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My 5K valley of despair

MOST PEOPLE CAN imagine running 5K, just a shade over 3 miles. It’s like running across town, or over to the supermarket and back. What’s the big deal?

In fact, the 5K is a very challenging distance, if you run it to the edge of your ability. That’s because you’ll be running harder than you ever do in training for any sustained length of time. It’s anaerobic, and your heart rate will reach its uncomfortable maximum before the end.

Within minutes of the start, you’ll realize your body isn’t going to do it willingly, or with ease, and that the last third will be a test of your ability to suppress the urge to slow down. You won’t necessarily want to stop, but you’ll lose the urge to push, to compete (to catch the runner ahead of you, or hold off the one nipping at your heels), and especially to run faster still over the last kilometre.

You’ll pass through a “valley of despair”, so to speak, when you’ll question why you race at all and whether the tiredness and pain is worth it. Everyone passes through the valley on their way to a best performance, according to our club coordinator John Marsden. He says, “If at that point, you don’t feel that it’s impossible, you have not run fast enough. Yet, every time I am there, it seems without end.”

Sebastian Junger also discusses a “valley” in his recent book about American soldiers in Afghanistan. He remembers college running as teaching him to “negotiate the long process of physical collapse.” He observes that, “when you start hurting, you’re not even close to the bottom of the valley, and that if you don’t panic at the first agonies, there’s much, more of yourself to give.” In other words, successful racing is equal parts physical training and mental resilience. Getting both aspects to work in sync is tougher than it might seem.

All my dozens of 5K races over the last decade have been run in the small window of 18–20 minutes of duration. My first was in about 19:45 and my best in 18:10. All the others were in between, with many clustered around 18:45. I’ve never won a race – the best times for local races are usually in the 15–17 minute range, by guys in their 20s – but I’m usually in the top 10 or 20 runners.

Even when I was injured for over a year, and my training involved an elliptical machine at the club, swimming, and the occasional treadmill jog, I still managed to race 5Ks in fewer than 20 minutes, or 4 minutes per kilometre. That became my threshold pace. Anything around 4 was considered “tempo” pace – a weekly workout for 20 minutes, winter and summer. Faster than that – 3:45 or better, even for short repeats like one kilometer – was “race” pace.

When I still lived in Elora and had no running club to train with, my friend Chris Frappier and I would jog 5K out to the Belwood Lake dam on the stone dust trailway, then race back to the edge of Fergus in a friendly time trial. We scraped a mark in the gravel at 3K, and tried to hit that by 11 minutes, which meant a 3:40 pace – racing hard in other words, side by side, no talking possible, a silent, two-person test of wills. Sometimes Chris would win, and sometimes I would, but not by much.

When we entered 5K races together, Chris and I were inseparable. He was very disciplined, and our goal was to run the race as evenly as possible, with identical 3:45 kilometre splits. This always meant that after 3K we started catching other runners, not suddenly, but gradually pulling alongside (or passing them, one of us on each side!), then leaving them dejectedly behind. They’d started a shade too fast, the most common mistake of all, and paid the price in the closing third of the race, as we finished 20–30 seconds ahead, surging the last kilometre in 3:30, our fastest split of the race.

One warm June day in 2003 I ran the Pride and Remembrance 5K in Toronto. Without Chris and no kilometre markers on course I started way too fast. I could still see the race leader when we hit the one mile mark (he would finish in 15 minutes) and the race volunteer called out “5.26”. I gasped at the number. Although I couldn’t divide that by 1.6 in my head to convert to kilometer pace, I knew it was below 3:30 – too fast. And soon my legs and lungs were telling me the same thing. This time it was my turn to get passed by half a dozen runners in the second half of the race. But I hung on nonetheless, confusingly expecting to finish the race at Bay Street, and realizing it was still two long blocks across Yonge and over to Church. I ran as hard as possible for that stretch, preventing any further “catches” and sprinting to the finish line.

To my surprise I ran a personal best in 18:10 – a good 30 seconds faster (about 150 metres in terms of distance) than any of my recent races. The fatigue at the end was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I walked down a small alleyway trying to recover. When I emerged five minutes later I ran into my wife Nichola, who immediately thought something was terribly wrong from the hollowed out look on my face. “I’m okay,” I assured her, “just need a few more minutes and some water.” Fully 10 minutes after the race, I started to feel normal again and returned to cheer other runners in for their finishes.

