I raced a 5k last Sunday, two years since my last solid race, two years since I felt strong and capable and fit, two years since a race was exhilarating rather than inspiring mixed emotions. During these years, my attitude has ranged from hating running, to missing running desperately, to complete indifference.
Many of my friends and family don’t understand why I care so much about running or even why I run so much. Running for me has always been an outlet, a place to feel powerful when I often feel powerless, a way to channel all the excess energy I have and to unravel the balls of creativity tangled up in my brain. This was especially true after I left my job as an attorney, turning my back on all that I accomplished in law school and in my career. I became a stay-at-home parent to my infant son seven years ago now. In those early days, I may have been shell-shocked at how not intellectually stimulating the job of SAHM was. I ran with my son daily, sometimes twice a day. I ran 60, 70, 80 miles a week training for a marathon.
Then I had another baby and running was the only thing that gave me relief from the crush of post-partum depression. After my second child, I dug in and ran more and more and more and faster and faster and faster. I ran most of my life-time bests around a year after her birth.
I swear, this will make sense.
Fittingly, on the last day of 2011, after approaching my limit closer and closer, I finally found it. I was injured and when I couldn’t run, I channeled that energy and those balls of tangled creativity into Salty Running and then I had one more baby, and I had heart surgery, and I aged, and my older kids needed me more. And my body refused to cooperate. Somewhere along the way running went from therapy to more stress, more pressure, a drain. And instead of it making me better, I hid behind it until I couldn’t hide or even run anymore. I needed to be more than a runner and a mom. I need to be a person who ____ and happens to run.
So I channeled my old running energy to Salty Running and to engaging more with my community. And in the meantime, I worked hard to find a healthy and happy place for running in my life. I don’t want my running performances to be my life. I want running to enhance my life. I found peace with running and much more peace with myself, and then I got mono. I can laugh about it now!
In the throes of mono, around Memorial Day of this year, I couldn’t dream of running. I couldn’t dream of running for weeks. And then when I could finally run again, I was the weakest I’ve been in maybe a decade. But this added to my matured perspective about running: it added an element of gratitude and joy I have never experienced about running before. How could I have beaten myself up about all those PR races that I thought “should have been faster”? It seems so silly now. I look back on what I accomplished and how hard I worked with awe. What strength I had.
Needless to say, my return to running after mono was slow in both progress and pace. Ten minute miles were challenging. Five lunges left me sore. But I didn’t care. I was in no hurry. I smiled on my slogs.
About ten weeks later, about two weeks ago, I noticed I was feeling good running. I felt pep in my fartleks I haven’t felt in ages and suddenly I even looked stronger, more like my old self. I enjoyed faster efforts and pushing myself, listening to the wind intensifying along with my pace.
This is the runner who raced the 2016 Downtown Willoughby 5k, which might be my favorite race. It’s more a celebration of my community, with so many of my non-running friends who occasionally run there along with me that it’s like my two worlds colliding. And, it’s one heck of a race!
Craig Rowe, the race director and also the mastermind behind RaceDirector.com, has created a entertaining event-style race that even the most hardcore runner would love. He and his crew put so much thought and effort into every detail of the race, from the course, to the shirts, to the welcome booklets, to the bar crawl after, and even to the swag – and as a more or less a swag-skeptic, I mean it when I say the DTW 5k swag is excellent! I’ve been thinking about it a lot and because it seems Willoughby-resident Craig approaches the race as a celebration of his community, for participants, it feels like they’re a part of something so much more that a 5k race.
As for me, because I love it so, I registered back in May, which turned out to be a week before I came down with mono. During my recovery I often questioned whether I would make it to the starting line. But I was in Downtown Willoughby on Sunday morning. My friend James met me for some of my warm-up out along the course. I had my eyes on the clock and with ten minutes until start time I thought I had plenty of time to stop at my car, about three blocks from the start. I changed into flats. I checked my watch, assured I had plenty of time for strides to the start. I began to pin on my bib. I figured worst case I’d do strides on the way over.
Five minutes to go with flats on, watch set, and on pin number two, I thought I heard a horn. “Did the race just start?!” I asked James. “Nah. It’s only 10:10. You’re fine.” And then we saw the leaders run by!
I frantically finished pinning and sprinted down the street on the sidewalk towards the start, going against the flow of runners, joggers, and now walkers. I made a decision on the fly, just before I got there, to jump in and go because if I made it off the sidewalk and over to the actual starting mat, I’d end up behind a wall of walkers with strollers and everything else. So I did a 180 and flew down the sidewalk, passing as many people as I could. Finally near the half mile mark, the road opened up and I jumped down off the sidewalk onto the road, passing people on the outside along the way to the mile marker. James ran the mile with me and said it was about 6:30 pace and based on the second half-mile split I took I’d say that’s about right.
I was worried I was so keyed up from the start situation that I might have dug a little hole, but I caught my friend Jen, who sprinted past me at the finish last year, and was able to speak to her so I knew it was just normal race discomfort stuff that I wasn’t used to again yet. So I pressed on instead of backing off which I probably would have done otherwise. I hit the two mile at 6:35.
I was having fun. Hurting sure, but I was still laughing about the start situation and pleased with my splits. My best case scenario going in was to match my time last year and so far I felt stronger and was on pace to do slightly better. It was a thrill. And then … then!
“You’re 4th woman!” someone called to me.
WHAT?! Seriously? When I heard that I scanned ahead and sure enough there were two women not too far ahead of me. So I dug a little deeper. Because I was hurting in that kind of race-hurt that I’m not exactly adept at handling right now, I resorted to my tried and true “STFU inner voice” trick of counting every other left foot strike. I’m a hit at parties, what can I say?
We climbed a hill and I knew we had maybe a quarter mile left of hill and maybe a quarter of a mile of slight downhill to the finish so I started pushing earlier than I otherwise would have trying to close the gap. Finally, with about two blocks to go, I thought about the North girls and I thought about what I would want them to do, what kind of example I wanted to be. It was crunch time: was I going to be good enough given the situation or was I going to be my best right now?
I let it all out. Now, in the grand scheme of things my all might not be much, but it was everything left in my tank. I passed one of the two (an old speedy race friend who I only managed to pass because she’s been injured) and then the other who, as soon as she realized what was happening, started to sprint too and we finished side-by-side. I have no idea who edged out whom. I finished the last 1.1 miles in 7:09 and the gun time was 21:09. Based on my watch splits: 6:30, 6:35. 7:09 that gets me a performance equivalent to around 20:14. It’s hard to say exactly with that first mile being crazy as it was, but that feels right and it’s what I’ll use for workout paces and future race goals.
Since I didn’t pass the starting mat, my gun time was my chip time so I officially came in behind the two women I passed at the end. And the person who told me I was in fourth who made me think I was racing for second was mistaken. I was racing for fifth, which I found out hours later when I saw the official results. If anything, racing for second made the situation more awkward than racing for fifth. Plus, thinking I had a shot at second place probably inspired me to push myself harder than I might have had I known my actual standing.
And at this point, I don’t need to place, win an award, or have an epic internet race result. I raced this one because it’s a great race, with a great course, and a huge party with my community of runners and non-running neighbors and friends.
For me this one was about learning to love the sport again and beginning to figure out where racing fits into the next chapter of my life as a runner. And for that, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you at a race? Have you ever missed a start?