So, I decided at the very last minute to sign up for a 15k road race. I had first heard about this race, the Frostbite 15k, sometime in November 2017, back when I was still training regularly and feeling fit. At that time, I had committed to running it in my head but hesitated to sign up. The next couple of months came and went and race day was upon me. Looking back at these past months I can’t help but be disappointed. The number of times I’ve done a full workout I can probably count on one hand. I’ve run exactly 4.1 miles in that time. I’ve put back on more than a few of the pounds that I had worked so hard to lose. Even just doing normal activities in my day reveal that I’m not as strong as I was a couple of months ago. It is for all of these reasons that I wasn’t going to run the race after all, but ultimately it’s for these reasons that I ended up running the race. Warning: this is going to be a long post!
I felt really good coming off my 8k in November. I set my PR by a good amount. I finished solidly. I ran the entire race without much difficulty. Even though I had put on a little bit of weight through OCR season I was still feeling pretty good about the state of my body. It was a little beat up from all of those intense races, but it managed to make it through everything and was still doing some impressive things. In October, I wanted to see where my mile time was, since getting that sub-5 minute mile goal has kind of gotten lost in all of the OCR craziness that was 2017, and I ran it in 7:12! That’s a huge improvement over the 9:45 that almost killed me when I was first starting out. The Spartan Sprint I ran in September was good enough to qualify me for the OCR World Championships. I got hired on as a contributor to the preeminent OCR news and media website Mud Run Guide.
Everything was going pretty great! Even though progress was a little slower than I had hoped it would be, it would be awful of me to not be grateful for all of the wonderful things that had happened over the past year. And I was grateful. I was also tired. It was an ambitious year and it took a lot out of me. I decided to take a couple weeks off to celebrate; A nice little off-season break to let my body and mind heal. After all, Every elite racer out there talks about the off-season and how they take time off to “reset” before they start training hard for next year. I figured, if it works for them there must be something to it. Now, I know myself pretty well and I should have known that time off would have to be carefully managed or it would end up disastrous. I didn’t put any time or energy into planning the off-season. I didn’t watch what I was eating, I didn’t work out, and I didn’t have any firm date that I’d start training again; what was supposed to be a break for a week or two quickly turned into a month. Even though a month is a relatively short period of time I really had let myself go.
“How much fitness could you really lose in a month? I have been active all year, so taking a few weeks off can’t hurt me that much, can it? Even though I’ve put on a couple of pounds and have been eating junk food, I know that I’m resilient. I’m going to prove it and sign up for a 5k and crush the PR that I had set at the beginning of the year!” That was my thought process about halfway through December. The race was the Run-A-Latke which was hosted by the Jewish Community Center here in Richmond, VA. It’s a small event that is family run. This was the 8th running of this race and seemed like a promising event with an easy course. So, I went ahead and signed up for it. I know that I normally write race reviews for all of the races I do, but I didn’t write one for this event. Why? Because I was so embarrassed and ashamed by my performance. So, to fix that I’ll give it a short review now: The race was great! It was extremely well run for a small event. It had a much better production value than I was expecting. They had finisher shirts and medals. They gave out Latkes, hot chocolate, coffee, and doughnuts at the end of the race. The course was clearly marked and they had great volunteers. It’s a race I look forward to running again in the future!
As for my race, shortly after the race started I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and my legs felt like lead. No matter how much I pushed I couldn’t really get any speed. Even settling into a pace that felt ‘comfortable’ had me breathing heavily. This was a far cry from the 8k I had run a little more than a month before. What happened? Could I really have become out of shape this quickly? It seemed ludicrous, but there I was struggling on this nice, flat course. Even the end of the race shocked me. I have always, no matter my level of fitness, had a good ability to sprint at the end of a race. Even if I’m feeling gassed, knowing that the finish line is right there lets me dig down and really put it into high gear. After all, at the end of the race, what are you saving it for? Go for it! Well, I tried that strategy this time and failed. Even when I tried to sprint, I couldn’t tell that I was moving any faster. Honestly, even thinking about running faster made me want to throw up. I let go of that ‘strong finish’ mindset and just trotted to the finish line. I finished the race in 28:06.