I don’t really know why I excelled beyond my usual ability in that race, but it had something to do with getting through that valley of despair, even though I reached it much earlier than I usually do in the 5K, with over half of the race left to run. Something intangible just clicked in my head, and I was able to push harder than I had ever before in a road race, even though I had nothing tangible to gain or lose.

I wasn’t close to the 18-minute mark again for many, many years, although I could consistently break 19 minutes. After moving to Guelph, I joined the Victors running club, and for six months of every year (May to October) we did the sort of training that is supposed to improve your 5K time: weekly speed repeats on the track, varying in length from 400 to 1600 metres. For me, most of these were run at a pace of 90 seconds per lap or faster – which translates into 3:45 per kilometre pace exactly. The theory is that if you can run 5 kilometres or more at that pace in training, albeit over short distances with recovery time in between, then you’ll accustom your body to running at that pace for a full race.

However, my 5K times were stubborn. Despite the additional speed training, I seemed stuck at around 18:40, and nothing I could do would make it any easier or faster.

Then strangely, after a winter of outside tempo runs and hills (but no speed repeats) my legs got mysteriously faster. I first discovered this last March, at the 30-kilometre Hamilton extravaganza known as “Around The Bay.” Early in the race I realized that my trusty old 4 minutes per kilometre tempo pace felt easy peasy in the early going, and I finished in a shade over 2 hours. This meant that a pace I’d previously found “hard”, and would sustain only for about 20 minutes in training, was now “comfortably hard” – and by extension, all my paces, down to 5K race pace, would be correspondingly faster.

After running personal bests at 15K a month later, then also at 10K, I knew that my 5K mark was likely to fall as well. On Father’s Day I raced the Waterloo Classic, and deliberately chose the 5K, not the 10K that I usually raced there. My new target pace was a full 10 seconds faster than ever before – 3:35 – which would bring me home in under 18 minutes, my goal.

I hit the 1K mark at almost precisely that, and the same for 2K, but then we had to climb a small hill, turn around and repeat the hill, all the while feeling the growing heat of a summer sun. By 3K I was running steadily, but my pace had slipped perceptibly. I was in the valley, both literally and figuratively, and my will to mount the other side was slipping as I passed the 4K mark. Sub-18 was still within my grasp, but I needed to run faster for the final kilometre. I dug down, and thought I’d done it, but when I rounded the last corner and saw the finish line clock 30 metres away, it was already counting “17.57, 17.58, 17.59 …”

I finished in 18:06 – a personal best, 7th place out of 527 runners, first in my age group, and my fastest 5K in 7 years – but felt a small pang of disappointment because I was a tiny bit shy of my goal. It’s funny how the last third of a race always feels like a near impossibility as you run, but just minutes later you can ask yourself, “Couldn’t I have squeezed 6 seconds more out of that last kilometre?” Well, you didn’t, which is all there is to it, and you can’t easily get yourself back in that position to see if your will or your body will be any stronger.

I didn’t have another chance to race 5K all summer long, and although there were several local 5Ks in the fall, other obligations kept me from racing. My last good chance was a unique event: the annual Guelph Victors 5000 metre track time trial on a cool September evening.

A track 5K had several advantages: I could monitor my pace constantly, aiming for consistent 87-second laps; I could get pacing help from my club mates, at least in the early going; there would be lots of verbal encouragement from volunteers who knew what I was aiming for; and the course was pancake flat. On the minus side, running 12-1/2 laps at race pace is a daunting mental task; we run that hard every week, but only for a handful of laps before stopping to recover.

At the start line on the backstretch of the track I confirmed my pace with club mate Matt, a triathlete 10 years or so my junior who had been having a great season. He agreed to run at 87-second pace with me for as long as possible. We’d have one other guy, Jonathan, ahead of us, but he was significantly faster and would be no help in pacing.

If you’re not a runner, you might think there is nothing more to racing than choosing a target pace and then sticking to it. However, there are intangibles that come into it when you’re racing so close to your limit. It’s not just a matter of gutting it out when the going gets hard. You can often tell in the opening third of a race, by how manageable your target pace feels, whether you’ve been realistic or not. If things are going well, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to work hard at the end – it just gives you a boost of confidence that today it might all be possible. You might find a detour out of the valley of despair.

