I don’t typically believe in writing race reports for races less than, perhaps, 10 miles in length. Such races are generally “B” events for me, and the strategy and dynamics of the race are often a bit less interesting to share. However, the Aurora Turkey Trot 4-Miler on Thanksgiving Day (obviously) holds some valuable lessons on preparing for a shorter race, as well as a good bookend on my training season, so I thought I’d sit down and gather some thoughts.
First, as a baseline, I had run a few early-season 5K’s – both a “time trial” in the predawn on a local track in April, and a more formally organized local 5K in June – to establish my VDOT and set targets for race goals and workouts this season. The results of the time trial (18:20 – 5:54/mile pace) suggested a VDOT of 55, establishing workout goals as described in a prior post on the marathon-training plan, and an uncannily accurate marathon prediction of 2:56:01 (Daniels approach). This VDOT was re-validated through the season at the Towpath Ten-Ten 10-Miler and the River Run Half Marathon, and of course the Towpath Marathon itself.
The Solon Yates 5K, however, held a different lesson – that going out too fast can kill your performance even in the shorter races. That experience, in which I walked part of the third mile on the way to an 18:54 finish, after clocking a 5:20 pace in the opening half-mile, was humbling, reminding me that all races require a strategy.
This training season was pretty light on VO2max-specific training, as Pfitzinger believes that VO2max is a lower priority for the marathoner. Thus, there weren’t the workouts you’d expect to see one perform in preparation for a shorter race – 400 to 800m intervals, or perhaps short tempo interval workouts. There were a lot of strides (at least weekly), and the tempo runs for increasing lactate threshold were almost always of a length longer than four miles. Thus, when combined with the six weeks of over 70 miles, and even the stepback weeks being in the 60’s, I knew my overall fitness would be solid heading into this race, and I was well recovered from the Towpath Marathon. However, I had no idea how this would translate into specific race performance.
I had set a goal of 23:30 for this race, a 5:52/mile pace. I assumed that my short-race performance would have improved somewhat from April, though I wasn’t sure to what extent. Additionally, since the race had a roughly quarter-mile hill at the three-mile mark, I knew I’d need to be a bit conservative early (even running down the same hill just a quarter-mile into the race) to have a chance to meet this goal. Conditions were perfect; I was geared up in a heavier (and bright yellow) UnderArmour technical tee, shorts, and arm sleeves, in addition to my Saucony Kinvara 2’s, which I love for races of half-marathon length or under.
After a 3-mile warm-up, with some strides near the end, and lunges and the standing portion of the myrtl routine, I settled into the front of the starting area, and notice I was largely surrounded by high-school and college kids who were probably in top shape from their cross-country seasons. I knew heading in to the race that such would be the situation, so an overall win was out, and I judged from past results that a 23:30 finish would put me in the mid-teens overall.
The start was delayed five minutes, but we were soon off. As expected, the kids took off quickly, including one 12 year old whose mother had promised him $50 if he finished top-3 in his age group (practically a gimme). Advice – if you want to ensure someone young blows themselves out early in a race, offer a financial reward for a high finish. I tried to stay patient, as I was maybe 20 back from the lead heading into the downhill. A quick and perhaps inaccurate glance at my Garmin indicated a pace of 7:11(?), and the patience quickly faded. I kicked it up a bit on the downhill, and at the next glimpse, my pace was 5:30. I steady out at the bottom of the hill, and was able to hold this pace steady for the remainder of the first mile.
Early in the second mile, we reached a turnaround cone, so I got a gauge of my position – looked to be 11th, but I quickly passed a younger runner to move into 10th. This portion was flat, and we passed the local football team practicing on Thanksgiving Day for the state semifinals. My pace slipped a bit – intentionally, but was still held below goal, coming in at 5:44 for the second mile. This was not easy, but not particularly uncomfortable, and felt sustainable – on flat terrain.
At this point I heard another runner coming up on me, but I didn’t turn to look. Additionally, we were rapidly gaining on a runner, so my focus was on staying relaxed and patient until we passed him about a quarter-mile into mile three. We also started closing on another runner – a bit of an older hippie wearing minimalist footwear, and passed him after the third turnaround of the race, at the base of the key hill.
As we started up the hill, I could sense my breathing and heart rate start to spike, so tried to balance holding a steady effort and staying relaxed. The runner behind seemed to be gaining on me judging by the volume of his footfalls, but I passed the three-mile marker midway up the hill, at a 5:44 split, still ahead. As we reached the top of the hill, I saw that my pace had slipped to 6:10, so I focused on pushing the pace again. I soon noticed the runner’s footfalls fading away – he may well have been trying a make-or-break approach on the hill, and it appears he broke.
I got a confirmation of that about midway through the last mile; the race finishes with a loop of the Aurora Farms Factory Outlets, so I could catch a reflection in the window of the runners behind me and see them as we turned corners. No one was particularly close. So I settled in again and started pushing what I could into the slightly uphill finish, thrilled to see the race clock showing 22:xx with just one hundred meters to go. I passed the finish and, after a few seconds of neglect, stopped my Garmin, with a time of 22:42, knowing I was in eighth overall.
On gathering with the other finishers, it was pretty obvious I had won the age group. One runner approached me and, with a rather bewildered voice, asked, “how old ARE you?” When I replied “38” (no, I am not a masters runner yet, for those who may have assumed I am), he said “wow, I’m 31 and was thrilled to keep up with these guys, I don’t know how you do it.” The sentiment was echoed by another gentleman, wearing an Ohio University shirt, who stated he was 24 and hadn’t been training that much yet. Since it was Thanksgiving, I quickly got in my car and squeezed by the final turn of the race to head home to join my family.
Let’s go back to the point of the post. In one season, seven months long, my VDOT, now at 56, improved by a point, with no real specific focus on VO2max training. As others have reported, high mileage training works wonders for shorter race distances. If you have read Once a Runner, you may recall that, even for the mile, Quenton Cassidy was putting in nearly 100 miles per week of training (yes, it is a work of fiction, but it is based on real experience).
So if you want to go for a lifetime PR in the 5K, consider training for a 10K or more. If a 10K, go for a half-marathon training plan. If a half-marathon, look into marathon plans. Or plan to make a shorter race an A race soon after recovering from a longer race. You may be surprised with the result.