I realize that me running a 28 minute 5k and describing it like I did so miserably could sound bad. I know there are a lot of people that have worked really hard and can’t run that distance in that time. I’m not necessarily upset with the time but more about the amount of effort I had to put in to get that time. I really had to push myself and by the end, I was suffering. In the preceding month during my 8k race my 5k split was a 26:21, almost two minutes faster. I got that time when was pacing myself knowing I still had another 2 miles left to go. So, I am satisfied with the time and I’m happy that I still came in under 30 minutes, but I’m less happy with how difficult it was for me. The revelation that I was beginning to lose my fitness hit me pretty hard. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit me in a good way.
I made an attempt to use this race as a catalyst to re-ignite my health/fitness routine, but I was completely unsuccessful. In fact, I think it actually might have made it worse. I think that by performing so poorly I actually got a little resentful about exercise as a whole. I spent the next few weeks sleeping in, eating junk food, and getting fat. The whole time I kept having these thoughts “You have plenty of time to get back in shape. You worked hard in 2017 and you deserve a break. A few weeks won’t hurt you. It’s just one (more) treat. You’ve got this under control, don’t stress out about it.” But I didn’t have it under control; I was in a downward spiral. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this these past few weeks and I think I came to a couple of conclusions.
My first mistake was over-doing it this year. That’s not to say I don’t think I can handle what I put myself through, but I think I did it a little prematurely. I apparently trained just enough to get myself through it, but it left me completely burnt out by the end of the season. Working out wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t look forward to it. And on those rare occasions where I got myself out of bed and did something my heart just wasn’t in it. When I worked out I felt good amount doing something, but just going through the motions isn’t going to really get you much progress. Paradoxically, the second mistake I made was stopping. I know that I was burnt out, but I think if I had kept up my routine, even if I wasn’t pushing myself, I would have ended up in a better place. I’ve been keeping up with all of the elite OCR racers over social media and I realized something. It’s not hammering yourself in the gym for an hour+ every day that makes you great. All of these racers are also in their off-seasons, but they don’t spend their time sleeping in and eating candy. They are out on hikes, climbing rock faces, skiing, and all around just having a good time. For them, their off-season is more active than most average people’s workouts. They aren’t pushing hard. There isn’t a number of reps or max weight they are trying to move. But they are outside and they are keeping active. I think this is a big part of the reason that they can be professional athletes; they have designed their lives in such a way where they can maintain their elite level of fitness without having to think about it. I am sure they still get in workouts, and I am sure that once they get done with their adventures that they spend a lot of time training as well, but the reason I brought it up was the stark contrast I noticed between their ‘down time’ and mine.
I’ve spent the last two months quickly destroying much of what I have spent the past 16 months building. The more this realization sets in the more panicked I become. The 2018 race season isn’t going to wait for me to get back in shape. Knowing this puts me in another bad situation because I know that I tend to fall apart when I feel that kind of obligatory, negative pressure. Rather than using this pressure to motivate me I tend to pull back from it in an attempt to escape it. But I’ve already signed up for some races and we all know they don’t give you your money back, so I had to do something. And this brings us to the weekend of the 15k. As I said, I first heard of the race in November, back when I was still feeling encouraged about my fitness. I thought it could be interesting because, while I’ve run 9+ mile OCR races before, the longest road race I’ve done was a 10k. I was curious to see how I’d hold up for that distance on the road.
Leading up to race day I was getting more and more worried about it and was trying to talk myself out of it. The 5k I just completed shook my confidence and I wasn’t sure running the longer distance was a smart decision. After all, I have had all of those issues with knees and Achilles tendons. I remember about this time last year when I was starting to try to increase my mileage during my training. I was only usually about to run twice a week, usually for 2-3 miles, before I’d be in pain. Surely, 9 miles would destroy me. It is January, so it’d be cold. If I could barely run a sub 30 minute 5k in December, this race would likely be really hard and it would hurt my confidence even more. My wife had plans that weekend, and you can’t have strollers in this race, so she’d have to adjust those plans to watch my daughter. On top of that, I hadn’t signed up yet so the entry prices had gone up. You name an excuse and I probably thought of it. I was really on the fence and I know that I’m pretty good at taking the easy way out. The 15k was on a Sunday and here I was at 11:00 on that Friday night still debating what I was going to do. Everyone is going to have a different opinion about this, and that’s fine, but I do believe that if you are open to it, and you’re paying attention, that you can get help from a higher power in times of need. Remarkably, I didn’t ask for this intervention, but I got, what I felt, was a pretty clear sign that Friday night that I needed to sign up for this race. So, I did! I was nervous about it, but I had faith that I was making the right decision.
