The concept of doing something active on holidays — instead of the normal food-coma-inducing activities we both grew up with — is quickly becoming a tradition for Audra and me, and I love that. So when Labor Day rolled around, Audra floated two options: a picnic with social ride, hosted by our local bike club, and a 5k down near White Rock Lake, hosted by a small racing club targeted mostly toward local residents. We waffled back and forth, but when our tri coach pushed for details, Audra went ahead and registered us for the 5k. If nothing else, we figured it’d be fun to run around White Rock Lake. It’s one of the most scenic areas in Dallas, and we both have happy memories of rides and runs there.

The event started at 7:30 a.m., which actually isn’t that early. But the trick with athletic events is that you have to take the start time and back into the time you actually have to leave to get there, making sure you have time for everything in between. For example, our coach’s instructions for the day specified a programmed warmup for both of us, so we needed 15 minutes for that. We figured we’d need another 15 minutes to find parking and get to the start line (or a suitable place to warm up). We’d need 45 minutes (conservatively) to drive from our northern Dallas suburban home to the lake, and we’d also need about 45 minutes to make and eat breakfast. Factor in 15 minutes of dazed, pre-coffee wandering around and staring at things immediately after the alarm goes off — plus a few minutes’ leeway for problems and/or time to relax for a second or two before the starting gun fires — and that 7:30 a.m. start translates into a 4:00 a.m. alarm.

It also means you get to drive to the event in the dark.

It also means you get to drive to the event in the dark.

Thankfully, though, everything went smoothly and we arrived at the lake around 6:45 a.m., quickly finding parking in a gravel lot about 100 yards from the start. As you can see from the pictures, we drove through a rainstorm on the way, but by the time we arrived it was just lightly misting. We heard later that the bike club cancelled their rides. While a little summer rain just keeps you cool when running, it pretty much sucks for riding. Kudos to Audra for choosing the 5k for us!

It's a gray morning

It’s a gray morning.

Just down a small hill from the parking area we found the starting line. The race would run on the exact same round-the-lake trail we’ve ridden numerous times. We both started our warm-up runs heading backward away from the starting line.

Warming up in a beautiful, tree-covered part of the WRL trail.

Warming up in a beautiful, tree-covered part of the WRL trail.

It almost looks cold, doesn't it? It was 78 degrees.

It almost looks cold, doesn’t it? It was 78 degrees.

I'd like a lake view with my warm up, please.

I’d like a lake view with my warm up, please.

It sounded... like a cocktail party...

It sounded… like a cocktail party…

Having run the prescribed intervals and stretched according to instructions, Audra and I met briefly back at the starting line for about a 5-minute wait until the start.

You can see the storm clouds and rain in the distance.

You can see the storm clouds and rain in the distance.

While waiting for the start, Audra took pictures for a nice running couple.

While waiting for the start, Audra took pictures for a nice running couple.

Audra and me, ready to race.

Audra and me, ready to race.

With about a minute to go before start, the announcer described to us the starting sequence: “Ok, everyone,” he said through the tinny bullhorn, “I’m gonna count down 3, 2, 1, then — don’t actually go now — “GO.” Then you’ll hear a horn. Ok?”

Our small starting group listens to the instructions.

Our small starting group listens to the instructions.

Shortly thereafter, the start happened exactly as he described it.

We're off!

We’re off!

Besides the warmup and cool-down, my coach had also given me specific instructions for the rest of the race, requiring that I run in specific heart rate zones during the first, second, and third miles; she’d essentially put together a race plan for me, just like she will for longer events. I’d programmed these intervals into my Garmin, so all I had to do was hit “start” as I crossed the line and it would alert me to each distance marker and complain like hell if I dropped below or rose above the specified heart rates for each leg. A side benefit of this method is that by default the Garmin will show me a screen with only two metrics: the distance remaining in my current leg and my heart rate.

Heading into mile one, my instructions called for me to remain in zones one or two, which effectively meant that I needed to keep my heart rate below 170. Relatively quickly I settled into a pace that held me within a few BPM of 170 and watched as a few people passed me, I passed a few people, and then everything settled out and I seemed to be running along with a group of people all at about the same speed.

Still in traffic, right before things settled down.

Still in traffic, right before things settled down.

At the one-mile marker, the Garmin counted down and then cleared me to the top of zone three, or 180 BPM. This allowed me to speed up what felt like a pretty good bit, and I went through the same “settling” process, moving through some people and then eventually falling into a different group at the slightly faster pace.

Things started to clear out a little bit at this point.

Things started to clear out a little bit at this point.

I have to admit that the more I run to a target heart rate, the more I appreciate running to heart rate in general as opposed to targeting a specific pace. Like everybody, I want to go faster. When trying to nail a specific pace, going faster means somehow pushing myself harder to get the extra speed. But pushing harder just drives my heart rate up and out of range. To go faster within my HR limits, I have to find a way to move more quickly without further strain on my body: I have to find efficiency. In practice, this places my focus square on my run form and breathing. That’s pretty much exactly what I did through the first two miles of the race — try keep my running form and posture correct, stay calm, and breathe in through my nose/out through my mouth.

One cool part of out-and-back races like this one is that you get a chance to see who’s in front of you as you reach the turnaround point. Sure enough, not long after I took the photo above, I saw the first runners coming back down the trail, a group of young shirtless guys running like the wind. Behind them I saw a couple of very determined-looking guys in their mid-twenties, a group of very fit women, and then a young girl, all going like hell. What I didn’t see was a lot of older-looking gray-haired guys my age. Hm.

I generally wouldn’t stop during a 5k — if I’m well-hydrated at the start, there’s really no need for water during a sub-30-minute run — but my instructions called for pausing at each water stop, drinking a cup of water, and walking for exactly 30 seconds. Determined to follow the plan (if only to show that I can), that’s exactly what I did. The race offered one stop, a couple of tenths of a mile before the turnaround. I passed through it twice, and drank a Dixie cup of water for exactly 30 seconds each time.

