The euphoria of evening races: from the fleet to the faltering
Pacific Distance Carnival: June 13, 2019
Last Thursday I celebrated my birthday by going to watch some of the races held at the newly-minted Pacific Distance Carnival at Swanguard Stadium.
Keith and I didn’t want to rush our indulgent dinner, so we missed the first races on the program, the 1500s. We arrived while the second of four heats of the 5,000m race was in progress.
The feature event of this inaugural meet was the Canadian Championship 10,000m races for men and women, and we knew that stellar fields were in the lineup. However, the “Chase the Pace” 5,000m races were a tremendous idea! (Shout-out to sponsors Saucony, Mile2Marathon Vancouver, and BC Athletics.) These races allowed everyone from casual to sub-elite runners to compete against other athletes of any age and either gender. Anyone hoping to run between 15 minutes and 26 minutes for 5K could enter, and were grouped in heats based on their predicted times.
I was amazed by how smoothly this idea worked, considering there were about 30 runners on the track in each heat. Everyone seemed to find fellow competitors to work with.
I was especially impressed by many of the runners in the third and fourth (fastest) heats. Both of these heats were rabbited by top Canadian distance runner Rob Watson to suit the pace requirements of the best runners in these fields. Some of the notable finishers were Craig McMillan (15:14.91), Briana Hungerford (17:02.52), and Olympian Carey Nelson, now 56 (17:42.74). There were many good female athletes in these races and I marvelled at their smooth, economical running styles, remembering when I too could run like that.
I’m sure many PBs (personal bests) were set in these races. The conditions for distance running were perfect. It was a golden evening that became increasingly cool as the sun got closer to the horizon. Swanguard Stadium is a magical setting within Central Park in Burnaby, with high evergreens and mountains in the background to the north.
It was about 9:15 when the men’s championship 10,000m got underway. The sun had set and I was too cold to stay at the rail any longer. I huddled in a blanket up in the stands, watching the spectacle of the 10,000m race unfold.
It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, it might look boring as the pack circles the track one time after another, gradually spreading out and then breaking into separate packs and lonely individuals. But the initiated know that this event is gruelling, both physically and psychologically. The competitors must be ready for the increasing punishment the deceptively easy-looking pace puts on them, and they must be ready for the tactics taken by any competitor who decides to break the steady tempo.
Four competitors separated themselves from the rest fairly early in this race. But the decisive move came from Ben Flanagan with five and a half laps still remaining in the race. Flanagan, who had been running relaxed behind the leaders up to that point, moved into the lead and increased the pace so dramatically that his four-man pack instantly broke up. Only Lucas Bruchet remained close—but there was a significant gap between him and Flanagan. As the laps wound down towards the finish, Bruchet kept trying to maintain contact, but Flanagan didn’t flag—he only seemed to be increasing his pace lap by lap, reaching victory in 28:37.49 to Bruchet’s 28:49.29. Rory Linkletter was third in 28:55.38.
Keith and I didn’t stay for the women’s 10,000m championship, much as I would have like to have seen it. * It was too late and I had a race of my own the following day: the Longest Day 5K race put on by the Vancouver Thunderbirds club at UBC.
* Full results of the Pacific Distance Carnival are here.
Longest Day 5K
Last year’s (2018) Longest Day 5K was deeply disappointing for me. Despite my knee’s limiting my running to twice a week, I had trained as hard as I could for weeks before the race, doing challenging speedwork with faster runners than myself. I was secretly hoping to break 20 minutes; I was confident that I would at least be under 20:30.
During the race I ran my guts out from start to finish—yet I ran 21:01. I had no excuses or explanations for running so slowly. Only three years before, at age 56, my time in the same race had been 19:19. Last year, I noticed my legs were very weak on the short steeper uphill sections in the second and third kilometres. My body had betrayed me! After that, I felt no desire to race again; it was too demoralizing to achieve such a slow time after giving it all I had in both training and the race itself.
This year I was only running because the race was a day after my 60th birthday. I wanted to mark this milestone, because I am still a runner! But I was influenced by my result from last year, and my expectations were different. This year, for the first time ever, I entered a race but gave myself permission not to run all-out. I was running because I could; I was running to express my gratitude; I wanted to enjoy this now-rare experience of participating in a race.
Running your best 5K requires a hard effort right from the start. A fast 5K is a highly anaerobic and painful event. You need to pace it carefully to avoid slowing down dramatically in the last kilometre, but there is little time for relaxation. Lactic acid eventually poisons your leg muscles and spreads throughout your entire body; the trick is to find the pace that allows this to happen gradually, so that you can make it to the finish. If you’ve got a fantastic kick left at the end of a 5K, you probably haven’t run a fast enough overall pace to achieve your best possible time.
In this year’s edition of the race, I ran at a cautious, relatively enjoyable pace for the first 3K. I did what I had given myself permission to do. For the first time ever, I saw a kid who looked about five years old in front of me! I lost a lot of time on the long downhill in the first kilometre.
By 3K I started using the runners around me (including several women, young girls, and an older man coaching his younger protégé) to help myself run faster. The old competitive spirit kicked in and I ended up running the final kilometre as fast as I could to finish in 21:48. Even though this was much slower than last year, because of my expectations I was happy with it. I had told everyone I was aiming for 22:00. It had been my easiest 5K ever. And now I would reap the benefits; my slower pace (especially on that first downhill) meant I didn’t experience any of the muscle pain I usually felt after a race on pavement. Even my knee felt OK—I was sure I wouldn’t need to take a week or two off running as I normally do after racing.
After chatting briefly with some other competitors near the finish line I proceeded to the food tent. No lineup! Another benefit of running slowly was the absence of post-race nausea.
With my heaping plate of food I headed to the stands of Thunderbird Stadium, where I had agreed to meet Keith after he was done taking photos near the finish.
The stadium was completely empty except for one other competitor, who had also chosen to sit here with his food. This is always my favourite place and moment of the Longest Day 5K: this time in the quiet stadium, away from the crowds and the blaring loudspeakers and upbeat music. Yes, maybe I am unsociable, but I love this peaceful time of being on my own, reflecting on the race and savouring my post-race euphoria.
I was warm enough, sitting in the sunlit stands, but I could feel the air cooling against my still-sweat-drenched clothing. The empty artificial turf field at the bottom of the stands beckoned me. It would be better to do my warmdown jog before eating. I put my plate in a shady, out-of-the-way place in the stands and ran down to the field.
What a joy it is to run slowly after a race! I remember other years when I was either too nauseated or too sore to even complete a lap or two of the field after racing. One year the race caused a hip injury so severe I had to miss an entire summer of running! So for me, these warmdown laps were a prayer, every footfall another word in the mantra of gratefulness.
As I jogged I saw a fellow competitor running easily towards me in bare feet. We smiled at each other. When I got to the start of my lap, I took my shoes and socks off and started jogging again. What bliss! Foot bliss! The turf was cool and gently prickly. My feet were engulfed in sensation. I noticed how perfectly they worked as I ran. I noticed all their little springs and muscles.
This was another cause for gratefulness and wonder! For about ten of my best running years, my feet almost always gave me pain. I had terrible bursitis in both heels; one eventually required surgery. I couldn’t run without using prescription anti-inflammatories to keep the pain under control. I also suffered from repeated bouts of Achilles tendonitis. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t wear spike shoes at even the most important track races.
And now here I was, my tiny feet pain-free at age 60! And running barefoot made me feel like a kid again, though I knew it was but a brief illusion.