Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Weekend 5k Saga

I am a recent graduate from a D1 university track and cross-country program. That means four years of the vicious runners cycle: get in shape, injury, fight back into shape, injury, summer, get back into shape, etc. After graduation I moved to DC, where I have found a job and am settling into some form of a routine. I feel that I have more to do in the racing department before I become a casual jogger (soft j, a la Anchorman). I run every evening after work, and decided early on that it would be fun to enter some local road races to give focus to my training. Also, my running friends at school strongly recommend running road races, because now that I’m done with college, I can finally accept money! Just think – to be paid to run – amazing!!! This concept is intriguing to me, but as someone who has never won anything, I have my doubts.  But it would be pretty sweet to get some prize money for something I would do for free – let’s just call it some extra motivation.

            So I searched online for my first escapade into the world of road racing. Eventually I found a 5k/10k in the suburb of Alexandria. It seemed like a pretty small race. There were no past results posted online, and the website promised “fun for the whole family.” This sounded like my kind of thing – the fewer people, the less competition, and the better chance of me winning! So I registered online, paid my entry fee, and adjusted my training regimen accordingly to prepare for a 5k.

            The night before the race, I went online to find out what time I needed to be at the Metro station. As a newcomer from Boston, the DC metro never ceases to amaze me. You can plan your trips ahead of time! The stations have a time schedule, and electronic signs tell you exactly when the train is going to arrive! This is seriously high tech in comparison to the Boston T. So I went online to “plan my trip” to arrive at the Alexandria metro station at 7:30, allowing myself ample time to check in and warm up before the 8:15 starting time. To my horror, I was faced with a pop-up telling me that my trip was unavailable. What? That can’t be right! I tried again. I tried entering different arrival times. I tried entering different routes. I checked and double checked until I confirmed the sad truth: the Metro does not start running until 7 am on Saturdays, thus the earliest train arriving in Alexandria would be at 7:48. Oh no. Why didn’t I think of this before? After a minor panic, I accepted that there was nothing for me to do but take my changes with the Metro and pray that everything would work out.

            I awoke at 6 am Saturday morning to a humid and rainy day, had a piece of toast and a cup of coffee, and got ready to go. Before now, I never really appreciated the privilege of being driven to races. This morning, I had to wear everything I needed – there would be nowhere to store my stuff. So I couldn’t bring any warm-ups, training shoes, etc. So I left the house race-ready, with my Metro card tucked into my sports bra, at 7 am. To get to Alexandria, I had to go to a different Metro station than usual, so I ran the 2 miles to Metro Center as a warm up. The train was scheduled to go through Metro Center at 7:24 and arrive in Alexandria at 7:48. Race check-in closed at 8am. So I was cutting it close, but I really didn't have any other choice, and I had already paid the $30 entry fee.

So anyway, I arrived at Metro Center to learn that the train was running 10 minutes late. Obviously I kind of freaked out, but had no choice but wait, pacing and stretching the length of the platform. I’m pretty sure the 5 other people getting on an early Saturday morning Metro must have thought I was insane - how often do you see a runner in spandex and a tank top stretching in an underground metro station at 7:20am?

Finally the train came at 7:34. Me: freaking out, standing in the aisle, trying to keep moving as I would normally do before a race.  I hoped that just maybe this one train would go extra-fast, perhaps skip a few stations, anything to arrive on time! But alas, it was not to be. Saturday morning = track work on the metro = expect delays. We would approach a station, the train would stop, and the driver would announce that we had to wait while the train in front of us unloaded.

Are you freaking kidding me? You have got to be kidding! It took a lot of effort for me to keep my thoughts to myself. At this point I was really frustrated, wondering if the race organizers would let me check in late...planning on how I'll tell them what happened and beg for mercy - "I just want to run, please, blame the Metro, it's not my fault!"

A few other runners boarded the train, obviously heading to the same location. A couple in their mid-30s, and three older women with fanny packs. I envied them their relaxation – as far as I could tell, to those runners it was just a morning run for charity, nothing to be nervous about, no reason to call down curses on the DC Metro system, the drivers, the other train, and the world in general. I, on the other hand, was doing all those things, alternately praying and cursing, knowing that ultimately there was nothing I could do. “What will I do if I miss the start?” I wondered. Well obviously I would run it anyways – I didn’t get up at 6am on a Saturday to almost run a 5k!

We pull into the Eisenhower Avenue stop at 8:10 on my watch. (Remember the race was scheduled to start at 8:15.) I could see the start from the station - everyone was lined up and ready to go.  I sprinted off the train, down the escalators, and to the race area, frantically asking for directions to registration. A volunteer pointed me to the lobby of a nearby movie theater. I dashed in and got my number - luckily this was a pretty low-key set up and they didn't seem to care that I was 15 minutes late. So I pinned my number on my shirt, laced the timing chip through my shoelace, and ran to the start line.

It was deserted (obviously). The clock showed that the gun had gone off 3 minutes and 30 seconds ago. Another girl, presumably another Metro victim, was jogging to the line  - we looked at each other, shrugged and said, "I guess we just start."

So I ran the out-and-back 5k - duck-and-weaving through the joggers (again, soft j), and dog-walkers at the back of the pack. I felt a release once I started running. Despite my stressful morning, I was there, I was running, and really nothing else mattered. That is not to say that I was not annoyed at the whole experience, but my frustration was lessened as I concentrated on the task at hand.

I crossed the finish line and glanced at my watch - 18:40. Crap time. Crap morning. (Oh, and it was just beginning to rain.) What a waste of my life. I began to doubt myself - what was I thinking that I could do well in a 5k? Who do I think I am? There is always that tempting hope that I would somehow magically throw down an amazing time, despite my lack of warm up and generally flustered morning. Unfortunately in distance running that sort of thing does not really happen.

So in my annoyance, I continued running. I ran the 10k course in the pouring rain, and threw in a couple 1-mile pick-ups for good measure. I had “rested up” for this race, so I may as well get a good workout out of the otherwise wasted day.

I arrived back in the finish area as they concluded the awards ceremony, feeling a bit more accomplished than I had when I first crossed the finish line. I meandered over to the results postings, just to check. I scanned for my name and was surprised to see that I was listed 6th overall - second woman in the 5k! Wait a second, does that mean I won prize money? I ran back to the awards area and asked the announcer, "Are the results based on the net time or the gun time?" She wasn't really sure, so I explained that my net time (from the chip) meant that I was second place, but my gun time was terrible because I started late. "I missed the awards because I was cooling down, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to get anything, and I just wanted to check, because I was late on the Metro,” I babbled in my sweaty, soaking wet, exhausted state, “I just want to know if I won any money," I concluded breathlessly.

Alas, the announcer confirmed my fears - the awards are based on gun time. The first place woman ran 18:36 (I ran just 4 seconds slower according to my net/chip time, but 3:34 slower according to my gun time). Had the metro arrived 3 minutes and 30 seconds sooner, I would have started on time, and been in the race from the gun – giving me a chance to compete.

And that is how the metro cost me $175 in prize money this Saturday.