Letting my lizard brain drive the bus

The pre-race text from my coach said: “Show you have control by losing it…or not thinking about it.”

That’s the thing about racing a 5K: if I feel like I’m in control, I’m probably being too conservative. If I feel comfortable at any point, I’m probably not going fast enough. When I got to the start line on Super Sunday to race the 5K instead of the 5-miler, I was about to test whether I really had what it took to let go completely.

I raced the Super Sunday 5-miler last year instead of the 5K, because the 5-mile distance is one I am much more naturally inclined to do well at. The 5-mile requires a little strategy and a lot of control. If I start at a comfortably challenging pace and hold back just the right amount, I’m ready to start turning up the effort after two miles, and if I’ve done it correctly, I’m gradually getting faster for the remainder of the race and really pounding it out right at the end. The control doesn’t go until the last mile, and by then I’m feeling myself and I know I’m 4/5 of the way there. That is, in a word, my jam. I know I’ve talked about hating 10Ks, and I’m about to talk about hating 5Ks, but for some reason the 5-mile race hits a groove where it works with my brain chemistry instead of against it. I know where I need to be at every given point, and that’s because I’m actually pretty good at control, and at planning and execution.

But, as I said, I did not run the 5-miler this year. After last year’s performance, I honestly didn’t think I had anything to add. I had unfinished business, however, with the 5K.

The paradox of the 5K is that it is both the friendliest and most inviting race distance for newer runners and also the devil for the well-trained runner who wants to run as fast as possible. At every 5K starting line, there will be any number of people who have never run that far before. They are reassuring themselves and their companions that they will make it to the finish. Some of them are quietly freaking out. It’s a special atmosphere that’s full of hope and excitement, and also full of cluelessness. Most people are wearing headphones, their playlists turned up to the max. Few of them are paying attention to their surroundings, because they are all so completely in their own heads. That was me when I ran my first 5K, if not my first three 5Ks. This is all well and good, but it makes it hard for an experienced but not front-of-the-pack runner like me to get a smooth start. Most people are not trained at all, and I know that, but there are plenty of seasoned athletes who are going for age group awards or even the course record. If I seed myself near the front of the pack, I might be in the way of people who are starting at a sub-6-minute pace. If I stay too far back, I’ll be expending precious energy trying to get around people who are basically out for a stroll. Plus, it’s Superbowl Sunday and the Patriots are playing; football fervor only adds to the sensory overload of 5K frenzy.

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So, why do this at all? What draws me to an event that seems in every way designed to drive me crazy?

It didn’t come to me until race morning, when I was starting to really reckon with what I was about to do. I needed to throw myself into a race situation to practice a lack of control. I needed to go someplace where no external signal could be trusted, and where the only reliable information would be coming from inside. With no data on my watch, no white lines on the track, no ability to read what runners around me were doing, I would have only the start line, the finish line, and the strain of the effort to tell me where to be. If it was hard enough to make my lizard brain panic, that I could rely on.

This turned out to be the perfect race for such a test. I sort of knew the course, but I’d never run the 5K at this event before, and I hadn’t really done my homework on which turns we were taking. All I knew was that I needed to get out from behind the joyriders as soon as possible, find a nice open stretch to stride into, and get myself to the brink of uncontrollably fast. Then, I needed to fight every single fiber in my body that wanted to slow it down. Lizard-brain was flitting around at lightning speed, unable to settle. How fast are we going? How far have we gone? Are we almost there? Should we speed up? Should we slow down? That panicky feeling was the signal I needed that I was indeed going fast enough. As long as I kept my breathing regular - labored but regular - I was right where I needed to be. It was both calming – no need to make a change – and terrifying – how much longer I would have to keep it up. If there were mile markers, I never saw them. It was just me, my barely-controlled breathing, and my increasingly-tired legs out there.

In the second half of the race, two things happened that made me panic. One was the right turn onto Cambridge Street where we rejoined the 5-mile course. All of a sudden, after more than a mile (probably?!) of passing people, I was being passed by everyone. Lizard-brain started cursing. Control center tried to reel things in. These people looked strong. I glanced over my shoulder as swift-looking dudes overtook me with ease, and for a moment, I was reassured: they were wearing numbers for the 5-mile race. And indeed, they looked like they were running a 5-mile race, already in their back half and finally starting to pour out the juice they’d been saving. They did not look like they were barely hanging onto 5K effort.

It’s okay, let them go; you’re not racing them.

The other thing was the hill. Cambridge Street climbs gently from Eighth Street until Third Street, and then you get a nice downhill to First Street, where the course turns right and the final battle begins. I remembered the hill being no big deal in the five-mile race. At 5K effort, it was a calamity. My breathing got even harder and I felt my pace slowing. Lizard-brain flooded me with that panicky feeling of grasping at something that you know you can’t actually hold onto, and rational-brain had to step in again. Realistically, can you actually go any faster without totally losing your breath? No? Then use your common sense and remember that you can get it back if you don’t die first. I love that point in the race where it becomes necessary to remind yourself that you’re not actually going to die. If you get to that point with more than a third of the race to go, then you probably have actually been going hard enough. When you look at it that way, it’s almost reassuring.

The last mile – or, at least, what I’m pretty sure was the last mile – was full-on panic. I can’t, I can’t, no way. I can’t. 5-mile people still passing me and looking strong. Turn after turn, and one tantalizing look across a courtyard at the finish area as we barreled down a parallel street. A five-mile runner passing me must have felt the struggle coming off me, because she gave me a kind smile and said, “I know, such a tease!” I literally couldn’t respond. We had two more right turns before the final stretch, and I knew that the final stretch would look short even though it was actually several blocks long.

Once you round the corner and see the finish line, let it all out. Let your breathing be ragged, count down from ten as many times as it takes. Lose everything. And just like that, it will be over.

I was doubled over trying to catch my breath. I stopped my watch. Information started to seep in, bit by bit. First of all, I’d crossed the line at the 38:00 mark for the 5-mile race. So, those people passing me on the hill? They were running a 5-mile race at a 7:35 average pace. LOL, I actually thought for a second I should stay with them.

The next piece of information was from my watch: only 3.09 miles recorded. So I guess Strava isn’t going to count that as a 5K, huh? C’est la guerre.

Lastly, I staggered up to the timing table and punched in my race number. Time: 26:39, the slip read. Not bad for no white lines and no pace zones, I thought. Probably coulda gone faster if it weren’t two days after my long run, after all.

Way to bury the lede, guys!

Way to bury the lede, guys!

Then, I looked again and saw another, smaller number. Chip Time: 26:13.75. I gave up all the control, and it got me a three-second PR. I walked through the finish area in a daze, barely remembering to grab the long-sleeve shirt I’d stashed in a bush. I’d never finished a race before the after-party had even been set up, but here I was, absent-mindedly watching people mount kegs of beer on stands and wondering if all this had really just happened. I restarted my watch and jogged off to meet my family at a three-year-old’s birthday party; if I took Vassar Street to the B.U. bridge, I could make it to Packard’s Corner in time to hit Starbucks before the ball pit. Control was back, and I appreciated it more than ever.