Writing and running in Austin, TX.
If you’re a Facebook friend or have otherwise come within 500 feet of me in the last 3 days, you probably already know that on Thursday evening, I beat my previous 5K PR (personal record). Ironically, this was all largely accidental. Or at least not entirely intentional.
I can largely attribute this achievement to yet another Internet innovation of the sort I have heretofore avoided and grumbled about like the 27-year-old curmudgeon I truly am. This week’s culprit: Groupon.
It was Monday morning, and I was sitting innocently at my desk, technical-writing my little heart out, when an instant message from K popped up.
K 11:47.07 am: do you want to do the moonlight margarita 5k? there’s a groupon for half off
Chris 11:47.23 am: uhh…i’ve never used gropuon
(Times and exact text fabricated. Capitalization and spelling errors represented accurately.)
Groupon is a Web site that offers daily deals on various area business. For example, in Austin you will commonly see something along the lines of “$30 of burritos for $15”.
The deals are really quite good. The catch is that a certain number of people have to buy into the deal before it’s “On”. In our case, 25 people would have to pledge to pay $20 to run this race. I knew this because there’s a little ticker on the site that tells you how many people have bought into the deal. At the time of our IM conversation, about 14 people had bought in.
Now I, in a brilliant fit of misunderstanding, thought there were only 25 slots to be had, total. I refreshed the page and the “14” changed to a “17”. I started to get antsy. Time was running out! With the pressure of that ticker, I suddenly forgot that I had zero interest in running this 5K because 1) our company was having a huge conference downtown and everyone was working 10 hour days, 2) I was supposed to run 6 miles on Thursday, not 3, and 3) at 8pm in Austin in August, you can pretty much count on it being 100 degrees out. (That’s 37.777 C, for my Canadian readership.)
I was completely consumed by the prospect of missing out on the deal. (This is exactly how otherwise reasonably-minded women end up buying the exact same shirt in 3 different colors because the sale ends tomorrow.)
Not only did I immediately decide to buy myself an entry, but I proceeded to IM our friend E (or Easy E, as he would prefer to be known) and inform him that he HAD to run this race with us. And I didn’t want to hear any excuses about having to care for his two-year-old child. Two is old enough to feed yourself, right?
Fast forward to Wednesday. K, Easy E, and I (plus one particularly unlucky non-runner friend) head out to lunch. I suppose it was delirium caused by lack of sleep that caused me to put down my veggie burger and announce that I was going to try to break 30 minutes in the 5K.
Honestly, I had no grounds to make such an audacious claim. My previous PR was 31:08, so such an accomplishment would require shaving over 23 seconds per mile off that effort…which had been undertaken 3 years ago on a November morning under far more favorable conditions. Like a true friend, K immediately pledged to pace me to this goal. Suddenly this race had gone from an accidental entry to a serious competitive effort.
Intimidated by my own big-mouthed claims, I put more thought into race prep for this 5K than I had for the 2009 San Antonio Marathon. I ate a light meal 2.5 hours before race time. I refrigerated my water bottle so it would be cold during the race. I put on my favorite shorts and a white technical tee to reflect the brutal sun. I changed socks twice and went through the pre-race Port-a-Potty line once. All this for an effort that would theoretically take less than half an hour.
It was indeed toasty at the start. (Official race temp was 95 F, 35 C.) K and I spent a good 7 minutes debating where to line up for the start. If you know you’re going to run in the 9-10 minute range, race etiquette demands you line up toward the back of the pack so the real racers aren’t forced to shove you into a garbage can. However, since 5K is a relatively short distance, it attracts a bunch of non-runners who have no idea that it’s rude to line up in the front row if you plan to walk, listen to headphones, and push your 8-month-old in front of you in a baby jogger.
What to do? What to do?? Do we line up toward the back, as etiquette demands, and risk having to spend the first mile weaving in and out of all those walking nincompoops? Or do we line up closer to the front and risk royally ticking off the emaciated dude in his American Flag short-shorts and chest-belt heart rate monitor?
I guess the etiquette’s been too thoroughly drilled into me. We chose the back.
The gun (wimpy horn) went off.
We stood there.
After about 20 seconds, our section of crowd began a slow shuffle. At 40 seconds, we broke into a walk-jog. (Ahh, wogging…) At 60 seconds we hit the start line.
I heard the faint beep of the magnetic field at the start line activating the transponder in the disposable timing chip attached to my shoelace. (Why yes, I did have to look up those technical details.) That was it. My clock was running. OUT OF MY WAY, PEOPLE!!!
I swerved around the roller derby girls in their hot-pink-and-black knee socks. I ducked under the big sweaty guy in basketball shorts and black high-tops. I passed passive-aggressively close to the outside person in a group of people walking 5 abreast, and I ducked my head so that guy I wasn’t really friends with in college wouldn’t see me and try to say hi.
After about a quarter of a mile, K and I were in the clear and heading downhill. I glanced at the Garmin to see our pace: 8:23.
Holy crap. I didn’t think I was physically capable of running that fast.
My first thought: “It’s not sustainable.” My second thought: “Don’t tell K.” My third (and craziest) thought: “It doesn’t feel so bad. Maybe we should just keep going and hope we can make it.”
I went with thought number 3, but kept stealing glances at the Garmin. It miraculously held in the 8:30s for the first mile. “This is good,” I thought. “Now I’ve banked some time in case I crap out at the end.”
Two things happened as we passed that first mile marker. First, Easy E passed us, headed in the other direction and ahead by about a mile. (Though he wasn’t officially racing this small potatoes 5K, he was apparently making darn sure the first-place woman wasn’t going to catch him.) Second, K told me to go ahead if I wanted to keep up this pace.
