August 05, 2013

First comeback race - a 10K baseline

Yesterday I did my first race in almost 14 months.

I dropped off my registration only six days earlier, when the previous day's 17K run bolstered my confidence about the wisdom of running the Squamish Days 10K to mark -- celebrate -- my return to running.

It is amazing how fast my body has progressed in the last two months. After all, it was only on June 4 that I gingerly tried running again with a session consisting of a 15-minute walking warm-up, followed by a 5-minute run, a 5-minute walk, a 5-minute run, and a 15-minute walking cool-down.

I knew I could run a 10K distance by July 15, or three weeks ago, when I did a 50-minute run. But running an easy 10K in training and doing it in a race are two very different things.

In the last year I have done no training to speak of, as all "runs" were curtailed by and ended in heel pain. I have certainly not done any speed work, or even fast workouts, since my last race in June 2012.

There were two "tempo runs" in the last month. I wrote about the first in this post, a 15-minute effort during which I was very happy to run 3.6K at an average 4:12 per kilometre. (By comparison, in the half marathon I raced in June 2012, the last race before my injury, I covered the 21.1K at an average pace of 4:07.5 per kilometre).

Ten days later I did another tempo run, as per my return-to-running program, this time a 20-minute effort; like the previous time, I opted to wear a Garmin but avoided looking at my pace until after the workout was done so I could listen to my body, rather than the watch.

I felt fantastic and had more confidence to put in more effort this time. Convinced I had run faster than in the previous one, I was stunned that the Garmin had clocked a 4:27 average pace over a 4.6K distance. I checked and rechecked the numbers, trying to see if somehow the Garmin had missed part of my effort. But it hadn't.

It was a reality check. I still was not sure if I should sign up for the 10K by then, and this made me wary. I had just run at a pace that would work out to a 44:30 10K if I was able to hold it for double the distance.

The last time I had taken more than 43 minutes in a 10K race was 10 years ago, in a hilly event in Malabar, one of the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Wow.

And yet it might not be so strange -- I had not been able to do any run training for so long, something I have no experience with. I have never had to take any significant break from training. It is easy to lose speed, and endurance. I have never been a naturally fast runner, endurance comes easier to me than speed.

"After two weeks of not running, studies show that VO2 max [one of the best measurements of a runner's physical fitness] decreases by 6%. After 9 weeks VO2 max drops by 19%. After 11 weeks of no running, studies demonstrate that VO2 max falls by 25.7% from peak physical fitness," according to this article, as a quick Google for this blog post showed.

And while I began working on overall fitness through cycling, swimming, and Bikram yoga about three months into my injury, running fitness and speed require run training. 

The speed I have (or had, before this enforced break) is  the result of years of consistent run training, continually building the gains.

You can even see it in my personal best times: a 3:00:29 marathoner should, theoretically, be able to run a 38:40 10K -- my best 10K is 39:39, a full minute slower -- and an 85:58 half marathon -- my best is 86:54, also nearly a minute slower.

And while endurance comes easier to me than speed, I am currently finding that runs I would not have even thought twice about a little over a year ago, are now a challenge. On Thursday I had planned to do a 45-minute easy run but lacked the mental energy. After postponing the session until 5:30pm, I finally decided to just head out for a 20-minute run if that was all I could mentally handle.

As I warmed up after about 5 minutes, I felt better, found fresh energy, and decided to do 30 minutes, and eventually ended up running the 45 minutes as planned, grateful for a nice run. My point is that, as I slowly settle back into a running routine, it is taking both a physical and a mental adjustment that is significant.

So, was registering for the 10K a good idea? I could not expect to race it -- sure, I could try to run as fast as I could, but with the awareness that I had only been able to run for two months. I would have to set aside my ego, and run for the thrill of being able to compete again, not for the potential of a personal best, or a "good" time.

Partly based on that second tempo run, when I had felt fantastic but had not run anywhere near as fast as I felt I did, I also had to accept that I might not be able to finish in 45 minutes, or less. 

But the excitement to toe the start-line of a race again, and a local race I love on top of that, easily won out. I decided that I would -- for the first time ever -- race without a watch. That way I would be forced to go with what I felt, not with any numbers I saw.

On Sunday morning, there was the familiar but almost forgotten sense of excitement -- butterflies in my tummy, sweaty and shaky hands as I wrote in my journal about heading off to the race start soon.

While I did not know what pace to expect, at least I knew I would look sharp in a gorgeous pair of running shorts my sister had just given me. They are almost too pretty to run in and super comfy.

I drove the short distance to the race start, familiar after having done this great event in 2009, 2010  and 2011 in 41:39, 41:00 and 40:14 respectively -- I have raced well here, though have not matched my best on what is a fast, flat and certified 10K course.

