Sarah’s Mighty List of Things Not to Do When Attempting a racing PR:

* Sign up last minute
* Hike 3.5 hours the day before
* Do a trail run
* Wear trainers instead of racing flats
* Come off two weeks of intensive training, untapered
* Eat falafel

After Falafel-gate at the Billy Mills’ 10K a year ago in June 2014 (also a last minute idea and also after miles of walking and touring around the state capital), I thought I had learned my lesson about racing deliberately instead of spontaneously. Even though I placed in the Billy Mills, an evening post-dinner race, I didn’t quite feel good about not turning out my best performance. And regurgitating falafel nearly the whole way.

That kind of thing tends to sour a gal on racing with anything but keen intention.

Which is why, when I came downstairs at the family’s Newport Beach house on Saturday afternoon after 3.5 hours of hiking Buck Gully dressed in my suit and ready for more exercise at the beach, my eyes went bug-eyed for a moment when Bill said, “So, I have this wild idea…there’s a 5K tomorrow near here. I was thinking you could run it for some speed as part of your Long Run Sunday mileage.”

“You could sign up tomorrow morning.”

“You wouldn’t have to worry about your time…it would just be a way to get a fast 5K chunk tomorrow, and then you can run the rest of your mileage.”

As Bill sat smiling in the chair, I almost looked at Coach-Husband in disbelief. Race the next day?! I had standard mileage last week, but Tuesday and Thursday’s speedwork sessions were both demanding and intense. By Thursday, the 5 X 1K set had murdered my legs; they were done at 20 seconds faster per mile than what my race pace per mile turned out to be. I had swam over 6 miles last week, too, doing my first Ironman distance on Monday (actually, slightly over at 2.5 miles instead of 2.4), adding speedwork on Tuesday to the last 1/2 mile of that 2 mi swim, and then finishing a third 2 mi swim on Friday morning after my run and absolutely using up the last ounce of any pop left over at all (which by Friday morning was not much) while pushing off the wall 140 times.

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Hiking Buck Gully with my Katie and my mom, we decided to go off trail a bit and cross this stream. In the words of Thoreau and one of my life mantras, “All good things are wild and free.” Indeed, yes.

RACE a 5K??

But I studied the man. He’s never steered me wrong. 

I immediately started qualifying: You know this wouldn’t be for time, right? I wouldn’t disappoint you? You know my legs are probably still dead? This would be just for a fun little memory, yes? A memory of running near Newport? (The race was in Costa Mesa). I don’t even have my flats! I hiked all morning!

Oh yes, yes…just a way to add some speed to your 9+ miles tomorrow.

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So we went. My parents watched the kids and helped them with breakfast. 

This was the 18th annual Pancake Run, sponsored by the Orange County Track Club. Proceeds benefitted the local track team, many of whom were there. Even though the race was small at about 200 people, there were runner bodies everywhere. I watched the 19-year-old girl (seven state championships to her name) who would eventually beat me; I picked her out right away during warm-ups, as her turnover was absolutely wicked. A running team showed up, as did a running club of competitive high schoolers.

We were at Fairview Park; the course wound through the reserve trails. I think this is the course used by Eustancia High School’s XC team. 

Because I came late to running, I have never run a high school XC course. This run started on grass and was all trails, with a gnarly hill, with a gravel part at the end. To run it made me feel wistful (as a devoted runner now, I think about all that I missed out on not being a high school and college runner), as well as overjoyed that I get to experience a proper XC course now. It’s never too late, right?

Surprisingly, this race went well. Like, very well. PR well. Completely unexpected and crazy. I have been aiming to break that 19:00 barrier for the 5K for many months now. (Always been a goal, recently within striking distance this year). I was disappointed in myself for not doing it at the Carlsbad 5000 this past March (time was 19:11 on that flat course), despite clocking a PR at the time.

18:53. My first two miles were sub-6:00. The hill on the third mile slowed me down to 6:33 for that mile. Bummer. I charged that sucker and went full guns, but I still couldn’t keep it between 6:00 and 6:14. More hill sprints for me! 

2nd place women; 1st in division; 11th out of about 200 overall.

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Huh?

Ever since Butte to Butte this past 4th of July, I’ve been working really hard. I had my first 20 mile run at a 7:35 pace and my first 60 mile week. Intervals have been intense. I increased my swimming (since Bill doesn’t have to get to work) to a minimum of 2 mi per session. I swim three days a week. Bill doesn’t coach my swimming (which is more of a recovery/cross-training type of pursuit, or has been so far), so I diddle around with it myself. I’ve added sprint work on Tuesday swims (why not try to get faster? I mean, right?) and added “Long Swim Monday” (2.5 miles). I know that I entered a greater level of fitness shortly after Butte to Butte; my track times have indicated such against the running tables. But I didn’t know how fit that was, for sure. Butte to Butte worked wonders on my confidence: breaking that 40:00 barrier was a big step. 

As exciting as that was, though, in many ways this Pancake Run performance is more athletically fit than Butte to Butte. During the awards, the announcer had the first place boy and first place girl speak a bit about themselves: they are decorated runners whose actual 5K time got slowed down by nearly a full minute on this trail/hill course. That means it slowed us ALL down by approximately the same degree. The next Carlsbad 5000 could be exciting for me, especially with months left to work on it.