I bit my lip. We were supposed to run together, and I would feel like a royal a-hole for ditching my running buddy. But all I could think was, “5K PR, 5K PR” over and over. (My 8th-grade Logic textbook used to say it was physically impossible to think of nothing but a white bear for 3 minutes, but it IS possible to think nothing but “5K PR” for 30.)
At the 1.5 mile turnaround, I became that a-hole.
Karma didn’t let me completely off the hook, however, as I did start to feel tremendously crappy right around that point. The combination of heat and effort made my vision start to blur. A sip from my water bottle would clear it up, but would cause my stomach to flip-flop in protest. Did I not understand that my shear velocity was keeping it plastered against my spine??
At the 2-mile marker, I realized I might not make it. I started to debate life questions, like, “How embarrassing would it be to be that person who needs medical attention after only 2 miles?” The pace on my Garmin crept up toward 9:00. “NOOoooo! 5K PR, 5K PR, 5K PR…”
I spent what felt like an hour looking for the 3-mile marker. My thoughts kept up a steady rhythm: “Gonna die. 5K PR. Gonna die. 5K PR…”
Easy E — now a comfortable and relaxed spectator — caught sight of me. “Way to go, Chris! You’re doing awesome!!”
“I’m gonna puke.” Oops. Said that one out loud.
“Just a tenth of a mile to go!”
He was right! There was the sign! As per my custom, I tried to sprint for the finish. There was no sprint. There was not even a flinch to suggest an increase in speed. My old college crew team coach used to tell us you hadn’t given 100% until you’d thrown up or passed out. At this point, I was at about 99.7%.
Finally, blessedly, I crossed the finish, even remembering to stop the Garmin to get an idea of my time. All I wanted was to fall over dead, but my irrational regard for road-racing etiquette pushed me forward, “Don’t stop in the chute. Don’t stop in the chute.”
I swear to you, that was the longest freaking chute a race director has ever constructed.
As I reached the end, I saw J (or Handsome J, as he would prefer to be known) fighting his way through the crowds. I think he was saying something along the lines of, “You did it, baby, you did it!”, but in my delirium I turned the wrong way and ended up walking down the opposite side of the chute, yelling something about wanting to see K finish. It took me another 45 seconds or so to grasp that his frantic gesturing was intended to mean, “K has already finished, and you should now walk in the opposite direction so that we may all meet up.” Needless to say, I made Handsome J drive home.
And it was at home, much later that night, that I finally sat down to really look at my Garmin. 27:34 it said. Distance: 3.13 miles. Eeek! Was it true? Had I really knocked almost 4 minutes off my PR?
I immediately grabbed my computer to look up the official results.
Chip Time: 29:10
Gun Time: 30:13.
No… How could it be? Was my Garmin messed up? Did I not cross one of the mats correctly?? But no, Handsome J had a picture of me crossing the finish with the clock reading “28:32”. Were both my watch AND the clock wrong?
If you’re not a runner, you might not understand this, but I felt a crushing weight on my chest. My huge PR, my almost-4-minutes that we had just spent 3 hours at the bar celebrating (we are athletes, after all), wasn’t real. I knew the 29:10 had to be wrong, but you can’t claim the time from your personal watch as a PR. It’s not official. If this had been a marathon and I’d been trying to qualify for Boston, I probably would have died on the spot. As it was, I walked into the kitchen, fed the dog, and began to sob.
J was thoroughly confused. How could I be so upset? After all, clearly my watch time was right. I knew what I had accomplished. This was just some software glitch.
How could I explain to him the extreme pain of it feeling…invalid? How could I elucidate my very real fear that I could never, ever repeat that performance? No one but me knew just how close I came to having my ride home be with the EMTs. How do you overcome pushing yourself to the absolute limits of your capabilities, only to have it come to what would, officially, count as nothing? An error? A glitch? Was my performance the glitch? Never meant to be, and therefore never meant to be recorded?
I know this all sounds horribly over-dramatic and defeated, but it’s an honest account of what I felt. To J’s great credit, he held me while I sobbed. Given that I had yet to shower, I took this as a sign of deep and abiding love. (So, that’s a plus.)
When I awoke the next morning, I felt okay for about 45 seconds…until I remembered the timing error. It was kind of like opening your eyes, feeling okay, and then remembering you were dumped the night before.
I ran to my computer to look up the results again, but they remained unchanged. 29:10. 30:13.
At J’s suggestion, I went to local running store RunTex‘s Web site and registered as a forum user for the sole purpose of asking if anyone had noticed anything weird with the timing at the race. Annoyingly, no one had replied by the time we left for work 30 minutes later.
By 10:30 am, still no one had answered. By this time I also had told everyone who sat around me my tale of woe, and accepted the fact that I was going to be spending the rest of the day in a deep and abiding depression. (Yes, I realize I maybe perhaps take this running thing a little too seriously.)
As a last-ditch effort, I shot off an email to the racing chip company to ask if they could check their records and see if any errors showed up. I spent lunch on Friday apologizing to my group for the rain cloud positioned over my chair.
And then…well, I think Simon and Garfunkel said it best:
Jubilation, [I’m happy] again,
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing!
An email! An email from the racing chip people! Raul, my new favorite person, informed there had been a file-save error when he copied some files over, and a bunch of the time around 28 minutes had been messed up. He had fixed the error, and my time was now correct. He sent me this link.
Chip time: 27:32
Gun time: 28:35
Avg. pace: 8:49
I had it! My real, official, 5K PR!!!
Now God forbid I ever have to do that again…