Braking bad & the need for speed (a.k.a. my first-ever 5K)

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Others, RACE REPORTS, Roads, TRAINING
Tags: , , , , ,

Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.
– Kílian Jornet, Run or Die

Welcome to the West L.A. College track

This is where the magic happens… welcome to the West L.A. College track


It was an impulsive yet reasonable reaction.  Decelerating from top speed, I glared suspiciously at the face staring impassively up at me.  No Helen of Troy that face, but nonetheless one that had launched a thousand runs.  That face cared nothing for my thoughts or feelings, or shortness of breath, or heaviness of legs… how could it?  Nor did it give a damn whether I believed what it was telling me… why should it?  It was simply playing the role of messenger, just as it had for the past five years – without passion or prejudice, and with near-flawless precision.  And at that moment, like it or not, its message was unequivocal: 6:02.

Given its proven consistency, the burden of proof fell squarely on my shoulders legs to prove that face wrong.  And so I tried again.  And again.  And again.  And each time, as my fatigue mounted, the numbers awaiting me at the end hardly wavered: 6:02, 6:04, 6:02.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t recall ever using my Garmin Forerunner 305 to clock mile repeats on the track before.  I understand that for many type-A runners this is a cardinal sin – grounds for immediate excommunica-tion from the church of fartlek-ology.

Sure, I’ll strap on the Forerunner for speed workouts and tempo runs along the beach, where counting laps around the track isn’t an option.  And I always rely on my Garmin for longer runs of 15 miles or more, since pacing at these distances matters when you’re training for a marathon or ultramarathon.  But normally I’ll either leave the Forerunner at home and just run (after mapping out a prescribed route), or on track days I’ll strap on my old-school Timex Ironman watch and time my workouts according to the maxim that four laps = one mile.

Except it doesn’t – at least not always.  Riddle me this: when is a mile not a mile?

Four laps around a regulation, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)-certified track equals one mile (1600m) – if you’re running in lane one, the inner-most lane.  As you move outward on the track the distance per lap gradually increases, until a runner completing four laps in lane eight (typically the outer-most lane) will run almost 215 meters farther than they would in lane one.  For those who haven’t stepped on a track since high school, 215 meters is over a tenth of a mile and roughly halfway around the oval.  But it feels like much more when your stride is breaking down and you’re running on fumes at the end of a fast mile.

I’m not a short-distance runner, and though I’ve always been acutely aware of this discrepancy in lane distances, I’ve never given it much thought.  I’m not fast – so I’ve always told myself.  Once my mile time fell below seven minutes, I never cared to see how low it could go.  Besides, I’d rather run hilly trails than flat paved roads.  I’ve never run an organized 5K of any kind, nor a 10K with speed in mind (both my 10Ks were effectively turkey trots, the most recent in Golden Gate Park in 2004).

In August of 2010, in preparation for the Pikes Peak Ascent later that month, I did run the shorter Squaw Valley Mountain Run, a fun but decidedly unspeedy race that covers the first 3.6 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course, and which gains 2,000 feet in elevation (from 6,200 feet to 8,200 feet) along the way.  That result, at 11:56/mile, qualifies as my 6K PR.  Impressive stuff.

So my mindset for speed workouts has always been that four complete laps around the track (usually in lane three or four) = more or less a mile, and as long as I can keep my “mile” times between 6:30 and 6:50, it’s all good.  Very scientific, I admit… but then again, running most of my speed workouts on loose dirt surfaces hardly qualifies as scientific either.  As long as I a) complete the workout and b) feel this close to losing control of important bodily functions on my last repeat, I consider the workout a success.  No matter what the watch face says.

And so on this day, when my Garmin’s mile alarm chimed 100 meters short of my customary finish line, I was caught off-guard.  And after three more miles – all run in lane four to avoid legitimate athletes in lanes 1-3, and the hurdles set up in lanes 6-8 – my Garmin was telling me what had to be a blatant lie, a tall tale too good to be true.  Four sub-6:05 miles?  With a stiff headwind on one side of the track and me swerving periodically to avoid oblivious others wandering into my lane?  I was calling my Garmin’s bluff – clearly the incredible g-forces generated by running it in circles were taking their toll.

