I wanted to a personal best today. With a good run at the Boomer’s Cystic Fibrosis Run To Breathe last week, I thought I had a good chance to improve my 5k time. I ran that four mile race in Central Park, with all of its hills, in a pace faster than my 5k record that I set at the Rosehill Crypt 5k almost two years ago. I’ve only run one other 5k, the Race to Wrigley since then. That was over a year ago, so I don’t have an idea how fast I might be. If I kept my fastest pace this year, I’d break that time.
This run has something to do with the New York Giants, the football team that’s actually in New Jersey. There are some current and former football players on hand—none of whose names I recognize—and at least one player running his first 5k. Beyond that I haven’t paid attention in the same way I don’t check routes or profiles. I knew that I’d finish inside the stadium, but I wasn’t too excited about that given that finishing inside Soldier Field for the SF 10 was a let down as the grass was covered and the Wrigley Race was technically inside the stadium even if we never saw the seats or the field. I didn’t know it yet, but the MetLife artificial turf field can handle the throng of thousands of runners.
The New York Road Runners showed their support by giving me a blue bib, which moved me into the first corral with a number less than 1,000. I don’t think I deserve that, but this race is special as it’s in New Jersey by geography even if New York claims East Rutherford by parking its football team there. I moved up a corral because many of the good runners probably didn’t want to deal with the hassle of NJ Transit (and it was a hassle) to show up far too early in the morning then wait around for transport back. Where an event in Central Park will have about 6,000 runners, this one has around 3,500. It’s their loss and my gain since I’d be near the front for the start, giving me a slight advantage. Today I wanted every edge. It was overcast and not too hot or too humid and the course was in a flat parking lot.
Being toward the front I could see all the stuff I only hear from the other corrals. I saw the lead vehicle, a truck with a race clock on top of the cab and race officials sitting on the tailgate. I could see the announcers and the starter, who go through a series of announcements and exhortations to fill up the last ten minutes as we waited for the start. I could probably also see the future winner’s head, although from the back.
If I weren’t going for a personal record I might have brought along my phone to take pictures. My short races this year have been mostly along the same courses in Central Park—a spot where I have plenty of photos. I’m unlikely to come back to East Rutherford where I’m running today mostly because I need it for my 9+1 goal and it fits my schedule. I wouldn’t get up this early to take three different trains for a 20 minute run around a parking lot.
The start was fast. Last week I felt the second corral was just right for me. Now I’m the slow guy, but not that much slower. I was barely hanging on to this group, but I knew the start would be like this. I ran about a half mile for a warm up to get the heart going and the blood flowing to make this part a bit better, but I was still at my limit. I didn’t have to deal with any walkers, either.
I saw another runner I knew about ten meters ahead of me so I caught up to him and ran with him for the first mile. The time on the race clock said 6:35 as we passed the first mile marker. I’ve never run a mile that fast, even in a race that’s only a mile. In the Fifth Avenue Mile two years ago, I ran 6:51 and that really hurt. I’ve run about 20 seconds faster than that for the first mile today and I feel good.
I had set up my Virtual Partner for a 7:19 pace. I was only going to look at that screen without worrying about all the other numbers my Garmin collects and processes. As long as I was ahead of that guy, I would be doing what I needed to do. I didn’t want to track distance, overall time, or average pace. This was pass-fail. I would be ahead of my best pace or not. If I improved by one second, I would be satisfied. Happy, even. I still had this nagging thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I was ignoring that. I had been telling people this morning I was going for it to put the extra pressure on myself.
At a mile and a half I knew my friend wanted to go a little faster. I couldn’t keep up with the slightly higher pace, maybe ten seconds faster than I could handle, so I told him I’d see him at the finish. For the next mile I focused on a woman in a yellow racer-back top about ten feet ahead of me. Sometimes I gained on her and sometimes she gained on me, but we were still near each other at the two mile mark. The clock was somewhere in the low 13 minutes, meaning I was a bit slower than the first mile but still doing much better than I ever had. A long time ago in Basic Training I ran two miles in the high 13 minutes, close to 14. I know there was a 13 in front. It surprised even me, but this was after four months of intense military training and when I was 30 pounds lighter.
I was now 1:45 ahead of my Virtual Partner, and that number was only increasing. He was going to finish in 22:41 no matter how fast I ran, but being almost two minutes ahead of him gave me some ideas. I could finish with a 20 in front of my time.
Curiously, my legs were fine; I didn’t even notice them. They weren’t burning, my joints were fine, and even the pains that had crept into my feet this week weren’t noticeable. My lungs, however, were on fire. The only thing slowing me down, I felt, was how fast I could breathe. I should be past my lactic acid threshold with this effort, but I don’t remember any of that. It’s a dangerous memory that makes me think I could have run faster, but I know I didn’t feel that way during it. I regretted not bringing my heart rate monitor so I could look at that later.
With a half mile to go, a modest overpass over the NJ Transit tracks slowed me a bit, and taking it a bit too fast probably slowed me for the next half mile. At the top it turned toward the stadium and I thought I was almost there. Had I looked at the distance on my Garmin, I would have known I had a ways to go. Looking at the course map would have done the same thing. I would have known I had to go half way around the stadium to enter it, but I didn’t know that.
I tried to keep the pace high. I was two minutes ahead of my Virtual Partner so I was almost assured a personal best time. The heat was starting to get to me and I could feel my brain screaming for oxygen. I knew I was close to my limit where my vision would narrow, but I was so close and so fast today. I was still close to my rabbit, the woman in the yellow top.
Around the stadium we went, now on concrete and always curving to the right so I couldn’t see ahead. Back to the Pepsi Gate (every gate is sponsored) and then into the tunnel and onto the field we went. I saw that we were under Section 137, the same number Wolfgang Ernst Pauli saw when he went into the hospital and knew he wasn’t coming out but also one of my favorite numbers. I was doing well.
Emerging onto the field, we took a right so we could go to one end zone and run the entire field to the other. I don’t remember seeing a marker for three miles, but it would have been around the tunnel. That 0.1 miles at the end is around 170 yards. I was looking for it but missed it and didn’t hear my Garmin auto-lap buzz.
The remarkable thing about being on a sports field is its smallness. The TV cameras distort the size. I’ve been on football fields before, but not ones surrounded by a pro stadium. Everything seems so close, including the finish line. I could see the clock and it’s in the high 20s. I wasn’t going to make it before it hit 21. When I cross the finish line it says 21:20 and my Garmin says 21:06. The official results—posted by the time I make it home—put me at 21:05. I’m happy that I’ve broken my own record, but a little disappointed in the way I wouldn’t have been with a worse time. I was so close to running under 21 minutes. Being so far ahead of my Virtual Partner might have held me back. I’d never contemplated running that fast.
I crossed the line at about 21:20, so even with the straight gun time I’d set a new time for me. My throat had paid the price. In this heat with all the huffing and puffing it was scratchy and sore, a small suffering that would last all day.
Two more runs and I’m in the New York Marathon next year.