I’m not going to go over the race in as much detail as I typically do. Not that the race doesn’t deserve its own post, but that’s not the goal of this post. The race itself took place in a historic part of Richmond and ran through and adjacent to two of the cities most iconic parks: Maymont and Byrd Park. Having the race in this area is pretty cool, though the majority of the race was through residential areas. The surrounding area isn’t unique, so the race itself wasn’t as captivating as some other races, but this race had a really serious tone about it, so I think having a scenic route was pretty low on their priority list.
Apparently, this is the 34th running of this particular event. I was surprised to hear that as I’ve never heard of the race before and I’ve been in this city for around 16 years. It was even more surprising with 34 years of experience how rough around the edges the race felt. First and foremost, was the bathroom situation. The check-in was indoors at a local elementary school, but we were not permitted to use the facilities there, we had to use the port-a-potties outside. That, to me, is perfectly reasonable. What was not reasonable was the number of port-a-potties that were available. The race website stated the race was limited to 1000 racers. When I signed up the website stated there were only around 40 spots left, meaning this event was almost sold out. I don’t know what sort of turn out they have had in the past but they concluded that 6 port-a-potties would be enough for this race. But if we do some math we can clearly see that their predictions were way off: If 500 of those 1000 people needed to use the bathroom and they divided up neatly into 6 lines, one for each toilet, that would mean there would be around 83 people per line. If each of these people took exactly 30 seconds in each stall that would mean if you were last in line you’d be waiting in line for 41 minutes just to use the bathroom!! We all know that runners are some of the most notorious bathroom users that exist on the planet. And while not everyone is going to need the bathroom and not everyone will need to go at the same time, you should expect these toilets to be in high demand. As you can see from the image below the situation was not good. If you had to stand in this line you definitely were not going to get the proper time to warm up and stretch before the race started. In fact, I’d say about 80% of the people in this photo were still in line when we were summoned to the start line.
Speaking of being summoned to the start line, I thought it strange that they didn’t have a PA system at all. Perhaps it was because the start line wasn’t far from some houses, but there were zero speakers there. So, no music, no announcer, no anything. Instead of that, there was just a very angry sounding guy near the start line yelling at everyone in the bathroom line when there were 7 minutes until the race started. There was also no audible countdown or anything prior to the race start. We were all just kind of standing there and then the people in front of us started moving. This was a significant departure from what I am used to both in OCR and from other road races. Another thing I didn’t like was that I didn’t get a shirt. I know I signed up last minute, and they said last-minute sign-ups aren’t guaranteed a shirt. I accept that and I did get fair warning. However, I do think that if you’re putting on a race and you know there are only going to be 1000 people you could probably put in an order close to that number. This by itself wouldn’t have upset me too much, but combined with some of the other things left me questioning the race organizer’s commitment to this event.
It was an interesting race as the course had a pretty strange layout. It crossed over itself quite a few times and they did a good job of making sure you wouldn’t be colliding with other runners, but it did make the course a little confusing. Luckily, I had hundreds of runners in front of me to follow so I never got lost! The most strange thing about the course is that they didn’t shut down any of the roads to traffic. So, there were literally parts of the race where you are running around/behind/in front of/beside moving cars. They do warn you of this on the site and tell you that you are responsible for your own safety, but it was weird to share a race course with cars. I did feel kind of bad for the residents of those areas where we were running. I am sure some people had a hard time getting to work, Church, or brunch.
This post is getting long enough as it is, so I’ll spare many of the boring details of the race itself. I did manage to convince my body to run the first 5k. It was hard though. I’d say right around the first half mile my instinct to stop started kicking in. My 5k time was around a 30:40. Another 2.5 minutes slower than my 5k in December… If you think I was disappointed by that 5k, this 5k time made me forget all about that one! After the first 3 miles, I wasn’t able to run a single mile under 10 minutes for the rest of this race; which is evidenced by the guy that passed me who was juggling the entire time. That’s right, a juggler just cruised right past me while I was running my heart out.
