Monday, April 07, 2008

Local Man Sets 5K PR; Still Waiting for 'Runner's High'

WASHINGTON, April 6 -- On a windy, rain-soaked morning in our Nation's Capital, a tired yet strong 28-year-old stood in the 5K Run/Walk corral about a block from the Washington Monument. As the bearded redhead hopped up and down, running in place to stay warm before the race began, he still didn't know quite what he was doing here.

"Everyone talks about the adrenaline rush I would get on the morning of the Big Race," Matt told me the next day over a plate of grilled chicken and steamed-in-the-bag vegetables, "but I never got an adrenaline rush. The whole thing was just too surreal. I was on 4 hours of sleep, and all I kept thinking was, 'I'm running a what, now? Who signed me up for this? Why am I not in bed?' I didn't know 8 a.m. actually existed on a Sunday morning!"

But early hours did exist on Sunday, as Matt found out when his cell phone alarm went off at 6, waking him from a fitful slumber that had only taken hold after 1 a.m. He pinned his number (20076) to his long-sleeved technical shirt, downed a cup of orange juice and a handful of Cheerios, and headed out the door. He arrived at the National Mall around 7:30 -- a full 70 minutes before his starting time.

"It appears somebody miscalculated," Matt said, cursing the efficiency of the DC transit authority. "Anyway, it was really neat down there, almost a carnival atmosphere. The whole thing was just like July 4th, except everybody was running!"

Having arrived so early, Matt had no choice but to walk around, sometimes jogging lightly to keep warm. By the time the 5K race was set to start, Matt had been warming up his legs for about an hour.

There was no "On your mark, get set, go!" that Matt had envisioned in his dreams. The only way Matt knew the race had begun was that everyone in front of him started slowly shuffling forward. It took about 90 seconds to cross the starting mats, and then Matt started.

To Walk or Not to Walk

"Everyone had warned me about starting too fast," Matt recalled. "They said I would get caught up in the excitement of running with a thousand other people. They said I should slow down! So I did. But not enough."

MILE 1 | 3:07 + 3:00 + 3:07 + 3:10 = 12:24
MILE 2 | 3:54 + 3:32 + 3:51 + 3:26 = 14:43
MILE 3 | 3:26 + 3:48 + 3:23 + 3:14 = 13:51
0.11 | 1:21

Indeed, as evidenced by Matt's unofficial mile splits, he hovered between 4.9 and 5.0 mph for the first mile. That speed, he says, would have been fine had he taken walk breaks from the beginning. But because of his excitement, he felt he was strong enough to run the first mile without walking.

"This was a race," Matt said. "I was supposed to push myself. I would have felt like a total idiot following Galloway's advice and taking walk breaks every few minutes."

However, after pushing himself for a mile, Matt -- who had originally signed up for the 10-mile run -- needed to walk.

"I was strong enough to run the first mile," Matt said. "But then I needed to slow down." For the next mile, he took minute-long walk breaks every 2-3 minutes.

At the 2 mile mark, he decided to try to push himself harder. "I had read somewhere that on a 5K my heart rate should be around 90-95% most of the time. Well, I generally was at around 170 for the few minutes at a time that I could maintain a run, but on my walk breaks I gradually dropped down to 150. I decided that I was going to only walk until my pulse hit 160, and then I'd pick it back up again."

So Matt's walk-breaks grew shorter. And yet, short as they were, whenever Matt walked, something ominous happened...

Battle with the Race-Walkers

"The entire race was a battle between me and the race-walkers," Matt recalled, poking at a microwaved baby carrot. "I noticed them as I ran past in the first mile. And I noticed them again as they walked past at the beginning of the second mile."

For the rest of the race, they would be lingering just behind, in the shadows, waiting to take the lead.

"There's nothing more annoying than a damn 50-year-old woman grinning giddily, holding her elbows high and pumping her arms as she marches past me while I am briefly recuperating at 2.5 mph."

2.5 mph?

"I'm a slow walker."

The battle continued until mile 2.5 or so, when Matt picked up the pace.

