Staying flexible is the name of the game right now. That 4 Mile race in New Hampshire I was planning to do? Too much snow to drive all the way there and back. I did a race simulation at home instead, mostly because I wanted the super cute football-themed race shirt. I also got to try out my new Hoka Rocket X shoes, which I loved. But it wasn’t a real race.
Big news, though. Connecticut has lifted its ban on road races as of March 1st! Hooray!
It should go without saying [yet I feel weirdly obliged to say it….] that these races will have Covid-19 protocols in place. There will be social distancing and masks, etc. etc. Road races this spring will not look quite like they normally do. Yet we’ve known for a long time that transmission of the virus outside is enormously less likely than transmission inside. I was overjoyed to hear that we could race in Connecticut again!
I went with a register-early-and-often strategy and I’m currently signed up for four 5Ks and one half marathon between March 1st and May 2nd. The first race was March 6th, the very first weekend day that races were legal in Connecticut again. Woo hoo!
The “First Chance to Race in Connecticut 3 Miler” is normally the “Last Chance for Romance 3 Miler” but the race director decided March 6th was too long past Valentine’s Day so he re-named the event. He promised coffee mugs as swag “since you all have enough shirts already.” I love a race director with a sense of humor! Allegro Fuerte decided to register also so we could reunite the Dynamic Duo of 5Ks from last spring. YAY! YAY! YAY!
Training has been going……okay. Switching from marathon training over to 5K training was a little bumpy. We’ve been holding at about 50 miles per week, a place where I am currently very happy. I’ve had a couple of really solid track workouts and I bombed a couple as well. Connecticut has had a LOT of snow this year so I’ve done some speed work on a path near the track and some on the road. We had a long string of days where it didn’t get above 20 degrees. It’s often felt like my aerobic capacity dramatically outstripped my ability to get my legs to move quickly, which kind of makes sense, given that I’ve run a lot of easy miles in the past several months and not that many fast ones.
When I talk to Coach Mick about race plans, he often starts by asking what I think I can run, putting the ball squarely in my court. This time around, though, he had a couple of clear recommendations. He thought I should run #nowatchme – in other words, don’t look at pace at all – and he thought my number one goal should be having fun. With the training ups and downs of the last couple of months, it’s hard to predict how fast I might be able to go. Sometimes I’ve run faster than expected by not looking at my watch. Spoiler alert: That wasn’t going to be how this race played out.
The night before the race I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I made a list of everything I would want at the race and the order I intended to do things in. Rose and I created a special Girl Power Playlist. I got myself to bed on time and slept really well. On race day morning, everything went according to plan. Maybe I remembered how to do this stuff after all. Eat the oatmeal. Pack a protein shake and a change of clothes for after the race. New item for the list: Be sure to bring some kind of mask to wear. Of course, by this point in the pandemic, I’ve got extra masks in my purse, in my car, and in my race bag, so this wasn’t a big deal. I opted for my pink wool buff because it was really cold.
The drive down to Stratford was easy. I listened to a podcast with Molly Seidel and her sister Izzy. They talked a lot about having fun and I thought about Coach Mick’s number one goal suggestion. It’s been a long hard winter. For everyone. We don’t always see the trauma each of us is going through right now. The level of unkindness in the world seems to have escalated at an extreme pace. If I came away from this race feeling sad, what a missed opportunity that would be.
I sometimes pick words to focus on during a 5K and for this race, I chose Control – Joy – Gift. I didn’t want to go out too fast and I know that can easily happen, especially since I haven’t raced in so long. So, start with Control. I went seeking joy, JOY in all caps! The first chance to race! Lastly, I wanted to remember something I’ve told myself since getting past the plantar fasciitis a few years (years!) ago: Every step is a gift.
I arrived at the race nice and early, got parked, found Allegro Fuerte. It was dang cold and windy. Packet pick-up was easy-peasy. The main Covid protocols were that everyone wears a mask and the volunteers had to be outside the whole time. As promised, we could pick between a mug and a t-shirt. Plus, everyone got candy!
We were so early and it was so cold that Allegro Fuerte and I retreated to our respective cars for ten minutes before warming up. I listened to “Unstoppable” by Sia, a new-to-me song selected by Rose for my Girl Power Playlist. I wore light weight tights, my Tracksmith long-sleeved wool top, gloves and mittens, and the Hoka Rocket Xs. Darn Tough socks, as always.
Then AF and I went and warmed up. We ran the course backwards to get a look at the hill at the start of the third mile. It was indeed quite noteworthy, but then a nice downhill into the finish. We made a last minute potty stop and I ditched my jacket and hat in the car. I kept gloves and mittens and even added hand warmers because I hate having cold hands. There was time for a quick set of drills and then we lined up!
