In longer races I've often found that the end comes slowly. Sure, it takes longer to arrive at the finish line but if you're having a bad race the grim reaper tends to take his sweet time. Not so with the 5k. Go out too fast and you can fall off a performance cliff. It was with this in mind that I pondered my race strategy for yesterday's Zippy 5k in Golden Gate Park - race #4 in the USATF-Pacific Association's road racing grand prix.
Several factors were ripe for consideration: 1) this would be my first 5k since......I can't remember, 2) my first track workout was the previous Tuesday and 3) I'd thrashed myself in a 42 mile / 2.5 hour road bike race 48 hours prior. With all that in mind I thought it best to race under control for mile 1, hold steady and listen to my body in mile 2 and if all systems were "go" then drop the hammer in mile 3. My goal would be to reacquaint my body with the 5k and set a decent baseline time for 2012. 16-low seemed like a reasonable time to hope for if all went according to plan.
They key to a successful race would be mile 2 - "listen to my body". Listen for what?? The grim reaper of course. He who wields the dreaded acid of lactic, the bonk, the wall and other infernal leg speed limiters. In longer races - especially ultras - there can be time to recover from digging too deep too early. Just belly-up to a trailside IHOP (aid station), re-load and keep on running. Not so in shorter races. Start generating lactic acid faster than your body can clear it and you'll lose time FAST. The only good news is that the walk back to your car isn't usually that far.
With a plan in place I toed the starting line alongside 400 other runners and waited for the gun (above, far left, #33 - photo courtesy of Jin Ichiro Daikoku). The first mile was pretty flat but with a slight headwind so I settled into a "comfortable" 5:15 pace and tucked in behind a couple wind-breaks (competitors). It's hard to resist the urge to fight for places in a competitive race but I did and settled into the mid-40s. Just before mile 1 the top woman glides past me (ouch!) but again I resist and stick to the plan. Mile 1 clicked off in 5:15; right where I wanted to be.
All the hills in the race come in mile 2. Nothing long or steep - just some rollers around Stow Lake and a net uphill; enough to make it the slowest mile for most competitors. It was here where I really, really wanted to go faster but held back and maintained a consistent perceived effort. My second mile came in slower at 5:21. The top woman was about 10 seconds ahead of me as were 3 of my NB Excelsior teammates.
The final mile starts with a nice downhill before it rejoins John F. Kennedy Dr and a straight shot to the finish. Feeling great I slowly ramped up my effort and started picking off other runners including 3 teammates. I gave them all brief words of encouragement on the way past as this is a team competition and every place counts in the scoring.
(Me #33 getting schooled by Clara Peterson - photo courtesy of Jin Ichiro Daikoku). Mile 3 passed in 5 minutes flat and I was now closing on the top woman. It wasn't necessarily a goal of mine to beat the top woman, but I didn't want to get out-sprinted by other top masters runners I knew to be lurking close behind. In these final hundred meters she and I are running sub-4:30 pace and closing on a runner from Chico Track Club. Clara Peterson beat me by the thickness of a race number and took victory in the woman's race in a time of 16:15. Complete race results are here.
I did win the 40+ (masters) race and was the top finisher from the NB Excelsior running club. Next up: another 5k, May 12 in Portola Valley, CA. Goal? Race faster and don't lose my head.