"If you look at my quarter-mile splits, you'll notice that the walking basically stopped with a half mile to go. Sure, I walked for a few second here and there, but I really wanted to give it my all."

With a half mile left, he left the race-walkers in the dust.

'Looking Strong, Number 20076!'

"People on the sidelines kept saying, 'You're almost there! It's just around the corner!' And I was still under 40 minutes, and I figured I might actually be able to meet my arbitrary goal of 42ish minutes."

"As I turned the corner, the cheers grew louder. I could see the banner in the distance. I had about a quarter mile left to go, and I vowed to finish without walking. I took off my hat and glasses and just steamrolled forward. My pulse was at 171, 172, 173, and around then I felt my entire body flush. I have felt this before at very high efforts -- I am positive it is my body switching from aerobic to anaerobic."

What does anaerobic energy production feel like?

"Like I said, it feels like a flush is overcoming my entire body. Everything suddenly feels warm -- my arms, my chest, my legs -- it's just different. It comes with a really hard effort, and when I feel that flush, I know I won't last more than another minute or so.

"With about a block to go, I closed my eyes and dug deep inside for the effort to keep going. As I opened my eyes I noticed that I had just passed a camera man -- he had snapped a picture of me as I entered the mental part of the race. Now that's a picture I'll pay money for!

"The finish line was 50 feet in front of me. I heard the announcer say, 'Looking strong, number two-zero-zero-seven-six!' It was like my winning raffle ticket had just been called. 'Yes!' I shouted, pumping my hands in the air. With a final burst and a huge smile, I crossed the finish line."

Matt's final time was 42:29 -- a pace of 13:41. It was his fastest 5K effort to date.

Final Thoughts

"I'm pretty happy with the time," Matt said, finishing his chicken and veggies. "It's about six minutes faster than I had ever traversed 3.1 miles before, and do you know why? Because my calves didn't tighten up at all. The past two months, almost every time I tried to run more than 1.7 miles, my calves would get extremely tight to the point of cutting off blood flow to my peroneal nerves, and then the entire front of my shins and top of my feet would go numb! This time, for whatever reason, that didn't happen. Maybe it was the frequent Stick massages, or maybe it was the flat course, or maybe it was hour-long warm-up. All I know is that finally, my legs worked as they were supposed to."

Matt has signed up for the Detroit Half Marathon on Oct. 19, which he plans to run with his good friend Diana. He already has a general plan for the next 6 months.

"I'm really going to have to focus on weight loss," he said, sipping a glass of filtered water. "I was 182 when I started law school; I'm 212 today. I was essentially running with a 15 pound dumbbell in each hand. Imagine how much easier this would be -- how much faster I could get -- if I just dropped the dumbbells."

Matt plans to consistently eat healthy, add regular strength training to his fitness plan, and exercise at least 5 days a week. He will start "officially" training for the half-marathon sometime in June.

"People ask me why I run, when it is so difficult for me. What they don't understand is that they've already answered their own question: I run because it is difficult. I run because I want to get better at it. It's a noble goal in itself, and it will bring me so many side benefits: more health, more discipline, more confidence. I run because I cannot... and I run because I can."

Matt and Heather after the run


  1. I am so proud of you! You worked really hard for this. I can't wait to celebrate over ribs and beer!

  2. I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE this post!!! We have similar goals :) I chuckled when you mentioned the peroneal nerve--i haven't heard that since Gross Anatomy :)

  3. Di: Thank you!!! Yes, the ribs and beer will be tasty, but I *might* actually forgo the beer... can't get to 182 on pig meat and alcohol!

    Let It Go: Thank you SO MUCH!!! I loved writing the post. :-) I took at look at your web site and you're right, we do have very similar goals. I think you may become one of my regular reads, and you might even get a permalink ;)

  4. Matt, you are awesome. Congratulations on what sounds like a tough but ultimately satisfying race!

  5. Congrats on your victory over the race walkers! Great race report, I felt like I was there with you. Funny, too.

  6. Thank you Reluctant and Run.Happy :-) The race was pretty tough but I enjoyed it.