May 16, 2014

Slow and steady

Yesterday I took part in the CDPHP Workforce Challenge 3.5 mile road race in downtown Albany. Why 3.5 miles and not a standard 5k, I’m not sure. Either way I did not enjoy it. The race is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the area at something like 9,700 people, and it enjoys a reputation as a bit of a clusterfuck because of its bottleneck start. Madison Avenue is one of the widest streets in Albany yet it’s still awfully narrow for a race of that size. When I ran it last year I got an awful position at the start, had to wait thirty seconds after the start before I could start moving, and then spent most of the first mile shuffling in the dense pack as I got elbowed and stepped on.

It’s not a very pleasant experience to begin with, but my real reason for disliking it is that races around the 5k distance remind me of how pitifully slow I’ve gotten in the last few years. I ran competitively in high school and college, and while I was by no means quick, even for the Division III standards of the small liberal arts college for which I ran, my best college time would have put me just outside the top 20 in yesterday’s race. Instead I finished 257th, which isn’t awful when you compare it to the total number of finishers, but it’s still disappointing when I think about my best races which were only six years ago.

It’s my own fault, really. Physically I’m probably still capable of at least a 17 minute 5k but to do that I’d have to shed 10-15 pounds and resume the type of training regimen I had in college: 80+ miles a week with a hill workout and two speed workouts on the track per week, and I have neither the time nor the discipline for that. Instead I’ve spent the last few years moving up in distance. Since 2012 I’ve run two half marathons and a full marathon, so it’s not like I’ve been sitting on my ass eating cake since graduating. But while the years of easy runs at my comfort pace (about 7:50 a mile) have been good for marathon training, it means that trying to run any faster than that gets harder and harder as time goes on. Comparatively, a 5k is a dead sprint, and that’s what it felt like yesterday. My opening mile was about 6:35 and I felt like I was giving it everything I had at that point. I’ve traded my speed for endurance, and I’m largely okay with that until I have to run a 5k.

The Workforce Challenge is a team race featuring a lot of the region’s big employers (General Electric, IBM, First Niagara Bank), as well as school districts, healthcare providers, various state agencies of the New York state government, just about any other group or company that can pay the entry fee and coerce a few of its employees into running a 5k. My employer doesn’t participate, so the first time I went to the race in 2012 it was as a spectator to watch Court run...and then upon learning I was a runner her coworkers drafted me to run for them the next year.

Yesterday’s running of the Workforce Challenge was rainy but very humid. After my disastrous start last year, I got a spot right near the start line and charged, guns blazing, up the Madison Street hill with the race leaders...for the first quarter mile or so. I spent the next mile in acute oxygen debt, my legs growing curiously heavy as other, less stupid racers passed me as if I were standing still.

By the two mile mark I’d fallen back with people who were more in line with my physical abilities and I was able to more or less hold my place until the final half mile, when I broke into a sprint to pass a guy who was most definitely not a runner by trade (he was wearing basketball shorts, Nike Shox, and a T-shirt from a Crossfit gym). You wouldn’t think it would be that satisfying to just edge past a non-runner who’d been ahead of you for 99% of the race, unless of course you are me. My time, though disappointing, was still 11 seconds faster than last year, and given my level of training the past few months I don’t think there was any more I could have done.

I said the same thing to Court that I did after last year’s race, basically, “Wow did that suck. Any way you can get me out of this next year?” But I know that if asked I’ll run again for her company. My years of running in high school and college have made it impossible for me to say no to running as part of a team, regardless of how much I’ve slowed down since then. Until then, though, I’m going back to running half marathons.

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