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The most immediate, specific lesson I learned this summer is “running doesn’t suck.” I always knew it did. I was wrong.
More generally, I learned “you can do more than you think you can.” And as I walked away from the race, feeling happy and not exhausted, I realized that could be shortened: “you can do more.”
Throughout the program, my mind kept returning to this advice from the inestimable AB Chao:
The biggest tip I have [for beginners] is, start with Couch to 5K and DO NOT GIVE UP no matter what. It will hurt and suck and be hard and you will hate it, but one day, a couple months from now, you will realize that you can run 3 miles without stopping. Then, sign up for a race so you don’t lose momentum. After that, sign up for another race. You will feel great about yourself and sometimes, superior to others. These are good things. Also, your legs will be super hot.
It only hurt and sucked for a little while (when my knees were killing me) and I’ll leave the hotness question aside, but she’s definitely right, I feel great about myself. And there’s even an occasional, weird sense of superiority. That’s okay, I don’t take it seriously.
So what am I going to do next?
Saturday morning was overcast and cool, but not cold — 50°F with a chance of showers. I cooked oatmeal for everybody, made sure to drink some water, and made doubly sure to visit the bathroom. The morning felt leisurely and the boys were excited to head out as I put on my shorts and laced up the timing chip. We walked the three blocks from home to the starting line, the boys holding mini-races the whole way. I raced around with them; a three-year-old’s sprint is just about right for a warm-up walk.
When they called the runners to the opening corral, I tried to find a spot not too close to the front, but not too far back, settling next to a woman with her daughter in a jogging stroller. I still wasn’t nervous (this was, after all, a no-pressure “fun run”) but when the starting gun fired, I began to wonder if I would be able to stay within myself. This was my first time running with other people; I had to resist the temptation to let somebody else set the pace for me, whether too fast or too slow.
About a half-mile into the run, I found myself pacing with two other runners, a man in his early 70’s and a woman probably around my age. She came up from behind and I let her pass, but I stayed within a couple yards for probably a mile. Then just before we left the park, I pulled ahead and didn’t see her again.
After cresting the hill out of the park, I started to feel done. I considered walking the final mile. I gave up on my goals. 28 minutes? Forget it. 30 minutes sounds good. Even 35 is okay. I’m doing this for me, nobody is going to grade me on my time. But I kept running anyway.
Another quarter mile down the road, there was a water station, so without stopping I grabbed a cup, poured it in my mouth and tossed the empty into the can. I didn’t feel it go down, but it must have helped.
Down the street, two right turns, and up the hill for the home stretch. Thanking volunteers as I went by, I looked over my shoulder and saw two men my senior, one of them the fellow I had been just ahead of in the park. I gave them an encouraging shout, then set my sights on the final push.
As the finish line approached, I saw my wife and sons cheering me on. I gave them a wave, crossed the timing mats, and turned a cartwheel. I’m pretty sure I didn’t endanger the older gentleman who finished 5 seconds behind me.
After grabbing some snacks for myself and the boys, my wife asked how I did. I confessed that I had no idea; there was a clock at the finish line, but I didn’t even look at it. I didn’t wear a watch; I had chosen to leave my iPhone at home. I told her my goal had been 28 minutes, and she said she was pretty sure I had done that.
Competitive Timing has computer stations at the finish line where you can enter your number and print your unofficial time. When I looked at mine, I said out loud, “No way.”
Chip time: 25:31.7
I didn’t actually do a dance. I am quite honestly at a loss to where that performance came from. 8:16 per mile? That’s like a week three pace. This feels really, really good.
- Enjoy the crowd. It wasn’t just the run that was fun, it was seeing other people (including people in costume), thanking volunteers, giving high fives to the 10K runners on their second lap.
- Don’t worry about passing, or being passed. At first, I was afraid to pass — what if I pass them, then slow down and they pass me later? But then the answer was clear: who cares. Everybody’s race tells a different story. I’m writing only my own.
- Don’t watch the clock. I didn’t bring one. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.
- I can keep going. Five kilometers didn’t exhaust me. I’m not ready to jump right into a 10K, but I can see now that I have more within me.
On Monday, I logged my final run of the Couch-to-5K program. I guess I’m a graduate!