At the same time, though skeptical and bewildered, I had to consider the alternative – that maybe I’d just run the four fastest timed miles of my life.  Maybe thanks were owed to my lightweight Saucony Virratas, which weigh next to nothing and which I’d recommend to anyone looking for a zero drop shoe with moderate cushioning (Saucony reps, you can reach me through the Comments section below).  Maybe I’d been inspired by Jen, who’d just run a speedy timed mile of her own the week before.  Or maybe I’d captured the mojo of my surroundings there on the all-weather West L.A. College track, where notable runners such as three-time Olympic medalist and “world’s fastest woman” Carmelita Jeter train (though I’ve yet to see her).  Or maybe, just maybe, the thousands of miles of training and racing were actually {dramatic pause} paying off.

The next afternoon, like the good scientist I am, I ran my Garmin two miles along the beach to verify its accuracy.  Sure enough, its mile alarm twice chimed within steps of the mile markers painted on the bike path.  Apparently I really had run the four fastest timed miles of my life the day before, and I emailed my brother to let him know.  Chuck is a big fan of speed work or self-inflicted pain or both, and so his own email response was fraternally predictable: “Obviously there is a sub 20 minute 5K in your near future.”

View along the San Gabriel River bike trail

View south toward the turnaround point along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail

Pain and pleasure in the near future
Not surprisingly, Chuck wasn’t speaking in hypotheticals – by “near future” he was referencing the Boeing-sponsored 5K I’d heard so much about, held the second Monday lunch hour of every month at the Seal Beach Boeing Facility.  Living in adjacent Long Beach, Chuck had been a regular at the race for many years, and had been urging me to run it even before we’d moved to SoCal.  Having never given much thought to running a 5K (even a free one), I’d so far turned up my nose at his dangling of that “sub-20” carrot.  At an average pace of 6:27/mile for 3.1 miles, I figured I could do it on a good day – but for whatever reason (maybe because I knew it would hurt), I’d never cared enough to find out.

Now, though, I was curious.  If I could run four sub-6:05 miles with a recovery lap between, then surely I could run three 6:27 miles without stopping?  Especially with other runners to chase?  And if not now, when?

So it was that the week before the March edition of the Boeing lunch hour 5K, I began to lay out my race-day strategy: arrive half an hour early to allow myself ample time to stretch thoroughly, warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing.  That way I wouldn’t waste the first mile trying to loosen up and chase my second wind.  A solid, well-conceived plan… in theory.

Unfortunately, reality wanted no part of it.  Instead, Monday morning found Katie and me hopping in the car later than planned and gunning it down Interstate 405 toward Seal Beach, where after getting lost (and found) in the vast Boeing complex, we pulled up to the staging area three minutes before the scheduled start.  Which left me just enough time to slip in the back door of the gym adjacent to the start line to access the men’s room.

Two minutes later I was jogging feverishly in place like an overcaffeinated ROTC cadet, trying desperately to condense 30 minutes of warmup into 30 seconds as nearly four dozen runners gathered around the start line. Apparently each runner was supposed to check in and predict his/her own finish time before the race, though I didn’t realize this, and in any case it would have required another 30 seconds I didn’t have.

As the crowd edged its way up to the imaginary start line not painted on the sidewalk, Chuck offered me his last-second expertise on what to expect from a course I knew nothing about.  “It’s an out and back along the river, you may see blue cups at the turnaround, sometimes there are painted rocks along the trail” – without pausing for breath, he pointed at the tallest runner of the bunch, a tanned and athletic-looking fellow wearing a red-and-white cap and singlet – “that’s Tim.”

“Who’s Tim?” I asked, the relevance of this introduction escaping me as the lead runners (Tim included) poised in their “Ready, Set” positions at the start line.

“You’ll be running near him,” Chuck replied, leaving me to wonder how the buddy system figured into this.  My wondering was cut short when the starter’s cry of “GO!” ended our exchange (which in its seamless cadence would have made Aaron Sorkin proud), signaling the frazzled start to my first-ever semi-official 5K race.

