On a quiet morning, I queued up with a group of locals for the 5K Torch Run. With a field of only about fifty participants, I was casting anonymity aside in favor of convenience (the start line was four blocks from home) and community.
I prefer running en masse and typically choose sports events away from home where the contingent is in the hundreds or thousands and where I can run without the complicating awareness of who’s ahead of me and who’s behind me. Oddly, the more people in the race, the more I can compete against me and only me.
The Torch Run was the second in a series of six 5Ks sponsored by various groups in town to encourage fitness and raise funds for worthy causes. The registration table was set up under a tent outside the Subway franchise and as we signed waiver forms, participants greeted each other cheerily by name, pinned on bibs, and shook out chilly limbs. Some were obviously here to run, others to walk, some were in wheelchairs, and others pushed strollers. I chatted with several acquaintances as we awaited start time.
I’m always nervous before a race, infected by the energy at the starting line, and at this local race my jitters were heightened by the idea of being watched by people I knew. Fortunately for me, save the participants themselves, spectators were limited to a handful of volunteers and significant others.
When I lined up, I glanced around at the field of familiar runners, but, having never raced against them, was uncertain where I should place myself. I did my best and maneuvered into a small group of women that I calculated might be the right cohort.
Last winter I set out to improve my speed, curious to see if, at the age of forty-something, it was possible to not just improve endurance and distance, but to actually get faster. Armed with a regimen from Runner’s World magazine and a weight lifting plan structured by my husband, Matt, a former wrestler and coach, I hit the gym. From October through April, I stuck fairly closely to my prescribed schedule and in February, I ran a 5K while on vacation, and set a personal record for that distance.
The Torch Run was my next time trial, so, knowing I’d be challenged to keep my mind on my own time instead of the familiar people around me, I’d tried to prep myself mentally. As I pushed off the starting line, I willed myself into my race pace. I find it incredibly easy to overshoot my pace in the first five minutes of a race, so I’d coached myself to listen to my legs for those first few minutes – I’d been running all winter at that speed, so I knew I could trust my muscles to remember the pace. After the first turn, I tuned into my heart and lungs. From that point on it was all about breath and heart rate. I barely noticed the two women in my starting group pull away from me and was oblivious to those behind me. Periodically, I’d switch my attention to the cadence of my footfalls, toes pushing off the paved trail, the momentum created by my pumping arms.
I was vaguely aware that someone passed me and I passed someone else. Soon, I heard volunteers and timekeepers whooping, cheering for me by name (something I never hear when I’m racing in Anchorage!). I recognized when I was a minute out, picked up my speed, and sprinted across the finish line. I set a new PR at the Torch Run, confirming that it is, indeed, possible to improve speed even after a certain age. And, as importantly, I won my own mind game, thus proving to myself that you really can compete against yourself, even in the midst of a small and familiar field.