Since I didn’t log my treadmill runs from last week, I was mildly chastened by the app: all the motivational messages had been replaced with “It’s been more than a week since your last workout. Stay with the program!” or something to that effect. But once I finished the run — 3.32 miles at 9:02 per mile — the scolds reverted to their friendly cheerleading.
Now it’s time to prepare for the race! Unfortunately, the rest of the week hasn’t been what I intended for the lead-up to race day. I was planning to do one more full 30-minute run on Wednesday, but starting on Tuesday two things got in the way: the weather (rainy) and my health (sniffling sneezing coughing aching stuffy head). It looks like both will clear up by Saturday, but I’m feeling less prepared than I had hoped.
Oh well! My goals are still the same. Some questions remain:
- Run with music or not? I’m thinking not. This is my first event, I want my mind to be there in full. The only trouble is, it’ll be my first no-music run. Never a good idea to change things up on game day!
- What to eat for breakfast, and when? Up to now all my runs have been early morning, before I eat. I’m planning on a bowl of oatmeal at 8:00, two hours before start time, but running after breakfast will be a different experience.
- What to wear? I’ve been running in tank top and shorts, but the temperature took a major dive in the last two weeks. I may have to cover up a little more.
I wasn’t nervous before I made that list.
Week 9, with its thirty-minute run intervals, should be a good predictor of race performance. I’ve run two of the three days, and the current indication relative to my goals: inconclusive.
Day 1 (Monday) was a good one, 3.39 miles at a pace of 8:51 per mile. That would put me across a 5K finish line in 27:26. Success!
Day 2 (Thursday) was slower, 3.25 miles at 9:14 per mile. Projected 5K finish: 28:38. Missed it by that much!
That was last week. This week, I’ve been out of town on business. I was kind of looking forward to running in Monroe, Louisiana, but as it turned out I couldn’t find an attractive place near my hotel. I could have done laps around the Pecanland Mall but it just wasn’t very appealing. So, I did 30 minutes on the hotel treadmill, Tuesday and Thursday. First time I’ve run on a treadmill.
Running on a treadmill is unbelievably boring.
I guess that’s why they mount televisions on them. I had my music player, but it just doesn’t compare to going through real terrain. The good part is that I was able to keep up a good pace the whole way through, 7 mph (which translates to 8:34/mile) according to the control panel.
Anyway, I’m not counting these indoor exercise periods against the C25K program — it just doesn’t feel right. (Though I don’t judge anybody who wants to do the entire program on a treadmill — if that’s what you like, or is all you have available, go for it!) I head back home tomorrow, so I’ll log day the final day of the program at the start of next week; perfect timing as I get ready for my first race the following Saturday.
Now that I’m in the last week of Couch-to-5K, I’m starting to think about what I want to accomplish in my first race, coming up in 3 weeks. My target times, in order of ambition:
- Baseline: finish. I’m really not worried about this, but my friends who run races tell me you always have to have this one. Basically, don’t get injured.
- Disappointment threshold: 30 minutes. That’s 9:39 per mile. I haven’t had a run that slow since week four, when my knees were killing me. But it still could easily happen; I’ll just feel let down if it does.
- Reasonable expectation: 28 minutes or less. Simply, a 9-minute mile. This seems to be the pace I’m settling into, so it’s not asking too much of myself at all. If I were putting money on myself, this is where I’d put it.
- Victory Dance: 27 minutes or less. That’s 8:41 per mile. I’ve come close to that pace on shorter distances (most recently Week 7, day 1) and it seems attainable if I’m at my best, but it’s still a stretch.
Anything much faster than that is just out of the question. I’m not aiming very high here — based on last year’s results, I hope to finish smack dab in the middle of the pack, even within my age group. But this is my first race, ever; I have no idea what to expect of myself when the day arrives. I don’t think I’m going to feel jitters or get overly excited, but I won’t really know until I’m there.
Oh, one more thing: I’d like to cross the finish line with a cartwheel. I need to start practicing my cartwheel.
After my accidental start on week 8 last Friday, I went into this week feeling pretty confident. I figured I could improve on that nine-minute mile, extending my total distance so a 5K looks like a mere prelude.
The program sends a new message: don’t get ahead of yourself.
Monday: Where did the time go?
I took a couple circuits around the park, feeling great, even thinking I was pushing my pace a little bit. Yet when I got back home, the iThing pronounced: 9:32 per mile, 2.93 miles.