As I mentioned in my 8k post I typically pick an enemy to beat in each race. It took a little while for the field to spread out enough for me to choose anyone. As a matter of fact, that didn’t happen until around mile 3.5, when I was walking. That’s when two ladies passed me. One of the ladies I recognized at a former bank manager from a bank I used to frequent. The other was a lady who was a little older than I am; She might have been in her mid-to-late 50s, possibly even early 60s. It was apparent after some time that we were all moving roughly around the same speed, so I decided to have two enemies this race. My bank teller friend was the fastest of the three of us, and there were plenty of times where I wasn’t sure if I’d catch her or not. Beating her was more of a stretch goal and so I set my sights primarily on my other enemy.
This race had a lot of downs for me without very many ups. I was truly struggling almost the entire time. I walked way more often than I wanted to and for way longer than I wanted to. I just couldn’t seem to get it together. I couldn’t breathe well, my legs were heavy and uncooperative, and I lacked any sort of endurance. My primary nemesis, on the contrary, had it all. After she passed me the first time I spent the entire rest of the race trying everything I could to finish before she did. She was truly amazing out there and was a formidable opponent. Like I mentioned, she is a bit older than I am. She had light colored, slightly greying hair. She appeared to have a pretty serious case of kyphosis (rounded upper back). Her running stride was short and choppy and her foot strike really needed some work. These are some of the judgemental things that came into my mind while I was desperate to find some strength to finish this race.
These observations weren’t coming from a negative place though, they came from some really profound revelations that I had while I was out there. The reason I noticed any of these thoughts was because no matter how hard I tried I could not catch this person. She would be far enough ahead that by the time I would start running, and I would gain some ground on her, I’d feel like I’d have to stop again. When I stopped running, there she was pulling away from me again. No matter what I was thinking, it didn’t change the fact that she was out there and that she was ahead of me. There I was with all of the things I’ve studied and all of the running mechanics tweaks I’ve worked on; I was the younger person with ‘better form’ and all this knowledge, and no matter what I tried, I just could not catch her. No matter what the mile marker said, there she was trucking along like it was nothing. I’m going through bouts of wanting to throw up and quit altogether and she’s there in front of me, charging forward. I kept switching from running to walking and she just ran, each foot landing like a metronome, the entire time. The only time I saw her walk at all was at the last water station to grab a cup of water. She drank it and tossed it in the trash can, and then started right back up running again. I had all of these reasons that I “should be” faster than she is, but at the end of the day, none of them could change the simple fact that I wasn’t.
I think with anything competitive there is a certain amount of ego you have to worry about. I think that without some sort of drive to make yourself better you can’t really have any fun in anything competitive. And while I know that I probably won’t be winning any races, I still want to get out and do the best that I can. The harder you work at something the better you tend to become. The better you become at something the more confident you feel about it. Confidence is a slippery slope though, and I feel like if left unchecked it can easily slip into vanity. I don’t think I’m a very vain person, most of the time, though I do think that this race showed me that I was getting a little more arrogant than I’d like to admit. There’s no reason that I should “expect” to beat anyone. When you show up to the start line anyone could be there, and it’s always possible you could be the worst one. There’s no reason, superficial or otherwise, that you should expect to beat another person. You never know how hard they’ve trained or how much heart they have. I know I have a problem where, because I’ve done something once, I expect to be able to repeat it at will, even if circumstances have changed. It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve gotten worse or that something is not achievable.
I think thoughts like these have been holding me back and are detrimental to my success, not just as an athlete, but as a person. This past year I made a lot of improvement and finally started showing some promise. But it’s wrong to believe that just because two months ago I ran a much faster time that I somehow deserve to run that fast now. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t take care of myself. I wasn’t training and I wasn’t eating right. Every bit of agony I felt, I deserved. My performance this day was the direct result of my actions, just like everyone else out there had a performance that was the result of their actions. My race enemy should be extremely proud of herself. It’s obvious she’s put in the work to compete in an event like this. The fact that she could run the entire event is amazing, just like anyone who ran the whole race is amazing. The fact that she is as consistent as she is, amazes me. I am sure she’s trained for a long time to get those results. And while I had a grimace on my face the whole time, whenever I saw her face she seemed as though she was having a blast out there. I think the ability to focus solely on having fun while competing is something I lost a time ago, and I really need to work on getting that back.