Tim quickly bore down and sprinted (or so it seemed) ahead of the pack as we exited the Boeing parking lot and veered left on to the shoulder of Westminster Blvd.  He wasted no time in building an early lead, as I worked to extricate myself from the tightly packed mass of runners in his wake.  I’m supposed to run with him?  I was seriously doubting Chuck’s prognostic powers.  Tim’s lead mounted as we (or at least he) sped along Westminster, the sun now directly overhead on what was fast becoming a very warm day.  A modest but steady headwind wasn’t helping matters, and I could feel another runner on my right shoulder, drafting off me as I waited for my second wind to kick in… any second now…

At last, nearing the left turn that would lead us along the river, my body snapped out of its initial shock.  Cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems – working both independently and in collaboration – recognized and adapted to the sudden physiological stress as they had so many times before.  Fight-or-flight hormones spiked.  Heart rate accelerated.  Muscle contractions quickened.  Neurons fired electrical impulses between mind and body at a feverish pace.  At that moment I was little more than an instinctual fast-moving puppet, and with so many biological masters pulling the strings, my stride relaxed and slowly I edged forward ahead of the pack, until only 50 yards of atmosphere separated me and Tim.

Leaving the main road, a quick descent spilled us on to the San Gabriel River Bike Trail.  Gradually the gap between leader and pursuer continued to shrink, until Tim reached the turnaround point (marked, as Chuck had presaged, by a blue Dixie up on either side of the path) no more than five seconds ahead of me.  The game was on!

Post-race recovery

Post-race posing with Steve and Chuck… one of these days Chuck will learn to recognize a camera
(photo credit Laura)

The finishing touch
With 1½ miles down and the remainder of the course now known to me, I could focus entirely on getting back to home base before the next guy.  But I was admittedly in uncharted waters here, running as hard as I could for as long as I could, with no racing strategy other than to just run, and with no idea how long I could continue at this pace (whatever this pace was) before I bonked.

As I cruised along the river several strides behind Tim, familiar faces passed in my peripheral vision: Chuck, with long gray hair held in check by his customary bandana, was looking strong at a sub-8:00/mile pace, much faster than I’d expected for someone still rehabbing a hamstring injury; Laura, having already completed a marathon earlier that morning on her way to seven marathons in seven days, followed more leisurely behind him chatting with local celebrity-of-sorts Barefoot Ken Bob; while Emmett, fresh off his 65th ultramarathon at that weekend’s Way Too Cool 50K, power-walked near the back of the pack with one of the more purposefully propulsive strides I’ve ever seen.

During this stretch I pulled alongside and ahead of Tim, my Garmin chortling its support.  Two miles down, 1.1 to go. With our roles reversed and the predator now the prey, the question became how long I’d be able to hold the lead.

Charging up the concrete embankment and back on to Westminster Blvd, I found myself a stranger in a very strange land – running alone in the lead, a tailwind at my back and just over half a mile of very straight, rolling asphalt between me and… and what exactly?  As I struggled to maintain or even increase my pace, an acute case of “race brain” left me devoid of deep thoughts.

With just over ¼ mile to go and the Boeing entrance taunting me from afar, I glanced up to see the traffic light at the intersection just ahead of me – the only potential obstacle on the entire course – turn red, and a car begin to creep slowly forward into the cross walk.  My cross walk.  The cross walk I was about to enter.  Never mind bouncing off the hood of a car, that was the least of my worries – I was much more horrified at the thought of losing all momentum to this solitary driver on an otherwise empty street.  If that happened and I was forced to obey the red light, I may very hitchhike my way back to Boeing.

Thankfully, as I entered the intersection at full speed the car inched forward just enough that I was able to swerve behind it without any significant loss of momentum.  Reaching the far side of the intersection, with my brain now screaming “home stretch!” and my stride deteriorating with every step, I locked in on the traffic light dead ahead of me, the one that doubled as the mile 3 marker.  My stomach too had begun its predictable protest – as a runner it’s my canary in the coal mine, my (usually) silent partner that warns me when I’m approaching the end of my physiological rope.  And I could feel that rope starting to fray.

I tried not to slow as I banked right into the Boeing parking lot, fearful that Tim or another runner would go Roadrunner to my Wile E. Coyote and streak past me as an anvil landed on my head.  More importantly, letting up on the gas might cost me a sub-20 finish… and if that happened, let’s be honest, the past 20+ minutes would have been for naught.  Curiosity may have ignited this fire, but fear of failure now kept it ablaze.

Careening toward the finish line feeling like a rickety old jalopy, I was momentarily unnerved to see not a soul in sight – until timekeeper Jill and clipboard keeper Berckly hopped up from their seat on the curb to announce and record my winning finish time of 19:53.  Tim crossed nine seconds later, letting loose a low exclamation of disgust upon realizing he’d overshot the 20-minute barrier by three seconds.  As the top five took shape and the finish area began to hum with activity, I shook hands with and congratulated Tim, whose fast start was accounted for when he admitted to being an 800m runner.