How did that happen? Where did my sweet little 5K go? Honestly, I’m still not sure. It’s not like it’s a bad pace by my standards, so I wasn’t upset, but it was still not where I had hoped to be. Better luck on Wednesday.
Wednesday: A new route
Previously, I had chosen between two tracks: turning left to go around the park, or right to go there-and-back on a straight course. But now that the run time is longer than it was a couple weeks ago, I realized I could try to fit in both. So I went round the park, then continued on to the straightway until I hit a point where I could turn around and finish where I started. It turned out to be a good choice, and I even timed my turnaround so that I crested Hundred Yard Hill right as Constance told me to cool down. I pumped my fist, walked home, and looked at my time.
3.04 miles, 9:12 per mile. Okay, better than Monday, but still not quite where I thought I would be. At this point, I’m thinking, be happy with the nine-minute mile. It’s your comfort zone.
Friday: Push it!
Resolution: run the same route as Wednesday, but improve on the time. So I dug a little deeper, pushed a little harder, and even got a little further. Yes, I improved my time, and finally got back below that cursed 9 minute mark (barely: 3.13 miles, 8:56 per mile). But the effort was tougher than any before. I’m not convinced the gain was worth what I spent on it.
I’ve seen running advice here and there saying “To improve speed, increase distance.” For now, I think that sounds pretty good — next week, the final week of the program, will be three thirty minute runs, so I’ll plan to concentrate on sustaining a pace rather than trying to put the pedal to the metal.
Because I only managed two days last week, today was the third 25-minute run, or Week 7 Day 3 by the program checklist. It went well; overall, these uninterrupted runs have felt uneventful, to the point that I can’t think of much to say about them here.
Family stuff came up again, so I skipped the run today.
Friday: The accidental 5K
So I figured, rather than split up week 8, I’ll just repeat W7D3 and start Week 8 next Monday. Besides, I was curious to see how the app handles a repeat.
The “halfway there” notification came a lot further along than i expected, so I figured I must be moving along pretty fast. I powered up the hundred-yard hill (counting my steps, and concluding that it’s more like 200 yards), and checked the time, surprised to see I still had 10 minutes to go.
You see where this is going, right?
Arriving home, I checked the finish screen. Total, counting warm-up and cool-down: 3.98 miles in 38 minutes.
It turned out that I didn’t “repeat” after all. I tricked myself into an extra three minutes. And even better: the run was twenty-eight minutes at 9:00 per mile, for a total of 3.11 miles. I had tricked myself into running an honest-to-goodness 5 kilometers.
As it has in the past, the C25K program sends the message: you can do more than you think you can.
Another 25 minute run, a little bit slower (8:55 / mile) but with an extra hill. Went pretty well, but 25 still feels like enough of an undertaking that I’ve decided not to skip a day, so I’ll do the third run of this week next week. Monday will be the new Friday.
The bigger news, though, is that I did it — I signed up for my first 5K race! It’s a pretty small event — looks like they’ve had fewer than 200 runners for the last three years — but it goes through my neighborhood and the starting line is just a short walk from my house. How can I pass that up?
C25K Week 7, Day 1: Better Late
Twenty-five minutes of uninterrupted running, and I continue to find the program delivering on its promises. I keep expecting to run out of steam as the time increases, and keep finding I can do more than I thought. Today’s run: 2.86 miles, 8:44 per mile. Beautiful clear skies, with the full moon on one side of the sky and Jupiter on the other. But it was cold! The thermometer read 39°F at the end of the run; I don’t know how much colder it was at the start.
The only downside is that I didn’t start this week until Wednesday. I’m undecided at this point whether to skip a day this week or push everything back; probably that decision will wait on Friday’s performance.
Whose time is it?
So why didn’t I start Week 7 until today? The short answer is, I gave my mornings to the three-year-old. Both Monday and Tuesday, he woke up and came to see me just as I was getting prepared to go out. Rather than expect my wife to wake up early and keep him company, I stayed home and we hung out.
One of the reasons I exercise early in the morning is that everybody else is asleep, so they don’t need my attention. Physical conditioning is important to me, but it still comes behind all my other responsibilities. Exercise is, in a very literal sense, a self-centered, self-serving activity. That’s not a bad thing — we have a responsibility to ourselves to stay healthy and happy. But exercise is still low enough on my list of priorities that I don’t feel justified saying “can you take the kids, I have to go run three miles.”