As mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been running much since cycling season started; when I do run, I’ve been trying to run trails as much as possible. However, that isn’t how I got started. My first runs were all on the treadmill at the gym (using the Couch25k program on my iPod). Eventually, I joined a half- and full-marathon training group, and that’s when I started running on pavement. Most of our long runs used trails like the Perkiomen Trail (which has both gravel and paved sections), the Schuylkill River Trail and the paved loop at Valley Forge National Historic Park. All of my first races were on pavement: from my first 5k (hosted by the Pottstown YMCA) to the ten-mile Broad Street Run to my first half-marathon in Philadelphia, I either ran on paved paths or on the road.
My second 5k was the Rush Hour Run, which is hosted every year by SEI to benefit local charities. The race is an out-and-back on the Perkiomen Trail, which is right behind the SEI campus. The first time I ran this race, the draw for me was that it was local, it was a familiar path, and many of the folks I’d gotten to know through the training group would be there. As I found out that first year, the real draw is the post-race party, which features beer, cocktails and all manner of tasty treats from local restaurants and caterers.
I’ve done the race every year since then, and this year was no exception. Even though my running frequency is way down since cycling season began — and even though I had been knocked down with a pretty nasty cold and was still struggling with breathing difficulty and a cough the day of the race — I’d be lying if I said I went into it with no expectations. Sure, I told myself I’d do run/walk intervals based on “whenever I cough”. I told myself I’d go easy. I told myself (and my friends, and my boyfriend) that I wouldn’t overdo it. I told myself.
But there was something lingering in the back of my head, something I tried not to acknowledge: the way I’d felt the last time I’d gone running, the week before I got sick. The way the first mile flew by and how I’d forced myself to slow down for the second mile. Forced myself to take walk breaks because that’s what I do. I’ve been using run/walk intervals of varying measures since 2010. It’s part of my mindset. But even as I took walk breaks that day, I just felt fast. As I neared the end point of my run, I glanced down at my watch and realized that I was almost at a 5k distance … and my time was under 30 minutes. Have I mentioned that I’m not a fast runner? I’m not even a little bit fast. My fastest official 5k was a smidge over 31 minutes.
So, at this year’s Rush Hour Run, of course I told myself I’d take it easy. Of course, I told myself I’d listen to my lungs and my body and walk as soon as the exertion brought on the horrible, wracking cough again. I placed myself way at the back of the pack on purpose, intending to stick myself behind someone running at an easy pace and let them set my pace for me.
The race starts out down a slight grade, exiting the rear of SEI’s campus and down the short stretch of Upper Indian Head Road to turn right onto the Perkiomen Trail. From there, the trail is mostly flat — there’s a short, steep incline where the trail rises above the Perkiomen Creek to meet the parking lot at New Mill Road, then a gentle decline after the soccer fields. There’s a water station at the turn-around, and then you return to SEI, with the finish line on the trail before Upper Indian Head Road (so there’s no charging uphill to the finish).
I started out nice and easy on the descent to the trail, and it felt too easy. My lungs seemed to open up almost as soon as I started moving, and my breathing felt easier and easier — better than it had all week! After we turned onto the trail, I tried to ease my pace back a little and take it easy, but found it frustrating and soon began to pass people. At one point, I looked for my long-legged, fleet-footed boyfriend, who had been running right at my side, and discovered he was 30 feet or so behind me. I knew he would have no problem catching me if he wanted to, so I kept moving up. I’d pass a gaggle of people, then settle in behind someone to pace myself — but I’d soon find myself running too close to their heels, and would peel off to the left edge of the pavement to pass. Before too long, the lead runners were on their way back, flying down the left side of the pavement, and I started using the grassy verge to the right of the pavement to pass.
I took a walk break at the water station and walked the turn-around while drinking a cup of water, then got myself going again. My boyfriend had caught up to me again, and commented that we were “doing really good”, and I just had to grin. Good? I was breathing! I was running! It was AWESOME!
About a quarter-mile before the finish, it was my boyfriend’s turn to leave me behind. He kicked into high gear — I don’t seem to have that extra gear when it comes to running — and crossed the finish line well ahead of me. The digital readout at the finish line said 29:4something as I crossed, and I knew my chip time would be less, since I had been way at the back of the pack when the gun went off. My official chip time was 29:19, and my boyfriend’s was 29:01.
One of the reasons I come back to this race year after year, aside from how they spoil us after the run, is because it’s become a good touchstone for me. This is the only race I’ve done every single year, from my first year running, and I’ve never missed it. I’ve shaved at least a little time off every year, so it’s become a marker of my progress. And, now that I’m not training for distance, my results in the shorter races are improving more dramatically. Don’t get me wrong — I am still firmly in the middle of the field at best when it comes to my age group. But placing isn’t a thing that has ever mattered to me — the only person I really want to beat is myself, and I am happy with my consistent improvement at this annual race.