I actually thought I could do it.
The goal of going under 22 minutes was actually a goal for three years, sort of one of those life lists, like running a mile under 6 minutes. But it seemed like some faraway obstacle, something that only elite runners and athletes achieve. I didn't put myself in those categories. I was merely above average.
I first started running races as seriously as I could take them in 2005. That meant I went for a time and tried to get a lot of sleep before the event (which, as you loyal readers know, isn't really up to me) and even kept my weight to below what I weighed my senior year in high school. That first year, I was thrilled to run the July 4 5K in 23:15. I ran it the next year in 22:34, and that seemed like a ceiling. The twins hadn't been born yet. I predictably bombed out of the 2007 July 4 5K a month after the girls were born. I simply had no energy.
But later that year, on an impossibly fast course (most of it was downhill), I ran 22:01, just two seconds from the golden standard. In fact, they had me at 21:53, until I discovered that they got the times out of order and I went up the race director to correct the mistake. If I was going to reach that goal, I was going to do it honestly.
So I didn't get under 22 minutes, but that told me someday I might.
When people ask me if I'd rather run a half marathon or a 5K, they're always puzzled by my answer. It's always a half marathon. 13.1 over 3.1. Yep. Because though 13.1 is a bear, 3.1 is a bitch.
5Ks are by far the most intense thing I've ever done. Yes, I've climbed many mountains, some of them dangerous. But those are marathons, not sprints. And in fact though I'm faster than the average climber by quite a bit, many of the elite climbers who I climbed with could easily leave me in the dust because speed was never a priority.
Speed, suddenly, was a priority when I started running, and I had to adjust. I'm still adjusting. Half marathons, even at the 8-minute-per-mile pace I set for them, are a lot more like climbing a mountain. They're a long adventure, something you breathe hard, controlled breaths over for hours before you reach your goal. Plus the pressure's off. If you have to tie your shoe, take a gel or get a drink, you can without blowing your race.
5Ks are fast, insane little races where one slip can ruin your time. They don't have to be this way, of course, but try telling that to the little competitive demon inside me. I typically gasp my way through a 5K. The idea is to find the edge and stay there. Maybe even push it a bit. They're hard and uncomfortable and can get the best of anyone: One of my best friends, a 50-year-old woman who has run at least 35 marathons and probably, I'm not kidding, hundreds of 5Ks, threw up at this year's race.
But last fall, I experienced a breakthrough. I was running times that I didn't ever think were possible three years ago. My goal was to break 48 minutes in a 10K, and without a whole lot of effort, I broke 47 instead. I ran nearly 8-minute miles for the first time last fall in a half marathon, destroying my best time by nearly four minutes. I began running 5Ks smoothly even when I was regularly busting the 22:30 mark.
So why couldn't I break 22 minutes? I couldn't find an excuse. July 4 would be my first 5K of the
year, and I knew this was the year to do it.
And then the kids got sick.
We went to Kid Rock Friday night. The tickets were free, and I wasn't going to turn down a fun night
with my wife only because of a race. When we got home, the cries started around 11 p.m. Allie was
hot, then Andie was hot, then Jayden was warm, then hot, then one needed to be held. This went on
until 2 a.m. By the time I finally slipped into sleep, it was 2:30 a.m., and the alarm clock was set to
go off three hours later. I woke up a half before that.
Bye, bye, confidence.
I went to the race early, ate my meal and started to warm up, but deep down, I knew it probably wasn't going to happen. I don't have the athletic ability to make up for being tired even before the race starts. Even as my friends reassured me that the sleep the night before the race doesn't matter as much as the sleep leading up to it, I felt empty inside. I was tired and I knew it.
However, I may not have pure athletic ability, but I do have a talent for one thing, and it's gotten me on many peaks on bad days: sucking it up. I can suck it up with the best of them. Right before the gun went off, I decided I really wasn't that tired and would just try my best. Screw the excuses.
The thing is, you don't even know how you're going to feel until you start running a 5K. I felt a little sick, pretty tired and winded. But I also felt OK. When I crossed the first mile in 6:40, I still felt OK.
I suppose I have two demons inside me. The first is the competitive one who pushes me beyond
what I think is possible. The second I'll call couch potato demon. That's the one who loves to play
poker, drink and watch hours of "Battlestar Galactica." They were at war by the second mile as I
approached the hill.
"Just walk," couch potato whispered. "No one would blame you. You got less than three hours of sleep. You could at least slow down."
In the past year, I've researched different ways to beat the mental game of running fast much more than the physical side. I wouldn't think someone who has climbed nearly as many mountains as I have would be weak. I've had to battle heights, cold, dehydration, storms, sleep deprivation and altitude sickness, but the intensity of 5Ks appears to be my biggest weakness. I've worked on blocking out all thought. It's worked. But I still have a lot of work to do.
Just get to the top of the hill, I told myself as I huffed and puffed my way up it, trying to maintain enough speed so I'd have a chance at under 22 minutes and feeling like I was failing miserably.
When I made the turn and started downhill, I thought I'd blown it, and then a friend slipped beside me.
This guy had run 21:57 in last year's July 4 5K, and I knew he was on pace to do it again.
Don't lose him, I said to myself.
I stuck right by him and almost passed him a couple times. I also wanted the race to end in the worst way. I was panting like a dog, my legs were dead and I was tense. Then I looked at my GPS.
6:45, 21:05, 2.97.
That was my pace, my time and my mileage. I had a chance. My friend took off. So did I.
By the end, I was dying, but I sprinted as the last 10 seconds ticked away. And then I crossed the line.
I pumped my fist in the air as I gasped for air.
Some of my running friends came over to say congratulations. They were the elite group who finished well ahead of me.
And now, finally, I could stand with them.
Stats: 21:59, 94/1,300 (estimated), 7:05 pace, 15th/89 in my age group.