There are not many better conditions to run than those presented at the Sycamore Pumpkinfest 10K yesterday. The wind was nearly still. The temps edged into the high 40s and low 50s. The skies were clear and bright. Perfect for racing.
That means there were not many excuses for not doing well. And as planned, I raced in the low 7:00 range for 10K.
That put me in the top 5 in my age group, and I was well-pleased with that. Last year I averaged 7:17 per mile at 45:15. This year, 7:10 pace and 44:27. So I improved by 48 seconds! Yay!
Lesson #1: Weight, weight, don’t tell me
Granted, I’m far behind my best on this course at 32:28. But that was during my peak years of racing, and at the height of youth. Though hardly a fattie, I now weigh between 176 lbs and 180 lbs in a typical week. Back then I weighed 140. That’s 36 more pounds of weight to carry around the course. I could stand to lose 7-10 lbs through a better diet. Eating better is an ideal goal for 2016, because a slightly lighter body reduces risk of injury from bearing weight during training. Carrying even 10 lbs. less weight on both the bike and the run is naturally a better strategy. If you’re already performance thin, congratulations. But if you can stand to lose 5-10 lbs. and have a propensity for eating carbohydrates and sugar like me, that’s a good lesson to learn going into the new year.
Lesson #2: Being smart with training volume pays off
Going into last year’s race, I was injured for months in advance. Fortunately, I lucked into a pair of shoes that enabled me to run pain-free again. But even with my reduced training last year, I was smart about the training I did do. Some weeks I only ran 10 miles, but some of that was speed work. That seems counterintuitive, but the pain in my Achilles was from volume, not speed.
Once that was fixed, the cross-training from cycling served as my aerobic base for running. As a result, I was able to run in the low-7:00 pace range for 10k. That is proof that cross training really does work. Admittedly my legs ached for days after last year’s race, because there were not accustomed to volume running or sustained speed, but that’s the case for most people racing anyway.
#3: Learning your pace matters
Going into this year’s race, I did a series of training tests to find out where my fitness actually stood. This is critical to anyone’s racing effort. For example, I essentially conducted a 5-mile solo race effort three weeks ago on the flat trails west of town.
On that run, I was able to cover those miles at around 7:17 per per mile, right on pace with last year’s Pumpkinfest 10k effort. That told me my fitness was slightly better, because with ideal conditions on race day, I could anticipate a faster pace.
Leading up to that time trial, I also ran half mile intervals at 6:30-7:00 pace on the track. Often Sue and I would head to the track and run our workouts together, but separately. She was doing Ironman training and I was trying to build speed back up after a year of injuries last year.
This taught me my top end. I also threw in 6:00-pace 400 meter interval sessions (typically 6-8 intervals) to teach my legs a quicker tempo. This also has the effect of lengthening critical leg muscles in the calves and somewhat ironically loosens my Achilles tendon.
Honestly it was also humbling to train at 6:00 pace. I learned that my body was not ready to try to race at that speed. I could last a mile at that pace at best. So dreams of a sub-40 10K were not realistic at this point.
Lesson #4: Sticking with your pace matters
This year I went through the first mile in 6:55. The second in 13:55. The third mile in 20:55. The fourth mile in 27:55. The fifth mile (short) in 35:42 and finished in 44:27. I had a slow last mile, or else the five mile marker is supposed to be somewhere up the road. Everyone had a fast 5-mile split.
But the point is that I found a groove and stuck with it. At just before three miles another runner came up beside me and said, “Come on…” as if to pull me ahead. I quietly told him, “I’m good, man…” and kept on with my pace. That’s because I knew there were two hills in the fourth mile that can kill you. Last year I slowed down quite a bit on those hills.
This year I shortened my stride and ran them steady. Sticking with your pace matters. If by some miracle you feel great in the last mile, you can kick it in. But you don’t want to collapse, and I struggled enough with pace that last mile. So I kept a positively intelligent attitude about pace.
Lesson #5: Performance is relative
I am no longer capable of putting in weeks of 80 miles or more in training. Yet in some ways my body is healthier and stronger than I was back then. For one thing, I was highly susceptible to breaches in immunity that led to vicious colds. So to enjoy productive running these days, I do not push as hard as I once did. That means improving from year to year is done so without turning myself inside out.
Sure, it would be nice to win races again. Dream on!
I was fifth in my age group of 55-59 this weekend. That’s two spots better than last year. I was 78th overall this year, and 68th among men.
Sure, my time of 32:28 in 1984 (I’m fairly sure that was the time…but I’ll try to look it up just in case…it was under 33:00) would have won this year’s race by two full minutes…and I took second place with that time back then! So there’s always second-guessing we runners do. But there is something going on in the world of running…
Epilogue: Different times
Looking around at all the results from races throughout the summer and this fall, it is my selfish solace to know that my typical 10K times between 31:00 and 32:30 would win all but a few of the races held in the Chicago area. I do not know why the winners these days are slower than they were 25-30 years ago. Perhaps there are so many races it gives more people a chance to win. I guess that’s good.
But I don’t think that’s it. I raced 18 times in 1983 and 24 times in 1984 while representing the Running Unlimited store team. On typical weekends four or five of us would race together and that led to some intense, competitive times. Often I was 4th or 5th man just on that team, which had several runners under 31:00 for 10k, and two under 2:20 for the marathon.
We don’t see that competitive dynamic at work so much. Dick Pond Athletics has a Fast Track racing team, but more runners seem to be involved in sports such as triathlon and duathlon than ever before. Frankly, the premium in those sports is not on really fast running times, but being able to run relatively fast coming off the bike. If you can run 6:00 pace in multisport competitions, you’re a star at any distance.
Desires and aims
So as noted, performance is relative to desires and aims. In some ways the competitive environment of the 1980s was harsh and unforgiving. Runners had no mercy on one another, and some would not even talk to other runners before races. You were there to kick tail and nothing else mattered. I had many days like that. All I cared about was winning. Which meant that on some days I’d run well and stil not be satisfied. Not even close.
But that was how we rolled. It was true from high school on up through college running and beyond. 5:00 pace was the dividing line. You could either hack it or you lost.
Looking back now I appreciate that burning desire to run well, and am glad I did it to my own best ability. Which made for some fun times. And it was not all serious. We had zillions of laughs in training and there was plenty of good-natured competition along the way as well. And we partied hard when it was all through.
There are many good runners coming up through the high school and college ranks again. The coaches who are guiding them are products of the 1980s, and they know the risks of burnout as well as the processes that lead to performance. In other words, today’s runners really are in good hands. Those old competitive days really did beat the hell out of some people.
So when I’m trundling along in the middle of the pack and see the leaders turning the corner far ahead of me… knowing that at one time I’d be 100s of meters ahead of them, it makes me chuckle to think that I worry so much about such things at all. No one really knows or cares about that stuff in the end. You are what you are.
If running or racing makes you a better person somehow, that’s what really matters. Testing our mettle on the roads helps us face challenges in life. Go out there and run over the tarsnakes. It will do you good.