Chuck joined me soon after, and I sarcastically thanked him for warning me in advance about the early headwind.  He shrugged: “I figured you’d find that out for yourself.”

During the post-race cooldown I also had the opportunity to meet Steve, an avid runner and retired VA colleague of Chuck’s who, after reading my previous post, benignly waved off my comparison of the NorCal/SoCal race scene and suggested several road and trail races in the area.  Clearly I have plenty of research ahead of me before I revisit that comparison.  Appreciate the recommendations, Steve.

According to long-time race organizer Nelson, “the 45 runners today tied the most runners for a March race since 2005 when 53 participated.”  Even more amazing to me was Chuck’s post-race admission that, despite being a significantly faster runner than me (my words, not his), he’s never won the Boeing 5K.  So apparently I timed my debut well, since a winning time of 19:53 – the only sub-20 finish of the day – hardly screams “Olympic Trials”.

Bottom line, I enjoyed my first-ever 5K (for obvious reasons) and my time among the Boeing lunch-time running crew. And I’ll look forward to running this race again – in part because it’s a fun one, but also because I’m confident that under the right conditions (cooler temps, >30 sec warmup) I can still run faster.

I celebrated my second-ever race victory – the 14.8-mile Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon back in 2009 was the first – later that afternoon with an 8-mile recovery run from Manhattan Beach to Marina del Rey under a stunning blue sky.  Setting a leisurely pace past fearless seagulls and glistening whitecaps while trying to guess which beachside townhouse might be Phil Jackson’s, it occurred to me that this was my most relaxing run in recent memory.

So again, as with Chicago in 2012, Chuck had been spot-on in predicting a personal best finish time for me.  Admittedly, his prediction was in large part self-fulfilling, and I was happy to prove him right.  But then I shouldn’t have been surprised by the text I received from him later in the week – one I’ve yet to follow up on, since I’m afraid he may not be joking:

“You know the Boeing 10K is the third Monday of the month.”

March 10, 2014
3.12 miles in Seal Beach, CA
Finish time & pace (official): 19:53 (first time running the Boeing Seal Beach 5K), 6:22/mile average pace
Finish place: 1/45 overall
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 72°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 73ft ascent, 73ft descent

Boeing 5K splits

  1. Dan says:

    Hot dog! Congratulations on finishing first overall. Did they have a tape to break? Because breaking the take has always been a dream of mine. The closest I’ve come is second at a Turkey Trot 5k in 2012 (though first place was a good twenty seconds ahead). Alas.

    5ks are the worst. I run between 3 and 4 of them every year and can’t stand them. But they’re so much more effective than speed runs. The first time I attempted sub-20 was the weekend before the 2010 Chicago Marathon and I clocked 20:00 flat. It sucked. But since that race I’ve stayed under the threshold, with 19:07 being my current best mark. But once you hit mile 2, life just sucks.

    You could definitely beat 19:53 but I sometimes find myself asking if it’s even worth it. Even if you do warm-up, you’re still going from a calm heart rate to afterburners in ten seconds. But then again, I can’t do in training what I can during a race, so I guess it’s a necessary evil.

    But before you line up for the next Boeing race, tell them to have a finishing banner for you to slice.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Dan. Admittedly I’m now intrigued to see how many seconds I can slice off that 19:53, though of course next time out there will be those pesky expectations. And since it took me this long to run my first 5K, I don’t feel a pressing need to do it again quite yet. Three or four a year seems like an ambitious goal, I’m impressed… and I totally get the love/hate relationship. I won’t even delve into the psychological ramifications if I were to regress and go over 20 in my second attempt – I may have to register for a 100-miler the next week just to prove my self-worth.

      I’m thinking second place in an official, pay-to-play turkey trot may trump first place in a low-key no-cost event… ah, who am I kidding, I’ll take the victory. But given that you’re faster than me (the numbers don’t lie!), in the right place and the right time I can easily envision you breaking that tape.

      Speaking of which, Boeing’s free entry fee apparently left insufficient funds for a finish line banner… great idea, though. Maybe next time I’ll bring both a bright orange tape for them to hold up if I cross the finish line first, and a yellow-and-black “POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS” tape in case it’s someone else.

