Running Down a Dream

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of me approaching the finish line of the Ogden Mile in Wheeling, WV. The clock above me read 5:08 and I wrote, “Never thought I’d see 5:0x at the end of a mile, like ever.” 

I wound up running 5:11 officially. Sure, it was downhill. But after years of struggling to find my speed after having three babies, it seemed like I had finally blown off all of those cobwebs and busted the rust off my legs. I was elated. 

Fast forward to last week, where I found myself back in Wheeling to visit my dear friend Crystal and her boys for Memorial Day weekend.  We made a mad dash with all five kids to the race start about an hour before the gun and registered for the race before taking a school bus up the hill with Crystal and the boys to the start of the race (there was a tot trot and kid’s mile, too). I was completely calm and confident: Training has been going really well lately and I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to crack 5 minutes. A text from Bec further fueled my motivation: “You only get a few chances is life to break 5 minutes in the mile.” Still, dropping 11 seconds in one year on the same course? That was a big ask. 

About 20 minutes before go time, I laced up my new Salming racing flats and did a proper warmup: Strides, stretching, jogging around the top of the hill before we were called the line up. The field was tiny—maybe 16 of us total. I recognized a woman who finished close to me and spotted a spindly-legged 12-year-old who looked like she could move.  The kid’s mile went off first, and I watched Crystal, Owen, and Eamon make their way down the hill. The nerves dissipated. If my six-year-old can do this, well then what was I worried about?

When we were given the signal to go and I went out full speed. Ouch. The legs were not responding. The top men blew by me. I had a split-second debate in my head as to whether I really wanted to do this. I could jog, I could take it easy and save everything for the 5K the next morning. But then reality smacked me in the face: This was a downhill mile. I just had to let gravity do its job. So I leaned forward to lessen the impact on my legs and lower back, and pushed as hard as I could. 

After about 800 meters, the road flattened. This is where I made my move last year and pulled away from the second place woman. I shifted into another gear on the flat and set my eyes on the guy in front of me. I was in an all-out sprint as I turned the corner into the homestretch and could hear the announcer calling out the top male’s time. “He’s just over four minutes, ladies and gentleman…”. I did the math. I had less than a minute to get to that finish line. I took advantage of the downhill finish and pushed, pushed, pushed.

And then nearly knocked over Nora.

My dear little four-year-old wanted to run to the finish line with me, as I often let her do. But not in an all-out road mile. I nearly tripped over her as I gave her the stiff arm and blurted out, “I need to finish the race!” Leaving her absolutely dejected in my wake, I continue my dash to the line where I saw the clock and nearly passed out in shock: 4:47.

23-second improvement from last year. The first time I’ve ever eclipsed the five-minute mark in the mile, and course record by 12 seconds. And after a few extra hugs and kisses from me, Nora got over her near trampling.

The 5K

The next morning brought the 5K. Up until the gun went off, I was debating whether to run it all out or to pace Crystal to a PR. I had no ideas how my legs would react to the pounding from the mile, and decided to take it out easy. After a 6:17 first mile, though, I felt surprisingly springy and made my way to the front of the pack, and, eventually, took the lead from the number one guy. I was sure he’d go with me, but no. I wasn’t comfortable leading the race as I hadn’t studied the course and only vaguely remembered it from last year. But I kept pushing the pace, hoping that there would be marshals or at least a sign directing us where to go.

For the most part, the course was well marked. As I flew by the 2-mile marker with a 6:03 split, I told myself that this was going to be my chance to break 19-minutes. My mind went back to a particularly tough workout I did in Florida over spring breakwhere I ran two-miles at 6:06 pace on a similar course in similar weather. If I could do that again, I told myself, I’d finally nail that sub-19 5K. I just had to finish strong.

And stay on course.

Unfortunately, the latter half didn’t go to plan. With about a half-mile to go, I continued straight on a road where we were supposed to turn right. I realized my mistake about 200 meters later as I came upon the finish line—from the wrong direction. Ugh. I stopped, turned around, and jogged back to the course where I saw the second place guy coming up. The lead was still mine despite the 45-second detour. Pissed off and fired up, I sprinted the last dash to the finish line, turning in my first-ever overall win.  My time? 20:11 for a total of 3.25 miles, including the stop and ensuing confusion. I know that I would have had a sub-19 if I didn’t go off course, but hey, I’ve got no one to blame but myself (although it would’ve been nice to have a volunteer planted at that crucial turn; just sayin.)

The takeaway: Never lose sight of your goals. Since I started running as a gangly 14-year-old, I’ve wanted to run under 5-minutes in the mile and under 19-minutes in the 5K. I’ve come close many times. And despite being completely out of shape and slow at various times in my life, those goals have always remained there; the golden rings just out of my grasp. I could have long forgotten them, shifted my focus away from the speed that always seemed to elude me. But for some reason, I never abandoned those goals.  Stubbornness? Denial? A need to prove something to myself? Perhaps a mix of all three. To be able to finally achieving one of those goals more than 20 years after I began running has made the satisfaction even sweeter—but has only made me hungrier for more.