Pickup of my pre-registered race package went superfast and I got ready to do a warm-up. For this I had brought my watch, and I started with 5 minutes of walking along the course, before running for almost 10 minutes with three accelerations.

Then I spotted a friend, Amy, who now lives in Whistler, and we had a brief chat, wishing each other well.

I went back to the car to take off my warm-up shirt -- and my watch. I have thought about racing without a watch before but had never done it. I was excited about trying it today. Without any idea what pace to expect, there was no point to keep track of it. I like to know my pace but it felt good to take off the watch.

I chatted with another friend as we walked towards the starting area, and then saw more familiar faces, friends I have trained and raced with before, and it was so great to be there.

It was time to line up for the start. We cheered on the wheelchair athletes who headed off first. Then we got our countdown.

I did not allow myself to think too much about the significance because I knew it would be too easy to get all emotional about it, and I needed to be able to breathe, not cry. My starting pace was faster than I thought it would be, easy to gauge as my friends did not run ahead as far and fast as I had expected. Still, we had not even run 1 kilometre.

It was challenging to decide on my pace, so I just followed my legs and lungs and made sure that I was breathing at a rate that felt sustainable. Since I did not know what to expect, it felt natural to avoid thinking about it. The kilometres would come as they did.

The course was marked with new signs (though they might have been there last year too when I could not race), bright yellow with black numbers indicating each kilometre and the first mile. At that first mile marker I had settled into a pace that felt comfortable, and I resisted the brief temptation to ask a friend, Gord, for his split as I could see him checking it on his watch.

All I knew that at this stage it was faster than 45-minute pace, and that it felt OK for now. I was running stride for stride with a friend, Jason, and I really enjoyed that.

At the 2K mark we ran past the Bikram Sea to Sky Yoga studio, a fitting tribute during my first race to a place that has helped so much in my recovery. I knew they were just starting their 8:30am class.

At the first aid station, I grabbed a water from one of the volunteers, had a quick sip and dunked the rest over my head as did Gord ahead of Jason and I. The weather was perfect for a warm August morning. The sky was overcast, and it was not as muggy as I remember it being in previous years.

At the next corner, a friend was cheering us on -- a talented runner, rider and triathlete, Andrew had just broken his wrist after falling off a skateboard, only a few weeks after having recovered from a running injury -- and I appreciated the lift from his energy and smiling face.

As we hit 3K, I wondered if this was a pace I could sustain and yet at the same time I felt confident I could. Jason and I were still running together, silently, peacefully.

We approached the bridge, a slight incline, followed by a slight downhill on the other side, as we headed towards 4K. Still fine and with the halfway marker in sight I became more relaxed, enjoying the sensation of racing at a pace I had not anticipated, and feeling a sense of ease in it. I knew it was a delicate balance, however, and I made sure to stay as relaxed as possible.

The race leader was already heading fast and light in the other direction on the out-and-back course, well clear from the rest of the pack. I counted four women ahead of me, none within reach though. Another friend, Marko, was comfortably heading home, and we waved at each other. I missed Sean but returned a silent cheer of Gord.

As Jason and I rounded the halfway point, I grabbed a water at that aid station from the great volunteers and had a quick sip. I cannot remember if I poured the rest over my head, though I probably did. I was on the home-5K-stretch. I love out-and-back courses and use them all the time in training.

Even as I was fatiguing, I also felt that it was a normal level of tiredness. You run 10K, you get tired in the second half. At the final water station I took a sip of water but did not feel like swallowing any so spat it out -- the remainder of the cup went over my head as I got ready to pass the Bikram studio for the second time. Two K to go, which mentally means that really there is only 1K left and then there is the final K which somehow is always more manageable.

Without being able to verify my pace, I felt like I had run a steady pace throughout and knew I could hold it until the finish. I pushed away emotions that if I had allowed them to surface would have stopped me dead in my tracks. Instead I focused on the incredible sensation of having a solid 10K, feeling better than I had dared to hope.

About to finish (Ben Lypka/Squamish Chief)
I rounded the final corner and headed for the finish -- now I wanted to see the clock.

My official time was 41:49, which far exceeded any expectations; it was only 10 seconds slower than my slowest effort on this course, and just a little over 2 minutes slower than my best 10K time (39:39).

After the race, I did an easy 3K cool-down with Amy who also had a solid performance. Next I drove out to the northern part of Squamish to catch Tim who was out on a 3-hour run to hand him a bottle of water, and then went back to the race start where I received a trophy (a beautiful Bald Eagle wood carving) for being the fastest local woman today. Icing on an already delicious cake.

For Squamish Days 10K results, click here

It is a little hard to wrap my head around the fact that I can run, train and race again. I am slowly beginning to believe it, so grateful that all the hard work and patience are paying off.  

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