It was cold this morning. I was slow waking up. The race was to start at 7:30AM but I had to get to the race start early to pick up my bib. My morning was routine; a yogurt, a cup of coffee, a little bit of stretching, getting dressed, checking out the course for the last time, leaving instructions for Missy’s meds and giving her a treat. I left the house at 5:50AM and got to the race start in Fountain Hills at 6:20AM.
After picking up and pinning bib number 1902 to my Snapathon shirt, I relaxed inside the community center with dozens of other runners. I ran into Rob whose two boys were also running the 5k. His older son (Jack) is only 15 but already running sub-19 5ks. He’s in his high school cross country team and needs to shave down a minute-a-mile for the next couple of years to stay competitive. That’s crazy fast in my book!
I sat next to Rob and made small talk about life and work. John, a tall guy who looked like a runner joined us in the conversation. John had run Boston a few years ago. We exchanged war-stories for a few minutes before I left for my car to drop off my warm clothes and get ready for the race.
Don showed up at around 7AM. He and his neighbors Steve and Terri were also running the 5k. After warming up for half-a-mile including a 30-second sprint, I was at the starting line at around 7:20AM.
The Start: It was chaotic at the starting line. There was a silly-looking turkey mascot posing for pictures with a dozen or so little kids. They were all lined up to start as soon as the gun went off. I wanted to start up front to avoid dodging slower runners but there was no way to get past the kids. I stood patiently behind the little kids and a row of fast high-school kids (including Rob’s son Jack). The crew of high-school kids were sure to run the fastest times today. They looked competitive, athletic and confident.
After a short delay due to microphone technical difficulties, the gun went off. The little kids were off first followed by the high-school kids and then a bunch of us older folks. I saw a couple of the little kids take a tumble right out of the gates as the rush to get started was chaotic as usual. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the kids simply got up and brushed it off!
The First Mile: The first half-a-mile of the course is straight downhill. We started running South on E. La Montana Dr for a short distance before making a left turn on E. El Lago Dr. It was all downhill. I was running easy at the start because I knew the course had a couple of tough hills. I ran by most of the kids and a bunch of other runners. We jockeyed for position as a few runners passed me. At the half-mile-mark, I was averaging faster than 6:20 per mile. This was faster than I had expected. We took a 90-degree left turn on N Saguaro Blvd. after the first half-a-mile for a short flat portion. My running felt smooth. My stride and breathing felt good. I knew the first of the 3 hills was coming up. As we took the left on Avenue of the Fountains, the uphill started.
My pace slowed. My stride shortened. My cadence remained the same. The second half-mile would be slower than the first. My heartrate creeped into the 160 as I settled into the uphill rhythm. John (the tall guy) tapped on my shoulder and breezed past me. A girl in a lavender top slowly passed me. She was faster than me but not by much. I decided that she would be my key today. A girl in neon passed us both at a brisk pace. I passed a few more runners; a guy in a cotton gray and another in long-sleeve blue. I could sense that they both were already losing some steam.
The Second Mile: As my Garmin buzzed, I looked down to see that I ran the first mile in 6:46 and the first major uphill was almost behind me. In a few yards, we took a U-turn to head back East on Avenue of the Fountains. It was comfortably downhill for now. My pace picked up. The girl in lavender was right in front of me. John and the girl in green were a few yards ahead but our pace was about the same. A few kids had lost steam and started to walk. We could see hoards of runners running up the hill in the opposite direction. I saw Don in his long-sleeve white shirt.
We took a left going back North on Saguaro Blvd on another flat section of the course and another left on E Palisades Blvd. This was the second (albeit gentler) uphill section. My running still felt smooth and crisp. I ran the first half of the second mile at a 6:50 pace. As we took the U-turn on Palisades coming back east, the gentle downhill saw us all picking up pace. The girl in lavender was still my key. We were running almost together as we both took the right on Saguaro Blvd coming back on the flat section. I still felt good! I ran the second mile at a 6:58 pace.
The Third Mile: As I caught up to the girl in lavender, I knew I had one more major uphill left. I still felt good. I was thinking of nothing else but running. No aches, no pains, no excuses, no external factors, no nothing. I was in the moment. At the 2.5 mile mark, I looked down at my buzzing Garmin to see that my pace was 6:58. With just over half-a-mile to go, I felt good about the race.
As we took the right back on El Lago Dr, the uphill started. This was it. Smooth stride, smooth breathing, smooth cadence. I had cut every corner close. I had run within myself and a good race so far. Finish strong. I caught up to and passed a guy in green, passed by a guy in a blue visor and ran straight for the final turn. The girl in lavender was behind me by a few yards. Just before the final right turn, I saw John (the tall guy) on the side of the road hunched over. He obviously had expended too much energy and was not doing well. I tapped his shoulder lightly to ask him if he was okay. He waved me on. I felt for him but ran knew he would be okay. I ran on.
As I took the final right turn on La Montana, I saw the finish line. I saw Rob and Shelly wave at me. It was still uphill but I had it in me to accelerate my pace. I almost caught up to another guy in blue but finished just behind him!
I wouldn’t break 21 minutes on this tough course today, but finished in the official time of 21:17 for 3rd in my age group and 41st overall. John would finish about 15 seconds behind me.
After the New York Marathon disappointment, this was a decent race. I was not anywhere close to a PR but I ran within myself and ran a good tactical race on a tough, hilly course. I overheard the high school boys talking about how tough the course was today. They were all slower by 30 to 45 seconds than their expected times. I felt good about my race!
Next up, maybe I’ll run the Hot Chocolate 15k next weekend!