“Be smart and I think you’ll have a better time.”
Those aren’t usually the words I hear from my friend, Nate. Usually he’s telling to rip it, encouraging me to face my fear of (perceived) failure and just run. He is often the voice which guides me back to center and gives me perspective (check it out for yourself when we did a podcast together about just such things). But I also trust him. And if he tells me to take it easy in the first mile, there’s a reason.
I had never run Mr. Ed’s SuperBowl Warm Up. This was the 27th annual event held in Middleport, N.Y., and it’s a favorite among local runners — mostly likely for the highly touted post-race party. Because if you have a 5K in Western New York you better have a quality post-race party with plenty of free beer. That’s how runners roll in the 716. But I digress.
For whatever reason I had never made it to this particular race. When my schedule came out and I was off on SuperBowl Sunday, I decided to register. It would be a fun race for me. Well it had to be a fun race for me. I had done no speed work since October focusing my off-season on a true offseason, deciding to build strength in the weight room and slowly rebuild my miles after taking a couple weeks of rest and recovery. I knew I could run a 5K. That wasn’t the issue. But the quality of the run? Well that was going to be a crap shoot.
The abnormally mild winter temperatures continued and race day brought mostly sun, slight wind and 40 degrees. I found my parents at packet pick-up (Becasue of course they were there to cheer me on. It’s what they do and I’m extremely lucky to have that.) Then I went on to do a mile warm up. When I first started running the chances of me warming up were slim to none, but I’ve noticed that during my easy run days, my first mile is significantly slower than the rest. So finally I heed the advice of knowledgeable people and more often than not, do a warm up run to get the legs moving, blood flowing and spirit in my happy place.
There may have been pre-race announcements. I don’t know. I couldn’t hear them. I was in the middle of the pack of about 300 runners all chatting. Suddenly a cannon went off, scared the living crap out of all of us and thus the race began.
The first mile of the course was fast. It was flat with a bit of a gentle downgrade, a slight hill as the road turned and we took a country road — straight and flat and open. If there was wind or snow or rain or anything but the mild day we were experiencing this stretch would be hell. I kept within myself and did not look at the pace on my watch. I ran strong but easy. I wasn’t loafing through the first mile but I also knew I could run much faster. When we hit the first mile marker and the volunteer recited our times, I was pleasantly suprised at my pace.
About halfway through the race is the infamous hill Nate told me about — Peet Street Hill. It’s a challenge, especially smack dab in the middle of a 5K, but it’s extraordinarily doable. It’s no worse than hills I run in training. In fact I’ve run harder hills in training. But it’s a hill a nonetheless and I cared nothing for my pace. Strong and smooth up the hill is what I thought. At the end was a sharp left onto the Erie Canal towpath, a crushed gravel path. People were walking. My heart rate was up, but here is what I knew — give it 30 to 90 seconds. It will come back down. I allowed myself to jog it out at the top and soon was back up to my speed and closing in on the two-mile mark.
By this point I was checking the pace on my watch. I clearly had slowed down in Mile 2 thanks to the hill, but not terribly. I still was cranking way better than I expected, but I also didn’t want to burn myself out in the last mile. The temperature was warm for February, but the air was still sharp going into my lungs. Back on village roads for the final half mile I slowly started to pick up my pace but didn’t kill it. I wouldn’t do that until I could see the finish line.
I ran through the line hard and finished in my signature style — grabbing for my knees the second I passed the timing mat in a fashion that usually attracts the attention of medical personnel. After a minute I’m fine, grabbing a water and high-fiving my parents.
My first race of 2016 was a monumental success. Here’s why — I ran smart. I ran hard. I knew my limits. I pushed my limits. I had fun. More and more that is how I evaluate a race. And the more I let go of specific goals, the better I end up running. Funny how that happens for me.