For a seasoned distance runner, a 5k may not seem like a challenge. It’s less than 12% of a marathon. A warm-up. Sometimes, I’m 5k into a training run before I start running my best.
That said, racing a 5k provides a challenge to a runner more suited for longer distances. Marathons aren’t about running fast; they’re about setting a strong pace and hanging on. If you want to be competitive in a 5k, you’ve got to do more than that.
The last thing I wanted to do was start the Austin Distance Challenge behind the eight ball. While my strength is in marathons, which would count more strongly than other races in the series, it would be better to start in the lead, or at least close, rather than having to make up ground in other races. If I wanted that to happen, I’d have to get faster.
My normal training routine involves one “speed day” per week, wherein I’ll go to a track and run 5-10k at a strong clip. The point isn’t to increase my top-end speed, but rather to get used to maintaining a high intensity. Leading up to the Superhero 5k, I did speed training twice per week and stuck to a distance of 5k. I wanted to get used to this distance, and to get good at it.
It had rained the night before the race, and it was still a damp morning with a lot of humidity. Not particularly warm, but the kind of air that would have you sweating like crazy in minutes. The grounds of the starting area were composed of soaked grass and mud. In the interest of keeping my shoes dry and mud-free (and therefore light), I made a point of sticking to sidewalks to get anywhere, even if it meant walking more than twice as far.
The Superhero 5k had no bag drop, nor nearly enough portable toilets. Both are essential. With no better options, I left my car unlocked and found a secluded corner in a nearby parking garage to “take care of business”.
For some reason, I’ve hardly seen a race that had an adequate number of portable toilets. You’d think this problem would get noticed and fixed, especially by races that are held annually. But no one seems to learn.
And a bag drop? Since it was a loop course, all that would've been needed was a designated area for everyone to leave their stuff, plus one volunteer to stand nearby, keep an eye on it, and make sure no one walked off with half a dozen bags. An important problem that’s easy to solve.
The Superhero 5k is a family-oriented (read: kid-oriented) run, and the theme is, as you might guess, superheroes. Participants are encouraged to wear a costume. Before the race, I saw some good ones. Since I was going for a fast time, I didn’t join in on the fun, but there was a legit runner dressed up as The Flash...kind of.
I lined up at the front, just behind the wheelchairs, and started eyeing the competition. About a dozen skinny guys in singlets. Who are the good ones? Impossible to tell just by looking. We’d know soon enough.
Right out of the gate, four or five runners got in front of me. Goodness, these guys are fast! I tried following them for a while, not wanting to let so many get too far ahead. After about a minute, I looked at my watch. I was running a faster pace than I’d intended. Should I slow down? Or take it? Would I run slower today because I’m on a road with hills instead of a flat track? Or faster because I took a day of rest yesterday? Do those even out?
I tried my best to worry less about the people around me and instead run my race. I backed off slightly. A few more runners got in front of me...for a while. About 1/3 of the way into the race, I gently picked up the pace, and a few others might have cooled off. I began picking off runners one-by-one.
Halfway through the race, I could still see the leader. Barely. There was no way I’d catch him. Probably not second place either. But the guy in third was getting closer and closer. If I could keep this up, I might find my way onto the podium. Less than 10 minutes to go. You can do anything for 10 minutes.
A few minutes after reaching the turnaround point halfway through the race, you could see the target audience of the Superhero 5k. People pushing strollers, riding bikes, walking dogs! This may have been the first race I’d done where any of those were allowed.
With about 1k to go, I ran my way into third place, knowing there was a reasonable chance I’d be out-sprinted at the end. As a weak sprinter, if I were going to keep this position, my best chance would be to hold on to a strong pace to the end. I took one deep breath to recharge my lungs. Four minutes.
I spent the remainder of the race listening for footsteps, and with the finish in sight, still hadn’t heard any. Neglected an all-out sprint and simply finished at a strong run. Time: 16:48. I’d been hoping for 17:00 at best. I would’ve been satisfied with anything under 17:30. Came in third overall and won my age division to boot.
With the race finished, now was the time to enjoy the “other” stuff at the race. I headed over to the Austin Distance Challenge tent for a breakfast taco and some fruit, then visited the other vendors for samples of granola bars, and even free Amy’s ice cream!
As an unexpected delight, Amber, an old friend of mine, was at one of the tents! She’s now a sales rep for KIND Snacks, a company that makes granola bars and the like. I got to know her at UT, where she lived in my dorm and was a scholarship cross-country and track athlete. Not surprisingly, in addition to her job with KIND, she now runs her own run coaching business in the Austin area, Rise Runner.
On the way home, I picked up a peach pie my parents had ordered for my birthday that week. All in all, not a bad weekend.
While I placed third overall, behind the winner by nearly a full minute, I was still atop the standings in the Austin Distance Challenge by 34 seconds. Not a bad result, especially considering the 5k could be considered my weakest distance in the challenge. From here on out, all I have to do is not get beat.
Next up, Run for the Water 10-miler, seven weeks later. A race more than three times longer. Could be telling!