Instead of cones, they had just dumped spots of flour on the road at six foot intervals. Each flour spot could accommodate three runners. Every ten seconds, a row of runners advanced. I truly don’t mind this kind of staggered start. The very fastest runners – what looked like a crew of high school boys – were all the way up front and the rest of us spread out down the driveway of the park where the race started. It’s actually great to be able to start running immediately without being tangled up with a bunch of other people.
As we approached the start, I turned on my music and…..nothing. I have a Garmin Forerunner 245 *with music* that for some reason was now *without music*. Urg. No Girl Power playlist! Oh well. I prefer to race with music even though it is decidedly uncool, but it wasn’t the first time I’d go without it. I had set my watch to show only time of day so I wouldn’t be tempted to get any information from it while running and I didn’t look a single time.
Allegro Fuerte and I started together, but I fairly quickly pulled ahead. Good! I am coaching him now and trying to get him away from his start-like-a-bat-out-of-hell habit. The course starts with a decent downhill and I ended up passing quite a few people. From a Covid-perspective, this felt fine to me. I don’t know if I was always six feet away from people, but I was certainly always at least four feet away and everyone was moving. We were not required to wear our masks while running and I did not. It definitely “felt like” a real race because it was! Near the bottom of the hill first, I felt like I heard Allegro Fuerte behind me – he later confirmed this was correct. Hmmm, either he is running a tad fast or I am running a tad slow.
I tried to focus on how I felt. That’s the point of #nowatchme and since it turned out I was also running #nomusicme I had no distraction. But I found it hard to figure out exactly how I *should* feel. I ran a trail race on October 31st of last year, but I didn’t race it. Other than that, I haven’t toed a starting line since Jim Thorpe last September and a marathon does not feel much like a 5K. I know there’s what I call a 5K-awful kind of feeling, but I didn’t want to feel that until maybe a mile into the race. I had very little idea how fast I was running, though I was still passing quite a few people. The first mile was supposed to be “easy-peasy, a nice downhill,” which was true, for the first half mile. Then it went back UP hill. We turned right and hit the first mile marker.
The second mile did not turn out to be flat, as had been promised – maybe it would qualify for “New England flat”. But, this mile was for JOY! so I went looking for some. I passed a lot more people. Not hard-core racers – after all, they were up front. A couple of families with kids. Some girls running together and laughing. Lots of runners out working hard on a cold and windy spring morning. I thought about how incredibly grateful I was to be able to do this again, this shared striving, on the same course, at the same time, with bibs pinned to our chests to show that we are willing to put a number to our efforts. Some runners say they feel most alive when they are racing. Sharing this run, at whatever speed each of us happens to be traveling, deepens the experience for all of us, one reason the absence of races has been so hard. To be sure, nothing like as hard as losing your job, or getting sick, or losing a loved one. But losing access to a particular type of joy is a very real loss. For mile two, I focused on feeling that joy as deeply as I could.
The promised “monster hill” at the start of mile three matched the course description completely. Last minute instructions threatened the loss of one post-race granola bar for any cursing on this hill so I kept my mouth shut. I also remembered, every step is a gift, even the steps up this ridiculous hill. To be honest, I knew by now that all this positive thinking was likely a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough. By the start of mile three of a 5K, one should be fighting a tidal wave of despair and I just wasn’t. I crested the hill and one of the very few spectators yelled out “half a mile to go and all downhill!” I did manage to speed up, but I didn’t pass the woman in front of me, though I came damn close! Down the hill, around the corner, into the park, finally over the finish line. I ran directly behind a bush so I could catch my breath for a minute or two before putting my mask back on.
As I was waiting for Allegro Fuerte to finish, a very small racer came cruising across the line. Turns out he is six years old. The oldest finisher was 95. The winner of the race was 16 and the last finisher was 77. It’s no secret that I think the Connecticut racing ban was ridiculous. Except for an elbow bump with Allegro Fuerte, I touched no one. I was never closer than four feet away from anyone and that was only for a few seconds. This race had 166 finishers, starting three at a time, ten seconds apart. That’s 166 stories getting played out on the course. It’s the high school speedsters coming in at just under 17 minutes. It’s the girlfriends cheering for each other. It’s the families running together. It’s me and a whole lot of other people looking for joy through the process of striving together on a hilly race course on a cold and windy spring morning. I’m so very grateful to get this back.
Oh, my time? 23:40. Good for first in my age group. 6/81 women, 26/166 finishers. Average pace of 7:53. That’s almost a minute a mile slower than where I want to be. And, dear reader, if you think I don’t care about that, you’re definitely not paying attention. Of course I care about that. What needs to happen so I can run faster? More time for 5K training to take hold, a flatter course, better weather, different mindset? Probably all of those things. Now that we are racing again in Connecticut, I’ve got three 5Ks and a half marathon coming up in the next two months so that’s plenty of opportunity to figure it out!