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Outrunning My Expectations: Toronto Yonge Street 10K

23 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 23 – Health activist choice day 2: Write about whatever you like.

I was nervous leading up to yesterday’s race. I was not unduly challenged by the distance (10K) or the course (mostly downhill), but during the week prior to the race I had felt a cold coming on. Starting on Tuesday, I started stuffing myself with vitamin C and oil of oregano. I consumed zinc lozenges like they were candy and drank cups of my special tea that combats colds. I drank fluids like they were about to go extinct and got as much rest as my busy schedule would allow.

As God was my witness, I was going to run this race. There was no way I was letting a stupid cold stop me.

I woke up on race day feeling a little stuffy-nosed, but otherwise not too bad. I threw on running clothes that I thought would be appropriate for the weather: shorts, light technical T-shirt, lightweight running jacket, and just for the fun of it, a bright red hat. I gathered up my stuff and drove into the city, enjoying the next-to-nothing traffic on the highway.

When I got to the start, I immediately started to worry about what I was wearing. It was freezing and I was very aware of my shorts-clad legs and gloveless hands. My teeth were audibly and visibly chattering while I was doing my warm-ups, much to the amusement of a nearby police officer.

By the time the race started, though, I was not noticing the cold at all. Either it had warmed up by then, or – the more likely explanation – the start-line buzz had worked its usual magic on me. As the race got underway, I forgot all about my stuffy nose and the fact that my legs had turned purple, and I turned my sights on the finish line. I was hoping for a new personal best time, which meant that I would have to push myself, even if it was a downhill course. Because of the pesky cold virus, I thought I would do well to beat 1:03:00.

When I race, I’m rarely fast out of the starting blocks. I tend to be overcautious in the beginning out of fear that starting too fast will make me fizzle out before the end. My first two kilometres passed in the predictable fashion.

Kilometre 1: 6:31
Kilometre 2: 6:38

As usual, my body kind of automatically picked up the pace after that. The only uphill stretch of note was at about the 3km mark, and I barely noticed the incline as I floated up. I slowed down again in the fourth kilometre, mostly because of a bottleneck at the aid station, but after that, it was all systems go!

Kilometre 3: 6:09
Kilometre 4: 6:36 – because of that aid station congestion.

My body seemed to take on a life of its own during this race. From the fifth kilometre on, I was running well beyond my target pace, and although I kept waiting for my legs to run out of oomph, it just didn’t happen. After a while, I decided to simply let my body do whatever it wanted and enjoy myself. Occasionally I would attach myself to another runner, but inevitably, I would speed up and pass them.

The kilometres were passing almost in a blur, faster than I thought I was capable of.

Kilometre 5: 5:52
Kilometre 6: 6:06
Kilometre 7: 6:13 – and that was only because I slowed to a walk at the aid station, to avoid getting water all over my face.

When I ran this race two years ago, I fizzled out in the eight kilometre, so this time round I was paying close attention to my pace to avoid fatigue. I needn’t have worried.

Kilometre 8: 5:48
Kilometre 9: 5:58 – and that was because I made a quick diversion to a garbage can to throw out my now-empty water bottle.

Usually the final kilometre of a race presents me with immense psychological challenges, and I’m not sure why. My usual pattern is to hit a patch of unaccountable exhaustion right after the start of the final kilometre and slow down significantly. Then, in the last 400 metres or so, I pick up the pace to sprint over the finish line.

I wondered what would happen this time. Would I find myself starting to fade as soon as I saw the 9km marker? Would my legs fade out on me as I was running over the bridge towards the final turn?

Or would the last kilometre be as great as the rest of the race had been? The pace of my finishing kick says it all.

Kilometre 10: 5:26

Total time: 1:01:40.

Not only did I beat my previous 10K best time by about two minutes, I brought the sub-one-hour 10K within reach.

This was the best 10K race I have ever had, and it follows close on the heels of my best-ever ten-miler. My next race is a half-marathon at the end of May. Will that be another “best” for me?

If I have anything to do with it, then yes it will.

2011 Run For Autism

17 Oct

It is 8:55 on a cool Sunday morning. I am standing on a street in downtown Toronto, with about 15,999 other people. The atmosphere is buzzing with the collective energy of the crowd. As the national anthem, performed live, comes to an end, the crowd breaks into cheers and applause. And then, at 9:00 sharp, a siren sounds and the crowd surges forward as the race begins. This is it. My 2011 Run For Autism, the event that I have been training for all season. As I cross the start line, I am choked up with emotion as I think of the reason I am doing this run. My son George, my boy with autism and tons of love, my inspiration.