After the run, I finished up the rest of my mileage around the area, coming in at slightly over 9 miles for the day. 

That meant I missed all the pancakes (but I didn’t check too hard) and WORSE, I missed all the Starbucks coffee. (That I did check thoroughly—all gone)! The boy who won the whole thing also went for the rest of his distance run, returning just in time for his award.

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Receiving my first place in division medal. There were audible gasps when I went up before this for 2nd place woman, when the announcer read my time AND my age. It wasn’t too long ago that I was 62 pounds overweight, but this 35-year-old (old?!?!?) mama of two can throw down, track boys. I have always liked surprising people. I’ve noticed, actually, that some of the best competition comes from women my age. Something about our relationship to pain and to life has changed (a result of having children, or just natural maturity of the female body/mind?).  I love my 30s. I’m the most fit I’ve ever been even including as a youth, I have made my family to completion, the children are a super fun age, and I feel like all of life is around the corner for us to explore both together and as independent minds.

I did learn something on this run, too.

Ever since midway through high school, I discovered the secret of turning all competitive instincts inward. I swear by it. It’s both a philosophy, a way of being really, and a tool: I think competing externally with others can actually hinder our performance in significant ways and can also erode the meaning of what we do. There are venues in which competition with others is appropriate (Mock Trial, sports) but HOW we compete with others has to be carefully monitored. There’s much that is extremely negative about competition, and I am sure all of us have encountered those ultra-competitive types that compete about small and very personal/subjective things, giving the rest of us heebie-jeebies. No one enjoys people who are overtly comparing/contrasting themselves with everyone else. At least I don’t. So in essence, I haven’t liked competing, or being competed with. In the proper venue is one thing, but all too often competition spills out when it ought not to.

My basic line for 20 years now has been: focus on taking care of your own business. It’s yourself you must hold to a standard of constant improvement. We measure mainly against ourselves. So what if a teacher will grant an A for knowing 95% of the material. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable as much as possible about a subject without the reward of a grade, or even of anyone maybe noticing? I feel strongly about doing all things for pure reasons; so often competition becomes solely about beating someone else and not about the integrity of what we’re trying to learn or master or do. I don’t want my existence about trying to beat others just to do it; I want to pursue learning/sports/etc for their own sakes.

There is room for all people to be successful. Keep striving and being better than YOURSELF the day before. Measure where we start, and where we get to…then keep setting higher goals. We don’t need other people to be part of that process. 

One person’s success never detracts from anyone else. 

Don’t we want a world in which everyone is ardently trying her best?

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When I do compete/race, I mainly race myself and my own clock. And when I race, I hope to goodness that everyone else around me has her best day, TOO, and has come fully trained and ready. I don’t want to race against people having a bad day on the course. I don’t ever hope that someone is going to fail. I want everyone to be at the top of her game—if we have to compete, let’s do it purely. I want authenticity, in all things.

However, in the absence of feeling like I could compete with my own 5K time in this race, though, I realized I had to channel my sense of competition outward. This race became entirely about staying with those teenage track boys and then picking them off. I won’t even make a pretense about that. I wasn’t even really thinking about a PR time. I wanted to pick, pick, pick them off…and I think that drive really helped, unexpectedly. I felt nothing negatively personal toward these fellow runners, but they were like big running target signs. It was strange channeling that a bit more overtly, and I liked that feeling perhaps a bit too much. However, I know they were competing, too, and perhaps that friendly atmosphere makes us all push a little harder and do a little better.

Maybe external competition isn’t entirely a negative, in the right context. My friend Michelle Cole, a college women’s volleyball coach, phrased it well. She said that we have to use all of our “mental weapons” and that “good competitors celebrate challenges without any pettiness.” There may be a purity and glory in that—especially in her descriptions of it—that I haven’t recognized or given much credence to for many years. I don’t think we need to compete at board games, or in the so-called “Mommy Wars,” or with huge cars, or who can hunt the most glorious creatures for trophies (Cecil the Lion). But there just might be beauty in a group of people who manage competing while cheering their competitors on. Even the announcer made a joke of it when he asked the award recipients about crushing the competition—it was light and fun and jokey.

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At the starting line, talking with a fellow runner and crushin’ on her abs. So fierce. What a gorgeous runner.

Pancake Run, you may have marked a turn in my running career. You taught me a bit more about the art of racing and the “mental weapons” I might need. You were also an unexpected memory in a weekend full of memories: kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking, strolling, playing at the beach, boating, and reading. Seeing that sub-19:00 will be a favorite moment in life, I think.

Now to drive home and publish this… I am composing on my laptop in the car under a favorite tree at a park, just a few yards from where I swim. I normally take about half an hour to read here after swimming, but I thought I might get this race written up instead. We have an art class with our music teacher today, and I need to work on unpacking and getting ready for Eric’s 5th birthday this weekend.

But first: breakfast! And guess whose PB2 got delivered from Amazon yesterday? Just in time!

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