
The first few repeats were fun. On my hard run intervals I passed a few people and when I switched to an easy minute, I still kept moving forward at a good clip. Before I knew it, I was at the first mile mark. I checked my watch. That was a quick mile. And for a moment, it made me nervous. You really have no business running this fast, my mind started to say. You are going to burn yourself out.
No, I replied to myself. This is a race. It is supposed to be hard. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. It doesn’t matter what my time is. Bring the focus back to my plan. Run hard. Run easy. Run hard. Run easy. Challenge yourself. Strong. Focused. By the time I hit Mile 2, I had passed the bear. Part of me was sure the bear would pick it up in that final mile to pass me, so I didn’t celebrate too much. But I did smile.
Shortly after I passed the second mile marker, the run started to feel hard. Very hard. Like really hard. And this is the place where I often give myself permission to back off, to say I’ve done my best and call it a day. I anticipated this and changed my thinking. I kept up with my hard-easy intervals, reminding myself that I’m not trying to hit a pace but hit an effort. And even if my “hard” intervals are a bit slower than earlier in the race, they are still hard. The goal was to stay in my race plan and not get sucked into what everyone around me was doing or succumb to the gremlins and negative committee in my head.
As I was within sight of the finish line, I had entered my last hard interval. I dug in for the final 200 meters and ran as hard as I possibly could. My core was on fire but I knew the end was near. Just keep running. Just keep running. BOOM! I crossed the finish line and bent over to hug my knees. I was pretty sure that I was going to throw up that pre-race strawberry shot block. But no. I was good.
My final time wasn’t a personal best, but it was the best 5K I’ve run in a number of years. What I’m most proud of, however, is the strength I gained in mental toughness. My race is my race. My story is my story. No one else can live it, run it or tell it. It’s a responsibility, but the rewards are great. And there are pancakes.