Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don't Believe the Hype

Packet pickup, the day before a race. Old acquaintances see each other and nod. "Hey, are you running the half?"

"No, I'm running the 5K."

"Well, at least you're running."

This didn't happen to me. I read it in Runners' World, in the "Ask Miles" section. He gives advice on how to avoid running faux pas. And this was a faux pas. He eloquently pointed out why. All distances are hard. Hard if they are raced, not run. Anyone who has trained specifically to do well in a 5K knows this. Speed-work, hill-repeats, striders, mile pickups. Four mile high-tempo runs. None of this is as fun as going long on a warm, breezy Sunday morning. But this "Ask Miles" response is practically the only place I see this acknowledged in Runners' World magazine.

With the exception of a rare article about the new collegiate runner to watch, the message I get from Runners' World magazine is that the 5K is an entry-level race. Real runners race longer distances. Specifically half and full marathons.

This has pissed me off for years. Probably because chronic knee and calf problems have limited my runs to under five or six miles for a couple of decades. My only marathon was in the early nineties. At that time, half-marathons barely existed. The next common distance-race was the ten- mile. Which happened to be my strongest distance. Something about the way I'm designed allows me to hold a high tempo-pace for just over an hour. Everything after that is guts. Or at least requires some conscious pacing earlier in the run.

Runners' World is a magazine for the masses. And the masses of runners are in it for enjoyment, not actualization. And a surprising number are in it for weight-loss. Just look at the popularity of the Blerch franchise (also heavily plugged by Runners’ World). I might even suggest that many runners are lazy. It is far easier to build distance than speed. And building speed at longer distances is easier than building *fast* speed for a 5K. For most runners, non-elite runners, improving at the half-marathon or marathon is about gaining comfort with the distance. Not so for 5K. Most runners are already comfortable with the distance. A strong performance means shaving seconds off of a your last time. This comes from strategic training, diet, drills, and the grueling speed-work that even the most hard-core runners hate.

With my injuries, I've raced a lot of 5Ks over the years. And every now and then I decide I want to push out a good time. This makes for a rough month or so. I live in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. For a strong race here, performing well on hills is mandatory. Training includes long hill repeats with quick active recovery. This simulates pretty much every race I've done in my county. Every hill you hit, there is another one right behind it. Some are long, some are short, and they all hurt when cruising at a barely sustainable pace.

It's funny that I'm thinking about this now. I'm running a trail-half on Sunday. Through changes to my form, my diet and my other workouts – and sticking exclusively to trail-running – my knee and calf problems have improved. I won't say they are gone, but they are letting me increase my mileage at a slow but steady pace. I noticed this in January, and I've been pushing my weekend long-run all winter. And I love it.

Just like all of the other runners I know, for me the lure of longer races is omnipresent. After my half marathon this weekend, I'm contemplating training up to a 50K. The shortest "ultra" race. The thought of racing 5Ks just doesn't appeal to me. It isn't that I don't respect the distance. There is just a limited return for the effort and the cost. Why commit twenty-five dollars and an entire morning for twenty-two minutes of racing. Twenty-two minutes of all-out effort, suffering and pain. And that doesn't even take into account a month or two of nasty training.

The other problem, I hate to admit, is the lack of "cred" I get from racing shorter distances. A fast time for me isn't fast enough to impress anyone but me. After a recent race, I was packing up my stuff to head home. A spectator asked me how I did. I said I didn't really run as well as I planned. I missed my goal by almost a minute. She shook her head and said, well you finished, that must make you feel good. Whoever she came to watch – her husband, her child, her sister – for them, finishing was the goal. For me, there were splits to consider, my age-group ranking, my overall time. I came in sixteenth, second in my age group. But I ran a very bad race.

When running a long, technical trail race, to some degree, there is some joy generated in simply finishing. Or at least joy in finally being done. And after two or more hours in the woods, there are many race segments to look back on and evaluate. How did I run the flats. Am I happy with my performance on the hills, on the technical sections. Did I finish as strong as I could have. There will be parts where I can improve, and parts where I impressed myself. It won’t be all good or all bad, but something will be good, pleasant to reminisce. Later, people will see my name in the rankings, and look at the distance, and think "Wow!" And none of it will be as hard for me as a twenty-two minute 5K.

So while I completely discount the Runner’s World mantra that the 5K is an entry level race, now that I’m again physically able to run longer races I will. Not because the 5K is too easy for me, but because it is too damn hard.  

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