When I started training for this race in the Spring, I had a goal to finish in less than two hours. I knew that this would be ambitious: last year, I clocked a time of 2:22:38. Knocking 23 minutes off would be a tall order indeed. But if I formulated a good training plan and then stuck to it, I might just have a shot.

It has been said that life is what happens while we’re making other plans, and that was definitely the case with this season’s training. In the Spring I had a bout of bronchitis that put me out of action for a few weeks. I also had to deal with events like the brief hospitalization of one of my kids and a shoulder injury that sidelined me right in the middle of the season. Not to mention the fact that I got married in April.

Still, I somehow managed to salvage something resembling a training plan about six weeks before the race. I ran a couple of interim races and did OK, and then, right when my training was supposed to be peaking, I caught a nasty cold. I considered running through the cold: conventional wisdom is that it is safe to run as long as all symptoms are above the neck. But I knew from prior experience that running with a cold would slow my recovery and could jeopardize my race. So for once I exercised common sense and rested. Following the advice of my friend Phaedra, who is the kind of runner who wins in her category, I adjusted my training plan and made it to race day more or less in one piece.

It was obvious to me that two hours would not be doable. I considered following the 2:15 pace bunny but when I worked out the average pace that this would require, I realized that I would likely drop further and further back and just waste energy on being stressed. In the end I came up with a goal of 2:20. This struck the perfect balance between being achievable and being challenging.

I started out with the strategy of running the first 5km at an easy pace, without worrying about what my average pace looked like. If I fell behind my target pace, I would have 16km to make up the lost ground. I needn’t have worried: I was running at my goal pace by the 4th kilometre. I was running tens and ones – meaning that I would run for ten minutes and then take a one-minute walk break. During my ten-minute running stretches, I was getting ahead of my goal pace, and this provided me with enough of a buffer to stay on target during the one-minute walks.

Throughout the run, I was following my Dad’s strategy of “fishing for runners.” It’s a simple but effective strategy: you pick a runner about 200m ahead of you, reel them in by gradually catching up to them, and then run in their slipstream for about 500m before passing them and finding another runner to fish for.

For a while, I worried that I was matching my goal pace too easily. Either my energy would run out long before the distance did, or I had seriously underestimated myself during training. I tried to rein myself in but my body wouldn’t let me. I felt good, and I just had to go at the pace that my legs were dictating. It was only in the 18th kilometre that I started to feel the exhaustion. By then, I had less than 3km to go. I was faced with a choice: I could let my mind trick me into slowing down and missing my target time, or I could dig deep and just find the energy to keep going.

I chose to dig deep. I thought of my son George. He has to live his entire life with the challenges of autism, I told myself. The least you can do is run for another fifteen minutes.

All of a sudden, I was turning onto Bay Street for the final stretch and I had just 500m to go. Both sides of the street were lined with hundreds – maybe thousands – of spectators. My personalized bib was allowing people to cheer me on by name.

300m to go… I am exhausted and my legs feel like jelly, but I can see the finish line right up ahead of me. The closer I get, the louder the cheering is.

200m to go… a little bit of vanity takes over. I want a good finish line photo, so I start positioning myself in such a way that I will cross the line without being obscured by other runners.

100m to go… someone yells out, “Congratulations, Kirsten!” I raise my hand in acknowledgement and sprint for the finish, just metres away now. As I’m crossing the finish line, I somehow find a smidgeon of energy to raise both arms in the air in a gesture of triumph.

I have done it. I cannot believe that I have done it. I have run this race, beaten my goal time, and set a new personal best time for myself.

2 hours. 19 minutes. And 46 seconds. Every single moment of it dedicated to George.

Oasis Zoo Run: Outrunning The Old Me

27 Sep

I was more than a little nervous going into the 10K Oasis Zoo Run on Saturday. I had not run at all since the Energizer Night Race two weeks previously, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was completely recovered from my cold, and there are a lot of hills at the zoo. The old me would have shown up to this race and been content to just complete the run with no real concern for the time. There would have been no strategy, and the pacing would have been designed to just do the distance and no more.

