This was my 4th 5K of 2020, which I am pretty sure was my grand total for 2019, which I am very sure is the most I have ever run in a year, ever. I picked this race because it’s the first in a race series that Allegro Fuerte signed up for. If you run all three, you get a sweet backpack! You can also buy the backpack but we agreed – it must be earned. He and I have been such great racing buddies lately – I was excited for our third 5K!
Until I wasn’t anymore. The week before the race was exhausting. Rose and I went to Atlanta to watch the Olympic Trials. The trip was astonishingly awesome. A mother-daughter weekend dreams are made of. She got to meet Coach Mick and a lot of other friends. We had front row spots to watch the race. We went to the Martin Luther King Jr Center and the Georgia Aquarium. We walked and walked and walked. We arrived home late Monday night. Less than 12 hours later I was on the track attempting one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done. I couldn’t finish it.
Even though Rose and I had a dream weekend in Atlanta, the week afterwards was rough. While visiting my uncle in Florida, my mom fell and broke her arm. Then the news broke that the Wesleyan women’s cross country team had experienced the kind of weight and body shaming that is rampant in women’s distance running right now, especially among college-aged women. That hit very close to home – these are my students and I regard myself as at least partially responsible for their well-being and safety. Elizabeth Warren, my preferred candidate, dropped out of the presidential race. Another defeat. I had thought my family was coming to the 5K, but it turned out the kids had various activities they needed to go to. I was tired. My legs were still sore from the track. My heart was tired and sore from the rest of it. These did not seem like ideal circumstances in which to race and I wondered why I was bothering. I considered pacing Allegro Fuerte. I considered bailing entirely. Like I said, a tough week.
Then my team started to break little chinks into my armor of anger and sadness. Coach Mick kicked off the turnaround in my mood. He noted that I had watched a lot of my favorite elite runners fail to make the Olympic team in Atlanta despite working incredibly hard. Was that maybe in my head? Yes, of course it was. Watching runners I care about come up short on race day was sort of heartbreaking. It helped just to acknowledge that.
The Fabulous Femmes chimed in with a huge dose of sisterly love and sympathy, as well as some problem prioritizing: Most of those issues can’t be fixed, they told me. Do what you can about the situation with the women’s cross country team.
High Power Running Mentor #1 talked some sense into me the morning before the race. He straight up told me that pacing Allegro Fuerte was pointless (sorry Allegro…), that Warren dropping out of the race was an inadequate excuse for not racing, and that I was not the kind of runner who showed up at a race unsure what I was going to do. Instead, I should do what we always do: control the controllables and show up ready to race hard regardless of outcome. What if a lot of bad stuff happened the week of my goal race? Hmmm. Good point. Plus, if my legs and spirit felt kind of trashed, I could pretend I was running the second 5K of my goal 10K distance and that would be excellent practice. I started to find my mojo again. I talked to Coach Mick and texted Allegro. Game on.
I got up Saturday morning and started my standard race day routine. The good thing about racing frequently is that right now I don’t have to think much about this. Coffee. Oatmeal. Pack the race bag. Get on the road. On my way out the door, I found Mervus holding the banner he had made for races! He held it up, said he was sorry he and the kids couldn’t come, wished me tons of luck and told me not to take any deals. Yay!
The drive to Pawtucket was easy – I listened to a podcast with Jacob Riley, one of the surprise winners in Atlanta. Jake ran a healthy PR on a tough course on a tough day by racing smart. Maybe he could inspire me to do the same. It was easy to park, easy to find Allegro Fuerte and Michonne, who was also racing with us today. The not-so-easy thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is the wind. We woke up to sounds of it gusting around the house, I could feel it blowing the van around on the highway; it was definitely strong enough that it was going to affect running conditions. Wind is not a controllable, but mindset about wind is. Deena Kastor says she pretends that the wind is a bunch of playful puppies and that has been my go-to metaphor for the topic since the Erie marathon. It’s just a bunch of puppies so don’t worry about it too much and do your best to manage them.
I wished I had arrived a little earlier to do a somewhat longer warm-up but Allegro Fuerte and I managed a kilometer or so out and back, which let us get a look at the hill at the start of the course, and also feel the headwind coming into the finish. Good to know exactly what we had to contend with. I had plenty of time for pre-race drills and decided to throw on my green sub-30 shirt at the last minute for extra Irish luck. As we were lining up, they announced that age group wins would be by gun time. If we thought we might be eligible, we should line up near the front. Okay then. I lined up about three people back. Three very young, very male people. They fired the gun and off we went.
I had again switched my watch to kilometers to avoid seeing the freak-me-out 6:xx pace on my watch. At the last 5K I was targeting 4:27/km pace (7:10/mile) but I wanted to try for a little faster this time around so I was aiming for 4:20-4:25/km (6:59-7:06). Yes, it totally freaks me out to type those paces in miles even afterwards. That’s why I am using kilometers during races! Who the hell knows what a 4:23 kilometer means? Not me! Please don’t tell me either – I want this trick to work as long as possible!