Right after passing through the stop the second time, I saw Audra coming the other way and managed to grab a couple of pictures.

Audra, kickin' ass.

Audra, kickin’ ass.

Heading into the water stop.

Heading into the water stop.

When the Garmin chimed again and cleared me to 190 BPM, I sped up a bit, but could quickly feel energy draining off at a rate that wasn’t sustainable. This isn’t surprising, as my lactate threshold for running is right around 180. Not wanting to run out before the end, I backed off and alternated between pushing and relaxing to try and hold the line between the two.

I also noticed at this point that there weren’t a whole lot of people around me on the run. I concentrated on trying to reel in each of the people in front of me slowly without expending too much energy, and I even succeeded a couple of times. Approaching the finish, the Garmin beeped one final time to let me know I could run as fast as I want, and with the finish line in sight, I took off, crossing the line in just over 26:00. This was the first time, by the way, that I’d seen any timing since the start.

As instructed, I immediately followed my cool-down instructions, running and walking the specified times before returning to the finish line just in time to grab a shot of Audra crossing the line.

Finishing strong!

Finishing strong!

While I waited for Audra, I wandered around the post-race area a bit, checking things out and grabbing a banana and some water.

Plenty of simple post-race snacks.

Plenty of simple post-race snacks.

The announcer worked old-school, cross-referencing bib numbers to call out runners' names.

The announcer worked old-school, cross-referencing bib numbers to call out runners’ names.

Before long everyone started to congregate around the posted results. I was surprised to discover that I’d finished third out of the eight 40-44-year-olds in attendance — and would actually receive a trophy!

How'd I do?

The awards presentation begins.

Audra finished second in her age group!

Audra finished second in her age group!

They actually called my name and gave me a little trophy.

They actually called my name and gave me a little trophy.

Excited, I posted a picture of my awesome little trophy to Facebook, noting, of course, that it wasn’t a very big event. Seriously, a 26:00 5k wouldn’t break top 20 in my age group at most of the sprint triathlons I’ve run. My friend Eric put it in perspective, though, with this comment:

Don’t judge it by the size of the event, judge it by the size of the hole you dug inside you to get there.

He’s right, of course, and that simple statement clarifies a point that many people misunderstand. Consider the reactions last week to Diana Nyad‘s solo Cuba-to-Key West swim: some saw her as reckless, wasting time and resources on something unnecessary and dangerous. A friend of a friend (whose comments I saw on Facebook the same day, by the way) wondered why the press followed Nyad “as if she was doing this for herself,” opining that Nyad’s true drive was to earn money on the motivational speaking circuit. It’s a good question: why do people do things so difficult, time-consuming, and painful?

The answer is complex, but Eric’s point lies at its core: endurance sport is all about digging that hole inside yourself. From a physical perspective, participating in these sports requires an understanding of how one’s body works — how we convert food to energy, how we convert energy into movement, and how variations in our environment affect that process. Without this knowledge, no amount of brute force is enough reach the finish line.

But endurance events also require a deep understanding of one’s mental self. For first-timers who haven’t spent their whole life active, reaching the finish of an Ironman isn’t a matter of traversing 140.6 miles, but rather a year-long process of fitting in five to twenty-five hours a week of workouts around other life commitments while waiting for the painfully-slow process of physical adaptation to occur. It’s thousands of miles, the result of which makes the last 140.6 miles possible. For me, it’s more like a three-year process, as the earliest I’m likely to take on an Ironman is 2015. (Or, call it six years if you count the three years I spent losing weight and gaining basic fitness to arrive at the start of this phase of my journey.) Nyad’s journey dates back to 1978 when she made her first Cuba-to-Key West swim attempt.

“All that ocean-swimming I did back in the ’70s was just filled with anger,” Nyad says. “And sometimes anger is very powerful. John McEnroe played his tennis with anger. I think it was a little part of my success back then.” –The Swimmer, Out.com (2012.07.09)
It’s not just about commitment, either. The endurance training process itself intertwines with our thoughts. Sometimes the workouts serve as an outlet for emotion, like for Nyad, who, suffering the damage of sexual abuse by her high-school swim coach, took her anger out on the ocean. And sometimes the strange (and yet eventually familiar) combination of pain and repetition that endurance workouts bring lends clarity to emotions, the long hours of exercise offering opportunity for uninterrupted introspection. Then there’s the moment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a n00b like me halfway through a tough one-mile run interval or a potential world-champion Ironman in the last hundred yards of the marathon at Kona. What matters is that at that moment, things are bad enough to make you quit, but that’s not gonna happen. To keep going, you’re going to have to look inside yourself and find something new, something inspiring. In boxing, they call it “heart” or ”going to the well.” Whatever you call it, it’s an eye-opening look at who you are, stripped of innate prejudices. By definition, endurance sport is all about what comes after that point where simply “pushing harder” doesn’t cut it. A whole lot of life, it turns out, occurs beyond that point.

As Eric points out, selecting and preparing for challenging physical events gives us the opportunity to push ourselves — to find a new limit in what we believe we can do, then pound away at it in an organized fashion until we break through. It’s as much a journey of self discovery as it is of fitness or accomplishment. This is a quite recent discovery for me, and I never truly understood it until I undertook the journey myself.

But back to my awesome little trophy. No, I didn’t run all that fast, relatively speaking. But I thought I was full of win anyway because I executed my race plan to the letter, maximizing performance along the way. It was an awesome bonus that I did run third fastest of the people who showed up that day, and it was pretty cool to receive a little recognition for it. Audra and I both had a great time and got a big kick out of the whole day.