Thanks to the Energizer Night Race, however, the old me was off pouting in a corner somewhere. The old me was not allowed on races anymore. The new me had a goal apart from just finishing the race. And along with that goal came a plan.

My goal was to beat my previous 10K PB (personal best) of 1:05:39. I figured that aiming for a time of 1:05:00 would provide me with enough of a buffer to allow for variances between the GPS on my training watch and the official race course.

I planned to run the first half in 33 minutes and the second half in 32 minutes. I worked out what my average pace needed to be and I set that up on my training watch. I hydrated and warmed up and did everything you are supposed to do before a race.

It felt very odd, standing at the start line with the intention of racing strategically. Runners were released from the start line in five waves, each wave starting five minutes after the one before. I was in the fourth wave, and I placed myself close to the back of the pack to avoid the intimidation of hordes of runners passing me.

Once I started running, I settled quickly into a rhythm. The Zoo Run starts off in the zoo parking lot, and takes runners past a row of porta-potties (the vision of scores of runners sprinting by while holding their noses is a quite sight to behold) and onto local streets for the first couple of kilometres. This part of the race is flat: a nice warm-up for runners before the course loops into the zoo itself for the remaining 8km. Once you’re in the zoo, you are running hills. While the hills are nicely balanced – the uphills are generally matched by corresponding downhills – they still make the run more challenging.

I maintained my pace well enough in the first half, finishing the first 5km in 33:15. At that point, I was feeling strong enough that I didn’t think it would be a problem to make up the fifteen seconds. But then, right after passing the 7km mark, something happened. I started feeling a little flaky. I was too hot and I felt vaguely nauseous. It got bad enough that I actually had a fleeting thought of bailing on the race. I have never, ever started a race that I haven’t been able to finish. I slowed to a walk so I could drink some water (thus making me grateful for my habit of always bringing my own water on races instead of relying solely on the water stations), started running again, and told myself that I would see how the next five minutes went.

Whatever the feeling was that had come over me, it completely passed by the time the five minutes were up, and by this time I only had 2km to go. Despite my setback, I still had a shot of making that PB, and I picked up my pace. I had another weak moment towards the end of the ninth kilometre, but that went away quickly, and I ran the last kilometre as hard as I could. With about 400 metres to go I dug deep and sprinted. By the time I turned the corner and saw the finish line ahead of me, my legs were shaking.

My official time was 1:05:28. I did not make 1:05:00 as planned, but since that had been a buffer goal anyway, it didn’t really matter. Far more important was the fact that I beat my previous PB by 11 seconds. Out of 145 finishers in the “Women 40-44” category, I was 57th. Being in the top 50% in my category, and making a PB to boot, was victory enough for me.

(Photo credit to the author.)

Is Finishing The Race A Good Enough Goal?

26 Sep

When I came back to running two and a half years ago, I came back from a zero-level of physical fitness. For several years my body had been completely devoted to growing babies and then nursing them. My mind had been devoted to trying to survive post-partum depression, the loss of my father, and my son’s autism diagnosis. With everything that I had going on, physical fitness just wasn’t on my list of priorities.

Therefore, when I started running again, speed was not an issue for me. My only goal was to simply get out there and complete whatever distance I was aiming for. Standing at the start line of my first half-marathon for autism, I was realistic enough to know that I wasn’t going to be a speed demon. I did not aim for any particular time. I just wanted to finish the race; I did not care how long it would take me.

Since that first half-marathon, I have run 12 more races. My approach to each of them has been the same: stumble across the finish line in whatever time I can manage. I have looked at my races not so much as competitive events, but as training runs with added zing.

Two weeks ago, though, I came to within a minute of my 10K PB (personal best) at the Energizer Night Race. This was a race run at night, on narrow park trails, with this weird headlight thing on my head. Most amazing of all, I actually had energy to spare when I crossed the finish line.

That race was a turning point for me in two ways. The first was that it made me re-evaluate the role of music in my runs. The second was that it made me ask the question: if I can put in a performance like that without really trying, what will I able to accomplish if I push myself beyond what I am used to?

I have been a somewhat complacent runner, being happy with just finishing the race. I still advocate that approach very strongly for beginner runners. But I am not really a beginner anymore. Perhaps it is time for me to start pushing the boundaries a little.

Tomorrow: read about how a change in race strategy this weekend worked out for me.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tdd/3524924669. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)