Sunday, July 6, 2014

PR Paradox:Was It Me or the Shoes?

The bib, the 2nd place AG medal, and the "winning" shoes that helped make it possible

Sure, anyone can claim a PR on race day with the ultimate conditions, training and a little bit of luck. But this time it was finally mine.

There was a time, early in my running experience, when a 5K was a major distance. As my training evolved, so has my endurance....and the 5K is no longer a distance challenge, but a speed challenge instead.

Which is why I don't run many 5K's these days.  It's not that I am afraid of the distance (I run a 3-4 mile run at least once a week anyways), but I detest racing that distance. I'm kind of a mildly-moderate-somewhat-fast-paced "average" runner. I can usually finish in the top 25 percent, but within that top 25 percent the competition is pretty fierce. I'm not real competitive by nature, and I'm not naturally gifted with exceptional speed, so it's way out of my comfort zone to attempt to finish towards the front of the pack.

This was not an issue when my goal was to simply run the 3.1 miles and cross the finish line. That was the easy part. Now I have the (self-imposed) pressure to run those 3.1 miles faster each time I lace up my shoes. Some runners thrive on that, but I'm not one of them (my mojo comes from running far, not necessarily running fast).

That dreaded comfort zone has kept me from registering for several 5K's in recent years.  I heard of a local race, though, the Sully Freedom Fun Run, and decided to give it a chance. Maybe it would help reignite a competitive spirit within me, or give me a chance to gauge my recovery from the piriformis issues that have plagued me (for almost two years). Either way, this race supported a good cause (the local school's cross country team).

The Sully Freedom Fun Run is an annual event on the 4th of July, so it would be fun to dress in patriotic colors to honor my country. I had heard great things about this race...that it was small but well organized, the course was mostly flat, and it attracted a lot of nearby high school runners. And, let's be honest, small races give you the best edge for (possibly) placing within your age group.

We have had some extreme heat and humidity in Iowa this summer, and have had a lot of rain recently. Fortunately, the temps were the 60's, low (if any) humidity, and a mild breeze. 

Prior to race day, I had been having a lot of discomfort, mainly in both of my upper hamstrings but also in the piriformis area (deep inside the buttocks), limiting my range of motion. I did some stretching and a few lunges and squats to get things loosened up, but still had some stiffness at the start of the race.

The race was a two-loop course around town, ending with a lap around the town square.  As I made my way through the first several blocks, I could feel my stiffness releasing. Usually, I need a couple miles to get in a rhythm, so I was pleasantly surprised to feel so good so early (another reason I shy away from 5K's is because I seem to need most of the race itself just to "warm up").

I checked my watch at the first mile mark and almost gasped to see it showed I was just under an 8-minute pace. I felt good, so I continued on, preparing to slow down if I got winded from going too fast so soon.  

As I approached the water station at the halfway point, my watch showed I was still at an 8-minute pace. I grabbed a water cup, walked a few steps as I gulped it down, and continued on.

On a whim, I elected to wear different shoes for this event. Typically, I have a few different pairs of shoes I rotate through, depending on the distance. My "newest" shoes are used mainly for long runs (10 miles or longer), and I use the "older" shoes for anything shorter. The shoes I was wearing were bought awhile ago at a Nikey outlet store, but I only use these "inexpensive"  ones for short runs or walking.  I have been wearing my "new" shoes more than usual  recently because I've had a lot of discomfort (and stiffness) and have been doing a lot more distance runs and races.

As I was making my way around the second loop, I continued to feel better with each step.  I wasn't sprinting, but I wasn't easing up either. I was really surprised how effortless this race was feeling, and really surprised how good my legs were feeling . I couldn't help but wonder if it was because of the shoes (?).

I passed the 2-mile mark and noticed my pace had slowed slightly (but was still faster than normal) and I was still feeling great.  It had been a long time since a 5K had seemed so effortless!

The crowd support was great, and it was fun circling around the town square to the finish line with the sound of so much cheering. My official finish time was 25:27, a definite PR and a second place finish in my age group.

Rocking the hardware and root beer (won as a door prize)
So, how did this happen? Why was this 5K so much easier than most of the others I have run?

Several factors, I believe, were at play. This was the final day of a 40-day run streak, so my body (though weary from 40 continuous days of running) had been conditioned to run regardless. I had run four half marathons over the course of seven weeks (late April through mid-June), so other than the daily streak runs, I have had minimal mileage in the past couple weeks. This meant my body was pretty well-rested, I was kind of in a "post-taper-fresh-legs" state of being. The weather was optimal. The course was flat. Maybe the sun, moon, and stars were perfectly aligned as well. And I wore different shoes than I normally would have chosen. Hmmmm...

As I mentioned, this was a fairly small race. According to the published results, there was a total of 227 5K runners, 119 of them were women and 11 were in my age group. The gal (in my age group) who got first place was almost two minutes ahead of me, and the gal who got third was a minute and a half behind me, so my competition wasn't too intense. My ego is in check, and I know every subsequent 5K (or any race of any distance) will not necessarily be as easy.

A lot of Grinnell townsfolk were at this race, and several of us placed in our age divisions
 This 5K PR and second place AG finish came at an opportune time. My confidence in my speed has been at an all-time low, and the ongoing piriformis issues have had me at a plateau for almost two years.  I have had a few PR's with longer races recently, so it was great to finally claim a PR a short distance. Maybe the plateau has ended and I am rallying back. I'm ready!

What is your least favorite distance to race?  Have you ever hit a plateau? I'd love to hear your story!

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