One final note about this topic is that I want to express my gratitude for this racer. If this person had not been out on the course I would not have finished with the time that I did. It sometimes felt torturous to try to keep up with her, but if she wasn’t there pushing me the whole time I know for a fact I would have walked a lot more and I would have run more slowly. So, I want to thank her for pushing me and giving me a better race time. But more importantly, I want to thank her for opening my eyes. I think it’s important for people to be humbled once in a while, and I think I was overdue. So, to this runner, I want to say something directly: I envy you. Your commitment to succeed is truly inspiring. I hope one day to have half the heart you displayed out on that race course. You may not know it, but you taught me a lot that day, and I’m better for it. I know it’s unlikely that you’ll ever read this but I still wanted to say, for everything that day, thank you!
I suppose after all of that I should say something about how the race ended. Well, it took almost the entire race, from around 3.5 miles to almost the 8th mile, but I eventually caught my first race enemy. It wasn’t easy and it cost me a lot of energy to do it. Once I caught her I had to try really hard to make sure I stayed in front of her. Even if I needed to walk, I had to keep it short because I was so tired at this point that I didn’t know if I’d have the energy to catch her again. Despite my best efforts, she did manage to catch me once, but I got lucky as I had been walking a while and had caught my breath so I started running again soon after she passed me. I knew she was there, hot on my trail, the whole time so it really helped to push me to the finish line. I guess my bank manager friend put a little too much into the first half of the race because as we were getting closer to the end of the race she got closer and closer. I saw her walk a couple of times and when she was running she wasn’t as quick as she had been before. I got my hopes up a little bit that I might also be able to catch her, but it was looking more and more hopeless as the finish line approached. After the 8th mile, I was pretty much exhausted. My legs were heavy, sore, and unresponsive. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and my will to live was waining. I was starting to give up hope that I’d catch her. I had come around one corner to see her walking in front of me, but unfortunately, as I needed to stop for a moment to walk she started running again.
At this point, I figured catching her was a lost cause, so I stopped thinking about racing anyone else and just tried to muster the strength to get to the finish line. I was maybe about a half mile from the finish line and was very eager to get it done with. Despite the protests from my legs, I made a mental commitment to finish that last half mile without walking. I managed to do it, though I am sure I looked like I was hurting and my form was probably awful. As I usually do, I tried my best to sprint the last little section. In this race, it was a straight shot to the finish line for the last 300-400 meters. Interestingly, it was on an incline, so that made it harder to get much speed when you’re already exhausted. But, I did my best to get up that hill and I managed to pass a few people right at the end. It was difficult and I was on the brink of getting nauseated again, so I held back just enough at the end of this one to prevent that.
I crossed the finish line in 1:45:37. My goal for the race was 1:30:00, so I missed my goal but not really by that much. In a race this distance, a few seconds on each mile add up, so I feel like I was actually pretty close to where I wanted to be. Of course, 1:30:00 was my time to beat, my real (vanity) goal was 1:20:00. But you know what? I’m perfectly ok with my time! I went out there and did the best I could and that’s all you can ask of yourself. Sure, I’m discouraged that I didn’t do better, but again, that’s the result of my lifestyle and I’m aware of that now. If I want a better time I have to work for it, it’s not just going to ‘happen’ for me. And if I want to keep my fitness I have to maintain it and watch what I eat. Fitness is truly a “get-what-you-give” endeavor. I’ve got some work ahead of me to get back to where I was a few months ago, and I’ve got even more work to get to where I want to be. It’s reassuring to know that I will get there if I just keep it up. Life itself is not (or it shouldn’t be!) a race, and I need to learn to cut myself some slack. I need to trust in the process and put in the time to get the reward, whenever that might come. Sometimes I think it can be hard to work so hard for something to get no immediate return on your investment. I’m starting to realize, that the best, most rewarding things in life are like that, though. And it makes it so much more meaningful when you do finally reach your goals.
Oh, and after the fact, I went online and checked the race results. I was so concentrated on running that last bit that I really wasn’t paying attention to anything but that finish line. After the race, I realized I didn’t know if I finished ahead of my second enemy or not. According to the official race results I managed to squeak by her right at the end, finishing a whopping 30 second ahead of her! She was definitely a worthy adversary!
On that note, I think I’m finally going to wrap up this post. If you made it all the way down here I feel like you deserve a medal!!