I did not enter this race to win and perhaps, that’s why I won (in more ways than one).
I was supposed to do the Irish 5k in Pawtucket, RI in 2020, right before the world shut down due to COVID. It was supposed to be a meet-up with several running friends. Unfortunately, a few days before the race, I felt really sick and not up to racing. I said, “next year” but March 2021 was cancelled.
5ks are not the easiest to fit into a marathon training plan. Also, for the past several years, I have been notorious for hating 5ks. Speed has never been my forte. My current coach has really taken that into account. At first, I resented it, but now I realize how much I have benefitted from working on my weaker points as a runner. Back when I ran 60-70 mile weeks, anything faster than marathon pace was pretty awful. Now, running much less mileage and being a triathlete, I feel more comfortable at faster paces and 5ks have becoming something I look forward to rather than dread.
I am also notorious for putting too much pressure on myself and for being very anxious. I often check the weather a million times before race day. I scour races to find ones with the flattest courses. I even, as much as I hate to admit it, check previous year’s results to see if I have a chance at being a top finisher. COVID has shifted my priorities a bit. Having races taken away for so long, I am much happier to just run with people even if the conditions are not ideal, and that has led to me going outside of my comfort zone more.
In January, I ran an unexpected 5k PR of 20:54 at the Resolution Run to Kick Cancer in Lexington, MA in 16 degree weather. Coming away from that race feeling like I could have pushed a bit harder, I was eager to do another 5k. In February, I signed up for the Cupid’s Chase 5k in Wakefield. It was my favorite course and a picture perfect 50 degrees, so when, after racing my heart out, I ended at 21:13, I was a bit sad.
So, this 5k excited me because I wanted to do it for the sole purpose of meeting up with my friend Jeremy (we’ve had a running joke about running a 5k together for a while now with me backing out for various reasons) and spending the morning in Rhode Island. When I heard there was a huge hill the first mile of the race, I figured “great! Not going to feel bad about not getting a PR! Let’s see what I can do on something with some hills!”
The atmosphere was great. As someone who is Irish, I loved hearing the bagpipes at the start and having a chance to wear my Irish-themed socks and gloves.
Tina Muir, elite runner and founder of the #Running4Real community taught me about #nowatchme, which means running by effort instead of checking your pace. Running watches are great for so many reasons, but they can also lead to an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with pace.
For longer races, I sometimes like knowing my splits since it can be very easy to go out too fast (after all, the first part of a marathon should feel like you are holding quite a bit back). However, I have completely stopped looking at my watch during 5ks (I do keep it on to get the metrics post-race). It has helped me so much and has allowed me to focus on just doing my best in the moment. In the past, seeing a slower split would often wreck my confidence, thereby not letting me enjoy the rest of the race. Seeing a faster split would sometimes scare me into thinking I need to slow down or that I cannot maintain it.
This race was no exception. I started up the hill and just said “maintain effort.” I could feel my legs slow down at some parts, but decided to just let them do their thing. At ¾ of a mile in, I started getting worried about how uncomfortable I felt. To make matters worse, the hill did not end with a downhill but a long straight-away so my legs did not get the break I had hoped for after reaching the top. Mile: 6:40 (according to Strava).
When the watch beeped, I passed this incredibly strong looking kid that could not have been more than 11 or 12. I was completely in awe of his speed and had I been able to string together a sentence I would have yelled to him “I wish I could have done this at your age!” I started feeling better by the halfway point. Mile 2: 6:38 (according to Strava)
At mile 2, I kept reminding myself not to speed up until at least halfway through the mile. In a 5k, one mile left is not “almost over.” A course marshal on a bicycle passed me and yelled something. I could not make it out. I thought perhaps he said “you are first place female, keep it up!” but then I quickly got rid of that thought. “He’s just being encouraging.” I knew I was in front, but I did not want to assume I was first. After all, at the MR8k in December, I spent the entire race thinking I was third place female only to realize that there were two elite level women way ahead of me that I had not been able to see. There was a prize for third that race, but no prize for fifth (although my husband bought me bagels!)
Thankfully during warm-up, I had studied the end of the course. I knew it was a slight incline and I knew exactly where the turn was. I made the turn and began to speed up. I knew I likely at least had an age group win, so I wanted to maintain whatever lead I had. Also, from my time as a high school cross country runner, I learned that people can surprise you can come out of nowhere in the last few seconds of a race. I heard footsteps behind me and sped up. I looked to my left and was relieved to see it was a dude. “OK, at least he’s not going to beat me out of an award.”
At mile 3, I could start to see the clock. 6:37 (according to Strava). I noticed I could break 21 and I sped up again. Then I heard the announcer. “Let’s hear it for our first place female!” Normally, I feel completely drained at the finish but I found some way to speed up even more, worried that someone could still beat me. I had no clue who was behind me. Then, I saw the tape, and I put my hands up with a huge smile. “And she’s looking happy!”
Breaking the tape felt amazing, though a few race volunteers actually asked if I was OK. I was, just needed a moment to catch my breath. Official time: 20:43. 11 second PR and first place win!
Post-race, I did a mile cool down with my friend Jeremy, who also crushed the race and my husband, who did great as well. We then watched a little bit of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and ate bagels in the car because I was really cold (sorry). It was a really fun morning!
What I love about the 5k is that unlike longer races, I can do more of them. They cannot all be PRs, but if one does not go as well as hoped, you can sign up for another one soon. Furthermore, I like just running without a watch and seeing where my speed takes me. All of my best 5ks have been run in that manner. Finally, I think going into a race without pressure really helped. Sometimes pressure can actually detract from race goals because worrying takes up energy, and it can be easy to go out too hard.
My coach has always told me “strong before long” and as a new coach myself, I now abide by this with my own athletes. As a runner, it can be easy to just do what you are best at all the time because it feels good, and it is less scary. However, it can also keep you stuck where you are. Moving to distances that are harder can be a challenge, but the more often you do something, the more comfortable it feels. Also, getting used to running faster paces (like 5k and 10k pace) has made half-marathon and marathon pace feel even better.
People often try to debate which race distance is hardest or most impressive. I do not think there is an answer to that question. Each has its own challenges, and training for any distance is hard work. Appreciate all of it and learn as much as you can!
So yes, I won this race, but the real reason I won this race is that I did not enter it to win, and I PRed in fun along the way.