Now that we’re a quarter of the way through the Super Awesome Year of the 5K, I have to reflect on that anomaly of the first race. I broke 31 minutes. I was hoping to break 35.
The next month, I couldn’t break 32, even though I was in better shape. In month 3, I was just shy of breaking 31.
So what happened? What was different about that first race? Was I not trying hard enough or making mistakes along the way?
There is one clear difference that was easy to spot: The first race was almost completely flat. There was only a negligible elevation difference through the run. We basically ran onto the spillway and ran back.
It was easy enough to see that and given my hatred of hills, made sense. But it didn’t provide enough explanation. I might hate hills, but I wasn’t in that good of shape at the time. I knew that. I just couldn’t explain what happened.
And so I kept puzzling. In the meantime, I’ve kept reading articles and I’m constantly absorbing information about a variety of topics just out of natural curiosity. This landed me with a couple more explanations that might help.
The first is this was the only race where I went through anything vaguely resembling a proper warm-up. I have terrible conditioning, even when I’m running 3 times a week. Warm-ups are a natural enemy to me, so I don’t do them properly.
But this race forced the issue. First, it was actually freezing. There was an ice advisory that morning. I wasn’t staying warm to prep. I was staying warm for comfort. So I was bouncing around, I was moving, and I was warming up. The other aspect was this race forced me to walk farther just to get to the starting point. We were parked not terribly far away but easily the farthest I’ve ever had to walk for a 5K, and it was freezing, so it became a brisk walk.
So we have the warm up, but that still doesn’t seem like enough. The next thing I latched onto was nerves. Another way of thinking of nerves is stress.
Stress can often be portrayed as the enemy, but it’s not necessarily. There are people who get test anxiety, but I never got that. I mean, tests are always somewhat stressful, but I would feel my heart rate go up, I’d be more fidgety, but I didn’t feel nervous at all. I just felt very keyed into the situation. Instead of thinking more, the stress made me zone in and go with the flow, going much faster than I would have otherwise.
And this fits in with the literature on stress reactions. There’s an interesting TED Talk from Kelly McGonigal if you’d like a fuller explanation, but here’s the cliff notes version. When you get stressed out, your body reacts one of two ways. The way we typically think is the negative reaction. Basically, we’re going to war with our body and all sorts of damaging things are happening that impair us. But the other reaction is the positive where we have all the same things that happen negatively, except we also release oxytocin, which allows us to benefit from the stress instead of losing the benefits of increased blood flow.
Because I’ve seen negative effects of stress, I try to rein it in. I try to slow down my breathing. With the first race, I wasn’t able to. Instead, I rode the wave. I got caught up in running with the pack for too long (and this was the fastest group at the start of the three races so far). It wasn’t bad stress. It was much more reminiscent of doing sports growing up. I was just keyed into the situation more than would have been otherwise.
But still, that doesn’t seem like it tells me everything. Luckily, I’ve been tracking myself a little too meticulously. My fitbit tracks my activity level. I can go back and see my workouts, which includes the 5Ks (I’ve been timing myself in case there was something wrong with the event timer, which has happened before). I can see how long I was running versus how long I was walking. In the first race, logically enough, I was running more and walking for shorter intervals.
In other words, I was pushing myself harder. I wasn’t letting myself rest as much. In an effort to not accidentally hurt myself, I’ve been limiting the part of me that likes to push too hard. And looking back out how I felt after the runs, the first was by far the worst. I was tired and achy, with no intention of running for a few days after. With the last run, I was actually ready to run two days later because I hadn’t pushed to exhaustion. I was almost ready to throw up after the first race. After the other two, I was a mostly functional human being. Mostly.
I don’t know if this was the full story, but it gets a lot closer to explaining what happened instead of just relying on the hills. In my next run, I may try to ride my nerves a little more to see what happens.