The race starts with a straightaway, then up a medium long hill, and then you basically run the outline of a capital B tipped on its side. Somewhere near the end of the hill my watch beeped with the first split: 4:39. Hmmm. What does that mean? I have no idea. Another advantage to pacing by kilometers. Should I be discouraged? Who knows? Somewhere in here Allegro Fuerte also ran by and waved. We had got separated at the start so I was very happy to see him! We knew going into it that this was going to be a tough race with the hill and the wind. Seeing him reminded me what I had said during our warm-up. Under difficult conditions, I often think about Dougal McKenzie, one of my favorite characters from the TV series Outlander. I’ve run a lot of hard runs with Dougal for mental company. Dougal has some dishonorable personal relations, but Scotland has no braver or more loyal soldier. He will always fight with honor, even, maybe especially, when the cause is certainly lost. That was my goal for today, as HPRM#1 had reminded me: Race hard, regardless of outcome.
The course flattens out for the top of the B as I tried to find the appropriate effort level. I wanted that 5K-level-awful feeling a little earlier this time, regardless of pace, just to see if I could hold it longer. It started showing up near the end of the second kilometer, which ticked off at 4:23. Ok, back on pace. Good.
I have almost nothing to say about the next three kilometers of the race even though I sometimes have quite detailed memories of a course. This time it was mostly a matter of pushing as hard as I could, trying to find the edge, without falling off. I visualized myself running the outline of the B. I tried to pass other runners when I could. Afterwards I realized they were almost all men. I know my music was on, but I didn’t really hear it. There was sometimes an awful lot of wind. I don’t remember seeing any additional splits. (For the record, they were 4:30, 4:41, 4:12).
My one memory before approaching the downhill into the finish is running by a tiny yellow car sometime during the fourth kilometer. I was very ready to be done. I thought about stopping to see if they would give me a ride. I considered explaining to people that I would have lots of other chances to run 5Ks, but perhaps never again the opportunity to ride in a tiny yellow car. I wondered if anyone would buy that logic and concluded reluctantly that at least HPRM#1 would surely not.
Soon after my watch vibrated for the fourth kilometer we came to the downhill. Coach Mick says a lot of people don’t run the downhills hard enough and I am determined not to be one of those people. I also heard one lyric of “Rewrite the Stars,” my favorite song from the soundtrack to the Greatest Showman, my current race music: I want to fly with you! Right! Fly! My third word in my race mantras of Commit – All In – Fly! I tried to fly down the hill. A quick glance at the time on my watch and I saw 20:02. Less bad than expected, given how far I had left to run. Down the hill, a sharp right, a much-too-far stretch to the finish into that brutal headwind. At some point I had started counting, but it was somewhat less coherent than usual and that’s saying something. I just pushed for the damn finish line, thinking I could still get under 23 minutes. Crossed the line in 22:25! YES! Not a PR, but only 8 seconds slower than three weeks ago and that was an easier course and better conditions. I will take it!
I did my usual hang-on-the-fence routine, expecting medical to show up to check on me. Instead, I heard them making an announcement about a runner racing in honor of his son, Patrick, who had passed away. I knew I had to find him and I quickly did. I told him my son was also Patrick. That he was 16 years old, and healthy, thank God, but that I knew what it was like to race the Tour de Patrick with a Patrick in your heart. His wife ran up and she had their Patrick’s picture on her shirt. I can’t really convey how much this meant to me except to say, when we run with love in our hearts, it’s a way to be close to God and to each other. I promised to pray for them and their Patrick and they promised to do the same for me.
Then Allegro Fuerte came across the line, also running just a few seconds slower than his PR from three weeks ago! BOOM! We rocked the Irish 5K! They were announcing age group awards for the men and I remembered that I might have won something. I went and asked if they had results for women yet and the announcer said she wasn’t sure which women had finished, but looking at me, she suspected at least one of them had. Ha! Yes, it turns out I did win my age group! I am still over the moon about an age group victory AND my prize turned out to be the coveted backpack! HOORAY! Plus, later I found out I was 9th woman overall! That was totally unexpected but explains why I wasn’t passing a lot of women on the course – there just weren’t many ahead of me to pass. This fact feels completely improbable.
Allegro and I waited at the finish line to cheer for Michonne. She also had a good day, running faster and stronger than she expected! After we had done our cool down, we poked our noses into the after party. Allegro and I both bought some additional swag, but we were all eager for brunch. We headed over to the Modern Diner for some well-deserved feasting. Look at this French toast! Plus, the return of the post-race mimosa! Delicious celebrating all the way around.