Memorial Day 5K - Finally breaking 20 minutes!!

IMG_6694It's been a quiet few weeks as I've been doing my best to be a smart runner and dial it back while I rehabbed this hamstring strain.  The good news is that my patience has paid off and I'm back to running pretty consistently now - 52 miles last week.   I'll feel the hamstring on occasion (usually after doing speedier stuff) and I'm still sloooowly easing back into doing any type of true speed work.  I've been going to get ART (Active Release Therapy) and ice + stim on it once a week and that seems to be helping as well. But after feeling pretty good last week and getting the thumbs up from coach to try and bump up the intensity, it was time to put my fitness to the test in a local 5K.   Due to the hot and humid weather (70s at the start with the course in full sun), this race was run based on a combo of pace and HR.   I'd be aiming for a 6:15 pace (faster than tempo, but not true 5K race pace due to the conditions and the hilly nature of this particular course) but also keeping an eye on my HR - trying to get it up as high as possible in the last mile or so of the course to ensure that the effort was there.    So with those parameters in place I headed over to WestCreek at 7am for the Virginia Memorial Day 5K & 12K Run.

Pre-race was pretty uneventful.  I'd woken up, had a banana with almond butter, a LaraBar and some water.   Why no bagel, you ask?  My friend Sage has challenged me to do a Whole30 - 30 days of eating whole foods.  More on that in a later post.   In any case, I ate my food on the way to the race site and got there with plenty of time to pick up my packet, use the restroom and do my 2 mile warm up with strides.

Standing at the start - already sweating

This was the inaugural race and I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  There were 750 runners in the 5K and 12K and we all started at once.   I lined up at the start and looked around - I didn't see any of the usual Richmond speedsters, but wasn't shocked since the race was new and not well advertised.  I was already sweating thanks to the temps and my little warm up.   It felt weird to be standing at the very front, but there were a few fast-looking guys but also some very young children so I figured I was in the right place.

Mile 1: 6:24  The gun went off and we took off down a fairly good incline.  I made a mental note to prepare myself to run back UP that thing at the end.  (start and finish were in the same place)  Even within the first half mile I was having a hard time holding 6:15 on my watch - I knew I didn't want to go out too fast but I was bummed that the pace felt so challenging so early!  The hills and heat were quickly proving that this wouldn't come easy.    Towards the end of this mile I found myself in 3rd place behind two faster guys.

Mile 2: 6:27 Another guy pulled up alongside me at this point and we exchanged a few out-of-breath words about the twists and turns of the course (we were zig zagging all over the place - even went through a small roundabout!).   Somewhere around here I got so frustrated at seeing the slower pace on my watch that I just switched it to heart rate mode and kept an eye on that.  I was already in the 190s (my max seems to be 202 or so) so I knew I was giving it the appropriate effort despite not having the pace to show for it.   I had a few moments of "why did I sign up for this - 5Ks are so hard - oh my goodness this sucks" but then I heard some friends cheering and that boosted my spirits.  I managed to drop the guy that had pulled up next to me so that was encouraging as well.  I told myself to keep pushing.

Mile 3: 6:26, 6:20 (last .1) About a quarter of the way through this mile we went through a hillier section and then hit the 5K/12K split where the 5K folks turn around and the 12K folks went ahead.  I was looking forward to this for two reasons: 1) I could see how far ahead the guys in front of me were when they turned around and 2)  I'd get to turn around and therefore be heading for the finish!   I charged up the hill and prepared to take the turn - but to my surprise the two guys in front of me went straight.  They were doing the 12K!!   I didn't have too much time to think about it as I focused on getting around the turn, but when I looked up, I had a bike escort.  I was suddenly leading the 5K.    I definitely had one of those "oh, crap" moments where I thought to myself, "'s okay.  You'll be okay.  Just don't screw this up".  I was tiring badly and had no idea how close anyone was behind me.  I wanted this to be over.  The bike guy kept far enough ahead that he wasn't talking (which was fine by me since I couldn't manage a word at this point), but folks along the course were cheering even louder once they realized that a women was leading the whole thing.   I tried to listen to hear when the next set of cheers would come (was the person behind me close?!) but eventually just focused on getting my legs to move as fast my body would allow.   Heart rate was through the roof (hovering around 200) and I was willing the finish to appear.  I hadn't looked back at my pace but I was really, really hoping I'd at least manage to break 20 minutes.  (Did I mention I'm terrible at 5Ks?) I finally hit the last hill to the finish and snuck a peek at my watch - 19:xx and counting - Ugh!  You gotta move, Jen!!  Bike guy peeled off and it was me on my own up the hill to the end.  Lots of folks cheering - and shouting "You go, girl!!" - and I was all smiles as I crossed the line in 19:44.   I'd finished and managed a win - my first ever - and even sweeter was the fact that I'd won it outright.  Beat all the girls AND all the boys.

All smiles with a new PR!

Now before you think my head is swelling up a bit too much, let me tell you that I know that this was a local, brand-new race - and that I lucked out in that none of the usual Richmond area speedsters were there.  I would never have won if any of those folks had come out.  And if those two guys ahead of me had been doing the 5K I wouldn't have won either.  So I know this "win" comes with a bit of an asterisk.  But I'm still tickled pink to have won, and to have a shiny new 5K PR that is under 20 minutes!!

