There are certain thresholds in the collective running imagination that seem to be the stuff that goals are made of, and can raise an eyebrow in runner conversations.  These vary based on level of talent, of course, but for we “non-professional mortals” a few are the sub-5:00 minute mile, sub-3:00 hour marathon, and the sub-2o minute 5k. They’re like imaginary lines that separate the good from the great; a special club that you forever join with a PR that breaks one of those thresholds.  The husband still reminds me that he ran a 4:59 in high school, and that despite all of my local race hardware, he alone holds the sub-20 5k crown in our household.

My current white whale is the sub-20 minute 5k.  It’s a goal that I wish I had tried harder to reach in my 20s, because I tell myself it would’ve been easier with the lightness that seems to come more naturally to younger runners.  It’s something that I’ve long thought about and have had starts and stops in my training to try to reach.  Why is it so appealing, and will it actually be enough when I finally reach it?

I ran my first 5k of the year on August 15th (Fab 5k), and had high hopes that that race would be “the one.”  It’s flat, there’s always a fast field, and it’s cross-country style which would make meeting that goal on the course that much sweeter.  My reality is that I haven’t been able to train the way I had hoped for various reasons, and our household had been swapping a stomach bug throughout the week.  I’ve tried to stop thinking of these types of things as excuses, and try to embrace the unpredictability of being a full-time working mom with a running addiction.  I wish I could control all of the factors leading up to a race to make each one optimally great.  But that’s not possible for me, or for most people, so I try to blend my long term goals with my short term reality.  Before the race, I decided that I would plan to go and give it all I have and let the cards fall where they may.

Fast fields are great for a lot of reasons.  You’ll push yourself, really get to race, and you are surrounded by so many like minded people with their own goals and a passion for running.  The challenge, especially when you’re not quite sure how much you have in the tank going into a race, is that all of the excitement and runner mojo can create a cloud of euphoria that pushes you beyond your capabilities…for the first part of the race anyways.  In my case, it was for the first 1.5 miles.  I missed the first mile marker sprayed on the ground, and by the time I looked down at my watch I was at 1.4 miles in 8:30, which most likely put my first mile at less than 6:10 minutes.  Or in other words, I went out too fast.  I needed to run between 6:20-6:25 minute miles to just barely hit my goal.  There was nothing I could do about it at that point, so I tried to hold on.  The last 800 meters of this particular race is on grass, and includes four 90 degree turns.  On the last of these turns, you can see the finish line and the clock.  I knew I wasn’t going to make it.  So close, I saw the clock click away from 19:59, and grimaced, which resulted in a particularly horrible final stretch race photo.

In that last stretch, I probably could’ve shaved a few more seconds off of my 20:09 finish time, but what was the point, I reasoned?  A 20:06 still wasn’t sub-20, so I wrote it off.

I still want to be a part of that club.  I’ve reasoned with myself, saying that if I can just run a sub-20 5k this year then I’ll hang up my speed-racing hat.  I’ll stop going to the track for speed-work, I’ll pursue some of my other running goals and get back to what really makes me happy: distance on the trails.  But would I really?  If I break that barrier, won’t I want to know how far and fast I can push myself? In the weeks since that race, I’ve spent time at the track.  During those sessions, which I always approach with a little bit of dread sprinkled with a “let’s get this over with” mentality, I remember what working hard for something feels like.  During the early morning trek there, when I get up and leave before anyone else is awake in the house, the cool August morning air reminds me that fall isn’t that far away.  The reluctance of my legs gives way after the first few intervals, and I remember what it’s like to feel like you’re flying.

What are your white whales?  The goals that make you feel something, and in their pursuit, remind you why you run in the first place?

[Side note: though this race wasn’t “the one,” it was amazing because it was my daughter’s first 5k.  She’s 5, and has been begging me to run a race for over a year.  I finally relented, and my mom ran with her.  She had a lot of fun, finished in around 50 minutes as the youngest runner that day.  This, among many other reasons, is why I run.]