Jogging Writer: Tips for First 5K AMS Fall Foliage

I knew I needed to run slow. I knew the rush at the start would make my breathing ragged for the first few minutes. Secretly, I feared I’d come in last. As it turned out, what I knew or thought I knew didn’t matter one bit once my body eclipsed my mind. Such strange relief–after five weeks working 10-hour days, often 6 days a week, something else was telling me what to do. I liked it.

To be sure, I did entertain clear thoughts: Be careful on this footbridge because it rained last night. Step on these rocks to cross the creek, rather than going through the water. Save yourself for the final uphill. But for the most part, those tips came to me from a hopeful and wise voice inside–nothing demanding about it. This was the first race of my life, after all, and in the face of plantar fasciatis that allowed me only 4 runs in the last 8 weeks (with a 93-mile backpacking trip in between), I had mixed feelings about competing. Originally, I set a goal of coming in around 30 minutes for the 3.1 miles. In the wake of the injury, I decided 35:00 would be more fair, as I didn’t want to set myself up for failure on my first timed event.

The bell rang and off we went! Within the first 1/10 of a mile, I was nearly alone on the trail. Two kids ran behind me, somewhere. Ahead, I saw a woman wearing pink, her impossibly toned thighs and thin waist a marvel of smooth skin and fabric. Just ahead of her, darting into the woods, was the spandex ninja–a tall, lean man with gray hair and all-black race clothes. I reasoned I wouldn’t see him again until I crossed the finish line. It wasn’t long before the woman in pink dipped out of sight and I was alone in the woods, absolutely certain there were no other adults behind me on the trail.

AMS Fall Foliage 5K 2014

The terrain was familiar, old single-track trails and logging roads in the South Toe Valley where I typically run anyway. But the adrenaline rush, the 33 other runners, and even the early morning hour were not familiar, and while I mostly enjoyed myself, I also faught to calm my nerves. Dad had given me great advice before we took off: “Just breathe. Just beat one person.” I liked that. One person. Surely I could beat one person, right? While I knew enough to know most runners are in it to beat their own personal best or personal performance, it’s also a competitive sport by nature. Even the humblest racer hopes to beat one person. The other advice I received came by way of Thrive magazine, which suggested envisioning the butterflies in my stomach in the shape of a chevron. I took that visualization one step further and pointed the chevron outwards and forward from my belly. If ever there was a time I slowed, I only had to conjure the furiously flapping butterflies and let them tug me along. And tug, they did.

The other thing about the terrain, and this relates to my pace–this was a trail run: 3 creek crossings, 2 grassy fields, 200 feet of elevation gain on rocky terrain, and a few old gravel roads connecting it all. Hardly impossible, but not a treadmill, either. Given this, and aforementioned plantar fasciatis, I felt good when I came in with a time of 32:12. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Curvy and slow, but off I go!

About 3/4 of a mile in, I rounded a bend in the trail and glimpsed the woman in pink. Beyond her, perhaps 1/10 of a mile further, the ninja darted in and out of sight. Slow as a two-ton train, I passed the woman and puttered uphill. Surely she was the mother of one of the children flailing behind me. Passing her was no victory; she had to be a sympathy runner. With thighs like that, I couldn’t imagine any other reason she’d be moving slower than me. I spent the next mile and half completely alone, no ninja in sight. I had no intention of passing him, but his presence did give me mild reassurance I was at least running the right direction.

With help from cheering fans at trail junctures along the way, and Mom, Dad, and Brad surprising me at the red barn by the cows, I made it toward the home stretch. One hill lay before me and it was no easier than I thought it might be. That finished, I heard cheering at the finish line through the woods and the end came into the view. The ninja had finished not too terribly ahead of me, as I could hear the cheering when he completed his race. Another runner–someone who had finished much faster than I–was actually running the opposite direction of the race and high-fiving people. I reached up to high-five him and, startlingly close behind me, heard another slap of skin on skin.

The woman in pink? I couldn’t be sure. I leapt over the mud puddle and ran through the first set of orange cones at the finish. Onlookers cheered and I slowed to a stop. “No, no!” someone called, “Keep GOING!” Confused, I realized the onlookers were at the start of the final stretch and the finish line lay some thirty meters ahead. I let loose an ungraceful, loud, “FUCK!” and sprinted across the proper finish line. About forty-five seconds later, the woman in pink crossed as well.

I learned so much–and I’ll have to paraphrase here–but more than anything, I understood immediately that the race you run is the race in your mind. I had convinced myself the ninja had magical powers when in fact he was a 60+ former competitive runner. I was certain only two kids and the woman in pink were behind me, when in fact I came in 24th out of 33 overall. And the woman in pink? Hardly a mother. Like me, it was her first race. She was a twenty-something from Charlotte training for her first half marathon. We high-fived at the end and she shook her head. “I couldn’t catch you,” she said. Did I smile? Maybe. But I told her good job, at any rate, and I meant it.

While the 5K was fun, I’m not sure it’s my ideal distance. I enjoy running slowly and for long periods. If healing continues, I’m hoping for a 10K in November and a 1/2 marathon in March. Perhaps a 5K here and there for training, but mostly I’m interested in the slow and steady. How will it all pan out? Only one way to know…

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