My favorite part was getting my medal placed around my neck by three US military veterans and getting to meet them.  The race benefited the Families of the Wounded Fund, which provides financial resources in support of family members/caregivers of military service men and women who have either been wounded in combat operations, or injured as a result of line-of-duty activities.   Standing on the starting line and listening to the national anthem I felt so grateful for the freedom I get to enjoy in this country, and I was happy that the money from the race was going to such a worthy cause.

If you are in the Richmond area, I'd happily recommend this race to you.  The race director did a great job.  There was plenty of parking, the course was clearly marked and there were plenty of course marshals to help guide runners along the way.  It was definitely a challenging course at times with some turns and hills, but all together this was a well-run, well-organized event.

Up next?  It's more base-building training with hopefully a bit more speed as the hamstring gets stronger.  15 weeks until Erie!!

How to Improve Your Sleep to Improve Your Running

image.w174h200f3Today’s workout: 6.6 miles easy (8:00 avg pace)  I try really hard to get to bed early. It’s a must when that alarm goes off at 4-something and I’ve got to get up and go run. Some nights my young kids are more needy than others and my husband and I haul our tired bodies out of bed multiple times to attend to them (like last night). I get increasingly cranky after too many of these nights of broken sleep and I know my training suffers.

You may not have small children.   Instead, you may work nights or stay up late for other reasons. Or perhaps you suffer from insomnia or care for others in your home who are awake at all hours.   Whatever the reason, many of us as runners are not getting the amount of sleep we need.

The Importance of Sleep:

Sleep is a critical component of proper recovery for runners. It’s so important that elite runners such as Ryan Hall regularly schedule naps during the day to ensure they recharge before heading out for an afternoon run. (Ryan refers to them as his “business meetings”)

During sleep, we go through several sleep cycles. In the 3rd and 4th cycle the HGH (Human Growth Hormone) is released from the pituitary gland and sends the signal to our body to heal itself.   HGH in its natural form helps to repair muscles and serves as a catalyst to help the body utilize fat for fuel. Without the proper level of HGH in the blood, recovery is impaired and we don’t bounce back from workouts as quickly - so it takes us longer to build our fitness.

Sleep Your Way to a PR?

One of my favorite studies on sleep is the one conducted on the Stanford University basketball team. The study tracked the players from the team for a period of several months where they added an average of two hours of sleep a night. The results were pretty amazing. With no extra training, the players increased their speed by 5% and the accuracy of their free throws by 9%!   I’m sure it’s not exactly the same, but can you imagine being able to improve your marathon time by 5% just by getting extra sleep? For a 3:30 marathoner, that would mean a 10+ minute PR! Sign me up.

How Much Do You Need?

Sleep experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep for most people, and 8-10 for most athletes. In reality, this number can vary from runner to runner as some folks seem to perform well on less, and others need even more. To discover your own personal sleep needs you’d ideally go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up without an alarm for a week or two and compute the average hours of sleep per night from those results. But since most of us have jobs and/or families and aren’t able to perform this experiment, we can take some cues from our body and try to get as much sleep as we can in order to feel rested.

Quantity vs. Quality:

For those of that that are unable to get the full 8-10 hours recommended, there is some good news: Research has shown that the quality of sleep can be more important than the quantity of sleep.   If you toss and turn all night you may never get into those 3rd and 4th stages of sleep where HGH is released and your body gets what it needs to repair and recharge.

While we may not be able to do anything about the kids waking us up several times a night, let’s look at what we CAN control:

5 Ways To Increase Your Quality of Sleep

  • Set a bedtime – Figure out what time you need to get up in the morning for work or your run and then work backwards from there. If I’m getting up at 5am, I need to aim to be in bed at 9pm to get 8 hours of sleep. While this may not always be possible, it gives me a time to shoot for and an extra kick in the pants when it’s 8:30pm and I’m dragging my feet on doing the dishes.
  • Darken the room – Close all of your blinds and remove (or cover) all electronic devices.   The tiny light on your alarm clock can even be enough to disrupt your sleep cycle.
  • Decrease/eliminate screen time before bed – I struggle with this one.  But studies have shown that the bright light from our tablets, phones and laptops can disrupt the normal nighttime release of melatonin (a key hormone that tells our body it is time for bed) and delay sleep.
  • Utilize a “worry” list – If you find it tough to go to sleep with a million thoughts racing through your head, you might benefit from using a “worry” list. Take a few minutes before bed and do a brain dump – record any worries or items “to do” on a pad of paper before you go to sleep. Getting the thoughts out of your head and recorded on paper may help your brain to settle down and let your mind and body rest peacefully through the night.
  • Create a calming bedtime routine – Try to perform the same series of steps each night before bed – i.e. my routine is to wash my face, brush and floss, spend 10 minutes foam rolling, then read a chapter from my current book. Creating a routine that you perform each night will help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep – allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

I know it’s easier said than done, but getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way into helping us consistently train hard and perform at our best. If you can maximize the quantity and quality of sleep you can get, you’ll be giving yourself the best shot at fully absorbing all the benefits of all that hard work.   And those extra zzzzz’s may just be the difference between a good race and a GREAT one.