when did a 5k become so hard?

For runners who love long distances or are training for a marathon, a 5k is a breeze. Right? Well, not at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night when it’s a steady 88 degrees in full sun.

The past 16 months haven’t been so kind to me. Like so many, I’ve struggled with mental health due to the pandemic. I worked in a toxic environment for eight months that consumed every part of me (luckily that’s over now!) but I can still see its lasting effects in the ten pounds I gained during this very stressful time. I ate incredibly healthy and continued to run and exercise, but I’m certain that the stress had a negative influence on my T4 and T3 levels, which causes bloating, weight gain, and depression. That said, I’m slowly making my way back to some normalcy.

Nothing seemed more normal than attending an IN-PERSON race on Sunday in my little hometown of Clawson – the annual Freedom Run 5k. The absence of in-person racing has been hard for runners because virtual racing just isn’t the same. We miss the energy, the excitement, and the competitive drive. Admittedly, I haven’t pushed myself the way I normally would due to the absence of in-person racing, so I had already decided I would just have fun with this 5k and not worry about placing or setting any records. But as I stood there ready to take off, I remembered that this would be the last year for me in my current age bracket. MY LAST YEAR in the 35-39 bracket…the only bracket I had ever been in since I started running. YIKES! Not to mention, the race was only awarding medals to the first 50 men and first 50 women who crossed the finish. Now, it was time to get serious.

GUNSHOT START: My chip time started when I crossed the finish line. Start slow. Yeah, right. Not if I’m going to take a first, second, or third place in this age group. Especially when I’m at the far end of the bracket!

MILE 1: A mile that began with an overcast, ended with full sun and no shade. I didn’t run with water because I had been hydrating all day and the race nixed the water table at mile 2. I clocked in with 8:07 / mi and knew that I was pushing too hard already.

MILE 2: My throat was becoming dry as I set my eyes on a runner in front of me with pigtails. While my pace was declining because I started too fast, hers was increasing. I kept my focus on her. My Garmin seemed frozen on 2.23 miles, my least favorite chunk of mile. My stomach started cramping and my legs felt like I was running through wet cement. Anyone else have a hard time between mile 2 and 3? 8:52 / mi. UGH.

MILE 3: The last one! The sun was hotter than ever, and I continued to wipe the sweat from under my eyes. Because I ran this race before, I knew the last bit of the route and knew the end was near. All I could think about was finishing and drinking water. As I turned the corner near the park (and could see the Eastside Racing inflatable for the finish) I pulled my Jabras from my ears to hear the sounds of the end of the race. It had been so long since I’ve crossed a finish line, I didn’t want to miss a thing. I picked up the pace. 8:43 / mi.

FINISH: Okay, not my best time, but I was one of the fifty runners to get a medal at the finish. 26:37 (8:35 / mi avg.) I decided being there at an in-person race was all I needed; surrounded by other runners who pushed through the heat and the sun and were excited to finally be among other runners.

I made my way over to the pavilion for some water and an orange popsicle. Over the loudspeaker, they announced that the race results were posted. To my surprise, I placed second in my age group. Second! I was one of the few 39-year-olds in the bracket and I did it.

After the race, I thought a lot about why this 5k was so hard for me. Not only had I pushed through the miles in the heat, sun, and lack of water on the course, but it was the first time in sixteen months I had really, and I mean really, pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone. I set my sights on a goal moments before I challenged my body to reach it, and I did. It was the first time in a long time I felt competitive and though it hurt, and a short 26-minute run felt at times like hours, every minute was worth it. That is why this 5k was so hard.

I am on week 4 of my marathon training plan with Hal Higdon. In the future, I have the CRIM, Chicago Marathon, and Detroit Marathon Relay to set my sights on. These races will push me out of this comfort zone. They will make me challenge every part of myself, physical and mental. And coming out of this terrible 16-month span, these challenges are just what I need to get back to ME.

On to the next bracket of running, and to the next chapter in my life.