Asparagus and running have been two of my favorite things in recent years. On a beautiful April day in my childhood hometown of Stockton, CA, both were featured at the annual Asparagus Festival.
I arrived in downtown Stockton at about 7:45am, which allowed plenty of time for parking. While downtown Stockton is not nearly as bad as, say, San Francisco for parking, parking is not nearly as abundant as the Asparagus Festival folks might lead one to believe on their website. Nevertheless, it did not take more than 10 minutes to find parking, though after the race I briefly lost my car! (More on this in my Asparagus Festival article.)
I found the registration pickup area fairly easily and were greeted by smiling, enthusiastic volunteers. Indeed, the weather was nice, and a certain happiness and optimism seemed to permeate through the grounds of the Asparagus Festival. I also noticed how clean and refreshing the revitalized downtown Waterfront was, with boats docked in the sparkling water along the harbor, the air smelling pure and fresh without a trace of noxious exhaust fumes or even the whiff of sea-water coming in from the Delta and the distant San Francisco Bay. Was this the same Stockton I used to know, a Stockton whose downtown was all-but-dead except for the presence of hoodlums and gangs?
Whatever the case, I did not dwell on this long. There was a race to be run. Getting warmed up was not a problem—I jogged from my car to the start, and then back to the car to drop off the goody bag given by the race volunteers at the registration tables. This race, by the way, was a bargain—for $20, one received a T-shirt, water bottle, cookie (courtesy of the Stockton Fleet Feet store), and most importantly, free entry into the Asparagus Festival (an $8 or $10 value, I’m not positive of the exact price).
The start of the race was actually about 1/8th of a mile away from registration, kind of on a narrow pathway. Or rather, narrow for the record number of people who were to run the 5k race this year—410. I promptly lined up at the front in the 2nd row of runners. Shortly thereafter, my friend Tom—who moved from San Francisco to Stockton just a year ago—and I spotted each other. This was actually the first time I met Tom; we had been corresponding via email over the last year, having the subjects of bicycling and Stockton in common. This being his first 5k run and a 30-minute time as his goal, he started farther back in the crowd but said he’d meet me at the finish.
The race director then made some comments, including allusions to “the All-America City of Stockton” and noting that the course was changed in the last 30 minutes. Apparently, it was set up wrong previously, but they got it right this time around. It was to be out-and-back, with a guy on a bicycle leading the way.
Then after the rotund police chief made some comments, sirens began blaring and the race had begun! This time I was intent on trying a race strategy I had never tried before in a 5k race, but was advised to by a fast(er) runner named Eduardo in the Rainbow Falls 5k last month in San Francisco.
This strategy was, basically, to “start slowly and finish strongly”—the creedo of the Dolphin South-End Runners. In the past I had a tendency to start out fast (like 6:10 pace) and then try to “gut it out” the last 2.1 miles while invariably slowing down. Would starting out slower, and finishing stronger, result in better overall times? I would try and see…
“I’ll take it easy for 9 minutes,” I told myself, “and then take off.” So every few minutes I’d look down at my watch. After about 5 minutes I was breathing to a comfortable 3-count (breathing out on every 6th footstep) and feeling relaxed. After 7 minutes I was becoming more restless. About 35 people were ahead of me, and here I was, holding back! I wanted to go right there and then but the deal was “9 minutes”.
But the moment my watch hit 9:00, I surged! My stride had lengthened and cadence quickened, and within 30 seconds, I had passed 10 or so people. By ~10:00, I rounded the turnaround point. Upon turning around I noted that the girl who was a good 30 feet in front of me at 9:00 was now at least 200 feet back. And not long after the turnaround I passed a few more guys who were talking about how fast another woman in front of them was. About 30 seconds later, one of them exclaimed “keep it up!” when my surge began to fade a little and now I was merely keeping pace with the people still in front of me, as opposed to passing them.
For the next few minutes, I concentrated on keeping up my cadence all while my breathing had quickened to a 2-count (breathing out on every 4th footstep). Sweat began to dribble into my eyes, and the quicker breathing rate was hardly comfortable. Yet, I tried my best not to relent and was further buoyed when I saw Tom going the other way, waving at me. I gave him a thumbs up and tried to surge a little bit once more.
By 15:00 or so I was now within about 40 feet of the woman the guys were talking about a few minutes ago. She had kind of a funny running style, feet splayed and angled out like a duck while seemingly hopping from side-to-side. If she wasn’t going so fast I’d have described it as “goofing around” as opposed to running. “It’s almost like she was just taunting you!” joked Tom after the race, when I told him this.
By 17:30 I passed the registration tables, and I now knew that a sub-20 minute finish was very attainable. Just about 2 minutes to go. Yet, as much as I wanted to surge yet again, my breathing was maxed out, and by this point, I just did not want to slow down. I never did catch the woman.
By almost 19:00 I heard rapid footsteps behind me, and a twentyish guy hurriedly passed me. “Go for it,” I encouraged him, feeling powerless to match his pace. In the past, by this point, it usually would be myself sprinting for the finish. But this time I did not have a sprint left in me. My three or four surges in the last 10 minutes had left me spent. As it turns out, not being able to match the guy to the finish cost me a top-3 finish in my age group. I finished 4th in the 20-29 year-old age bracket, and 20th overall (17th among males). 20/410 = 95th percentile… not bad!
Indeed, I was very content to finish in 19:30 by my watch (my official time was 19:24; I am guessing that the official clock was started after the last runner had crossed the start line). First of all, this was a new personal best; previously, my best 5k was the 1995 Delicato Grape Stomp Romp (coincidentally also in Stockton), the first race I had ever entered, which I finished in 20:38. (How it would take me 10 years to beat that time which I achieved with no training still boggles my mind!)
Secondly, I had fulfilled one of the running goals I set at the beginning of the year, which was to run a sub-20 minute 5k. As my goal date was December 31, 2005, it was accomplished 8 months ahead of schedule.
Thirdly, it validated the advice given to me by Eduardo and the Deep South-End Runners about “starting slowly and finishing strongly”, and gave me renewed hope that I can be faster in races by merely using better race strategy. More experimentation and racing needs to be done (for one thing, I am thinking that it would be better if I didn’t surge quite so suddenly and rapidly, but rather, gradually work up to a sustained surge).
Finally, the race was not only lots of fun but allowed me to eat some yummy deep-fried asparagus afterwards completely guilt-free!
Note: For some time after the race I wondered if the course was really 5 kilometers or actually a tad shorter. I mean, I felt like I was definitely faster than the last 5k race I did, but 1:25 faster?? However, when the official results came out, my mind was put to ease. To begin with, the top time was 15:57 (or 16:03 if one includes the 6 seconds the timers seemed to give us), which is to be expected for a 5k race of this size. Furthermore, that I finished in the 95th percentile instead of my usual 85th percentile for a race of this distance gives creedence that I actually was faster. Indeed, the course was favorable for a P.R., with good weather, perfectly flat and paved roads (except for a gradual bridge in the last half-mile), and few sharp turns.