What it's (really) like to run a 5K race

I am a runner. Not a jogger, mind you, but a runner. What sets the runner apart is the desire—the need—to run races.

I started running as an adult, not as a high school cross-country star like my husband. But I’m consistent. I’m 43 years old (young!), and I’ve been pounding the pavement two to four times a week for at least the last year and a half without fail.

My first race was in June at the Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Chesterton. It was tough. To the more experienced runner, the many hills might have been child’s play, but it was brutal to me. But I finished and never walked. That’s one of my racing goals: to not have to walk during a race.

Since then, I’ve added to my distance capacity. I’m up to five miles of steady running at a time for one of my weekday runs. But I’ll be darned if I can improve my time.

I ran another 5K in September in Highland for the Zest Fest. Cool purple T-shirt and decent non-hilly course. But my time still sucked. I ran it in 39 minutes and change. Many Superfits will read that and chortle, but I was proud I finished that race without walking. I even beat a lady in the home stretch.

The race I chose to close out my 2010 season sounded like a promising venue for reducing my Old Lady Shuffle to a less embarrassing time.

The description for the sixth annual WVLP 98.3 FM Radio Run 5K in Valparaiso read: “A fun course with a few slight inclines, through Valparaiso University and back.” Totally doable.

On race day, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. with a mild case of the jitters. Before every run, competitive or not, I have to tamp down the naysayer in my head: “You can’t do this!” I drank a couple of cups of black tea for the energizing effects. What hadn’t I planned on? Tea is a diuretic. That means in due time your body will want to expel it. Not fun when you’re in a road race. Don’t drink too much before you run.

It was cold, but kind of sunny, so I really had no excuse. The race started at 9, so I left the house at 8 for the 20-minute drive to Valpo. Be sure to get to a race at least 30 minutes before starting time.

It wasn’t hard to find the location. The skinny-legged, Lycra-clad figures trotting up and down the streets, exhaling vapor, gave it away.

At registration, I was confronted by a mob of runners that filled the room. There were dozens of them, mostly men, in all kinds of high-tech cold weather running gear. They all seemed to know each other based on the back-clapping and outbursts of laughter. It was a tad intimidating.

Twenty-five dollars later, I had a cool red T-shirt, a strip of fabric I had to attach to my shoe for timing and a number square with pins to attach to my shirt.

It was 8:40. I wanted to start the race strong, so I took a jog around the block to warm up. Here’s a bit of unwritten running etiquette: Never look at anyone else or acknowledge them while you are running. No “way to go!” or “keep it up!” allowed. All are locked into a focused world of their own while they run.

But I wondered exactly where the starting line was. Within a few minutes, the Running Mob emerged from the building and headed down the hill toward me. To my horror, once they reached where I was standing, everyone turned around. This meant that the race was going to start UPHILL.

I tried not to give away my trepidation. I dialed over to the running playlist on my iPod. I can’t run without music, but I didn’t turn on the volume until the race started. Instead, I listened to the people around me discuss the races they’d just completed. Many of these folks run 5Ks every single weekend, and some do multiple races in the same day.

Clearly I was not going to try to compete with any of them. Thirty-nine minutes for a 5K? Most of these guys would finish in a third of my time or better. I don’t run to win. I run to feel like I accomplished something.

But I usually like to pick someone and keep him or her in my sights during the race. Looks can deceive you, though. At the Coffee Creek run in June, I’d pegged an old man who was hobbling around at the starting line. I thought, “Surely I can smoke this geezer.” But once the gun went off, his silver head and skinny legs receded into the distance. I never saw him again—he’d probably finished, gotten a drink, collected his award and headed to his car before I even came within sight of the finish line.

I settled myself into the back of the pack and hoped for the best.

At the start, it didn’t take long for the pack to settle in as we made our way up the first hill. The hill was at least three blocks long, and I quickly fell to the back. I never look behind me in a race, so I had no idea if I was dead last. I tried not to let the fact that body after body was bobbing and weaving past me dishearten me. I focused on my breathing and form as I fought my way to the top of the hill.

This race wound its way through the Valparaiso University campus, which is actually quite pretty. I tend to look down when I run, so I didn’t take a lot of time to notice my surroundings, except for ANOTHER big hill looming at Mile 1. A guy on a bike called out our times as we ran by. I pulled out an earphone so I could hear him. “Twelve-twenty nine!” A 12-minute-plus mile. Unimpressive. But it was a big hill, and I always start out slow so I don’t burn out. It really takes me the first mile for my body to get warmed up and in rhythm. I was just starting to feel good.

Of course, just then a man came up on my left, breathing loudly enough to trump Them Crooked Vultures who were playing on my iPod. His combination of limping and shuffling somehow propelled him past me at a steady clip. A further insult: A woman passed me on my right. She was powerwalking. Powerwalking.

I worked on staying focused on the girl a few yards ahead of me who was jogging along at what looked to me like a comfortable pace. I stayed with her and made it my goal to not let her get away. We moved along through the second mile at the same speed: 26:12 at Mile Two. I could tell she was tiring because I gained on her, then moved past her. I felt bad because I know how it feels to have someone do that to you. But I remembered the Unwritten Rule of No Speaking, and I didn’t even look at her.

As I chugged along, I had a hard time trying to estimate how much farther I had to go. I was sure Mile 3 was just ahead, but where was Bike Dude with his stopwatch? I rounded a corner and beheld a terrifying sight: Up ahead, in the far distance, I saw Limping Guy’s orange knit hunter’s cap bobbing up and down. At the top of a GIANT HILL. A four-block hill.

Fortunately, there were some friendly faces posted along the route, holding up traffic so I could move through the intersections. I smiled at their clapping and smiling, sympathetic as it must have been. And, yes, it is embarrassing to run past cars full of staring people, who must surely know that I am bringing up the rear of the racing pack. But I persevered, and at the turning point at the top of Mount Valpo, a friendly lady called out, “The hardest part is over! You’re all downhill from here!” I was relieved, but I should have known better.

As it was at the beginning, so it must be at the end. The race finished not at the top of the hill going down, but at the bottom of the hill going UP. The same hill we started on. I had failed to notice that we ran over the finish line when we started.

That last block of uphill nearly did me in. It was the closest I’ve come to puking while running. But I poured on the little I had left and finished strong. One runner happened to be walking by, presumably on his way back from wherever his post-race had taken him, and he clapped a few times for me. It was that slow kind of clap that can mean either, “Way to go, sister!” or “Give it up, loser!” I choose to believe the former.

My time: 40:12. I actually was slower than either of my other two races, despite being in decent shape and consistently running all year. Is it frustrating? Yep. But I was still proud I finished it instead of flopping on the couch for a marathon session of “Pawn Stars” on Netflix.

The good news is there are many supportive venues in Northwest Indiana for runners of all abilities. We have the Calumet Region Striders, an active running club that welcomes new members and is chock-full of folks who will encourage and support you.

There is also Fleet Feet Sports in Schererville, a running shop that offers tons of clinics for folks like me who want to get faster and better at running. I’ll be reaching out to both of them because I will not let my lousy time in Valpo stop me from doing more races. My goal, aside from getting faster, is to run a 10K in the spring. With the myriad of support I can find in our fine Region, I’m sure to get there.

Watch out, Limping Guy. I’m coming for you.

For more information, visit http://fleetfeetschererville.com or http://www.calstrider.org.