I felt optimistic almost immediately as Matt and I started ticking off the laps, taking turns in the lead. If not easy, the pace still felt controlled and manageable. I could even let my mind drift a tiny bit, gaining some precious ground without thinking about the difficulties ahead of me too much. With each lap we crossed a timing mat and I punched my watch for the split – 86, 87, 86 … By the fifth lap, I’d lost Matt. At first, he didn’t return to his usual place in front of me, and then I lost the sound of his footsteps as well. No matter, I was in a groove, and he’d helped me get there.

By miraculous calculation, I was able to discern my time at the halfway point, which was an unusual spot three-quarters of the way around the track: 8:57, three seconds faster than 18-minute pace. This was both a confirmation and a disappointment. My pacing was working and I didn’t need to run any faster in order to attain my goal. However, I was already feeling very depleted, and the prospect of another 9 minutes at this pace was intimidating. I was descending into the valley after all. After that I lost count of the laps, but my splits started to slip off target: 88, 89, 90 … I couldn’t really do the math, but I knew that I had fallen behind my goal pace by a small amount – perhaps 5 seconds or more. I had two laps to go.

I’m not a 20-something-year-old competitive athlete, with everything on the line. Racing is my hobby, not my dream or my vocation. What is the pull, the tonic, the addiction? Why keep coming back for something that hurts so much? Wouldn’t 3 or 4 moderate runs a week on my neighbourhood streets be enough to simply keep me in shape?

I found an answer of sorts in a short story from a recent collection by Alexander McLeod. He writes in Miracle Mile:

“We have to scrounge for meaning wherever we can find it and there’s no way to separate our faith from our desperation. You see it everywhere. Football hooligans, scholars of Renaissance poetry, fans of heavy metal music, car buffs, sexual perverts, collectors of all kinds, extreme bungee jumpers, lonely physicists, long distance runners and tightly wound suburban housewives who want to make sure they entertain in just the right way. All of us. We can only value what we yearn for and it really does not matter what others think.”

So here I am with two laps to go, and I’m a little behind my goal. How much does it matter to me if I break 18 minutes? John Marsden, who’s keeping time, says to me quietly as I pass, “C’mon, you can do it.” In addition to the valley metaphor, he also told me that once your mind sees the possibility of finish, it will sometimes release your body to run faster than you ever thought possible. Indeed, that’s what happens. My second last lap is 86 seconds, and suddenly I’m aware that my goal is within reach, albeit only with a furious final 400 metres, my fastest lap of the race.

Teammate Christina encourages me on the backstretch – “You’re there Art” – and so does Sandy when I lap him on the final corner – “No problem Art!” I can see the clock as I storm the last 100 metres, but it’s counting faster than seems possible: “17:52, 17:53 …” I put my head down and go, crossing the finish in 17:59.

I’m gasping for a while, but not as desperately as I remember in Toronto all those years ago. I’m surprised that I managed to crack 18 minutes. It means I must have run the last lap in about 80 seconds, not something I would have thought possible after 16+ minutes of hard running. Even when I’m fully rested, 70 seconds is about my best for 400 metres these days.

A light rain starts falling, then the sun bursts underneath the clouds near the horizon, and for a few glorious moments we’ve got a brilliant rainbow overhead, then a second one below it. Double rainbow! Other runners are finishing, the whole club within a few minutes of each other. Everyone is happy to be out of the valley. Several achieve personal bests after a summer of training. It’s a joyous celebration at the finish line. John flashes me a big grin, Matt and I shake hands.

By the next morning, it’s just a memory, and of very little consequence. As an unofficial club trial, it’s not even posted on a race website anywhere, and there’s no prize for my second place finish. But the accomplishment is mine, my 5K personal best, the fastest I’ve run the distance since high school, giving me a giddy feeling as I go about the usual chores and tasks associated with a working day.

“We can only value what we yearn for …”

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Monica Forget #

    HI Art… I’ve just spent the best part of an hour reading several of your stories. You have a wonderful writing gift! Thank you.

    January 22, 2016

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