  2. Jen says:

    I can’t believe you’ve never run a 5K before!! Congrats on killing it in your first 5K race, sans warm-up and in warm temps. First place and negative splits to boot – holy cow! I’ll gladly take a bit of credit for “inspiring” you to run those timed miles with the Garmin. 😉

    BTW, does Chuck’s predictive powers only work for you, or is he pretty accurate about other people’s times as well? If it’s more universal, I’m sure there’s a market for his time-foretelling talents. (I’d like to note in writing that if this idea becomes a real thing, I get 5% of all profits…)

    • Mike says:

      Beginner’s luck, maybe? As I mentioned to Dan above, it could happen that next time out I stretch for 15 minutes beforehand, run a brisk warmup mile to get everything good and loose… then go out and fail to break 20. You just never know – but then again, isn’t the unpredictability of this sport one of the reasons we keep coming back? But yes! do keep those personal-best mile times coming, it’s always motivational to see other runners I know getting better and faster.

      As for Chuck’s soothsaying, I’m pretty sure it only works if you’re genetically predisposed to his personal brand of motivation. Since I know when he’s healthy he can break 20 minutes no problem, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be stuck on the other side of that mark. So unless we have other brothers and sisters that we don’t know about (Mom, you want to chime in here?), I’d guess his powers of persuasive prediction are fairly limited. Effective and well targeted, but limited.

  3. Paul says:

    Congratulations on your win! Let this be a lesson – never doubt the Forerunner! Impressive race splits.

    Love the feeling of being the predator sneaking up on the prey (or in a more apt analogy, a Boeing drone loitering over a high-value target in Yemen).

    • Mike says:

      Appreciate the support (and the analogy!), Paul. I do enjoy the feeling of picking off other runners (who doesn’t?), especially late in a race when energy levels are ebbing. On the other hand, when it’s you everyone is trying to catch, and you’re constantly hearing footsteps real or otherwise….

      As you said, the Garmin doesn’t lie – the fear of being chased down from behind definitely lit a fire under me.

      And fortunately, since the race was free, I don’t have to worry that my entry fee may end up paying for – well, something less scrupulous than race t-shirts and aid station supplies.

  4. glenn says:

    You WON your first 5k? Is that just something that happens?

    Congratulations, man! Way to turn in an impressive performance in your debut. I can’t imagine how you’ll perform with proper stretching and a warm-up run.

    • Mike says:

      Ha ha, thanks for the kind words, Glenn. Based on my other 60+ races, I have to assume this is my Halley’s Comet. And I can already see it happening – next time I’ll stretch, warm up properly, psyche myself into the right frame of mind and then fire off the start line… only to end up jogging in place like a goof at that last intersection while waiting for the slow-moving traffic to disperse.

      I should probably retire from the 5K game while I’m ahead…

  5. csohaskey says:

    Yep as you now know, 5Ks hurt. So do marathons, but at least you get in some good miles before it really starts to hurt. But 5Ks pretty much hurt in the first 100 meters. The good news is that you may get faster, but the bad news is it will still hurt as much.
    The Boeing people are incredibly nice to let us non-employees show up and run their race, record the times and send out an e-mail announcements. I have run the race many times and have used it to try out all kinds of strategies. I can tell you next time it will be hot. There will be a strong headwind on the way out that will magically die at the turn around (even as it paradoxically manages to slow people still heading out).
    I can also tell you that Emmett will be there. He never misses it.
    I will see you this month at the starting line. By the way, what are the bookies predicting for the winning time? I want might to put some money on it.

    • Mike says:

      I fully expect that by the time I get my 5K time down under 19:00, my stride will be so fluid that I won’t feel a thing except the wind in my hair. And you can’t convince me otherwise.

      I have to agree, the Boeing folks are very gracious to let us crash their party. Small group races like theirs are hard to come by, and yet they really make running a blast… maybe next time I’ll try out my post-race “barfing in the bushes” strategy, which I almost did this time. As popular as running has become, though, I worry that next time I show up they’ll be shuttling people from the Long Beach Marriott to the start line in buses.

      Thanks again for letting me in on the fun, I’ll definitely be back. ‘Cuz I’ve already convinced myself, sitting here in the comfort of my office, that of course I could beat 19:53. Hopefully we’ll both be able to chase a sub-20 soon, they’ve probably never had two brothers doubled over after the same race before.

      Until then, I’ll wear my gold-plated, diamond-encrusted Boeing belt buckle with the pride of a champion.

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