Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I love racing 5K’s for all of the exact same reasons that I hate them.
You see, 5K’s are short in the grand scheme of endurance road/trail racing; short enough that you are never properly given a chance to fall into the elusive, endorphin filled, runner “happy zone”. Yet in the world of competitive running as a whole, they are painfully long. Much longer than a track & field 100 or 800 meter race, or even a mile race for that matter. If you are racing a 5k to compete to win, place, or simply PR, you pretty much need to push as hard as you can from the second the starting gun goes off, until the second you cross the finish line. 3.1 miles surprisingly doesn’t leave much of a buffer for finding a groove.
For me, racing a 5K usually means that from start to finish, my body is in an anaerobic state of torture that simultaneously makes my lungs burn, my quads scream, and my stomach lurch, threatening to toss it’s contents at any given second…all while making sure none of the ladies behind me catch up, or worse, pass me. Those Zombie races are fun and all, but being chased by a zombie is not nearly as disturbing as feeling your competition gain on you with every footstep. 5K’s hurt. They are horrible and glorious.
My introduction to 5k racing started with a 3rd place female overall title back in 2009, shortly after the birth of my first son. Turned out, I was alright at this distance. I wasn’t heading to the Olympics anytime soon, but in my local circuit (of then Myrtle Beach), I consistently brought home either overall or age group awards. Unfortunately it set a precedence in my sometimes wildly competitive mind: if I race a 5K, I secretly want to win.
This past weekend, Geoff and I found ourselves having to make a tough decision to skip out on the O2X at Loon Mountain race, and stick close to home for the morning instead. Fortunately, the Brattleboro Fire Department was hosting their first annual Firefighters for Fitness 5K at one of the local trail circuits that we often frequent. We squeezed in on pre-registration just hours before the deadline. I toyed with the idea of racing, or just going out to have a fun time. It has been years since I actually raced a 5K, yet I felt relatively strong at our last few mountain and obstacle races. I figured I’d make a decision at the starting line.
We arrived to the race location, Harris Hill Ski Jump, with plenty of time to spare. I’m always nervous with first annual races, as you never know what the race organization – or lack of organization – will be like. Thankfully, the Brattleboro Fire Department had their registration process down.
As I approached the table, a wonderful volunteer checked me in. She then asked me if I was walking or running.
“Running.” I replied.
I was then asked if I was a “beginner” or if I “ran a lot.”
“A lot, I suppose.” I answered. And just like that, I was placed in the elite heat, and given bib # 03, which was actually just a red sharpie number written on the back of my hand. Geoff, behind me, was assigned #04. Forget the starting line, the decision had been made: I was going to race.
With plenty of time to kill, due to my insistence we arrive early, Geoff and I headed back to the car. I was thankful we were able to park so close, because despite the earlier forecast for semi clear skies with no precipitation, the sky opened up and it started pouring. It rained, and rained, and rained. The race was to start at 10:00 am, so at 9:45, I said we were going to have to suck it up: it was time to squeeze in a little warm up, and hit the port-a-potty one last time.
Thankfully, nature smiled down on us and it stopped raining as soon as we emerged from our car. I joked with Geoff as we did a few short warm up laps that I never feel safer at a race than I do at one sponsored by some sort of first responder group. There were firetrucks everywhere. We were in good hands.
Though the field was small, probably less than 100 people, I knew these trails were very narrow at times, and wondered how this would relate as far as crowding. I was very happy to see that the race would be sent off in three waves: elite, open, and walkers. The announcer sang the National Anthem and the elite wave was asked to line up at the start.
A few minutes to stand around, and the gun (air horn) went off. Knowing these trails, I knew the start was going to physically hurt.
And it did.
Half a mile straight up a significant climb. Though I was familiar with this climb to an extent, during training we consistently went right at the split on this hill, and the race course would instead bear to the trail on the left. I was unfamiliar with this portion of the climb, which seemingly never ended. For this part of the race, I was the lead female. That of course meant that even though I had initially planned to pace myself up the hill, I now had the pressure to at least maintain my current speed as to hopefully not let anyone else catch up. At one point I absolutely had to stop and walk. I turned around, relieved to see that nearly EVERYONE behind me was walking as well. I wasn’t the only one struggling.
Eventually we crested the half mile hill and took off down a gradual downhill. The wide trail quickly switched to single track, and gained in technicality by the step (in other words: roots, rocks, things that try to trip you.) Despite being a downhill, I could NOT catch my breath. I tried to open up my stride, but still felt like I was running impossibly slow. I had my GPS watch on, but pace is often irrelevant on trail; you simply cannot compare it to your road times. I could feel Geoff still behind me, which made me think I couldn’t be sucking wind that bad, as we had previously agreed to run our own races, and I knew he’d pass me if I was going to slow.
But instead of him passing me, I got passed by another woman. Damn. And only 9/10ths of a mile in.
I went through the gamut of racing emotions at that point. This sucks. Why didn’t I pace better on the hill? No, she’s simply stronger than you, she trained harder than you, good for her. (Which, truth be told, I haven’t trained for a 5K specifically in YEARS.) It’s still early, I could catch her. But do I want to ? Yes you do. No you don’t. Shut up brain, run your own damn race. Why can’t I breathe still? IS THAT ANOTHER UPHILL?
And so it goes.
As we hit the bottom of the hill, we took a sharp right turn and indeed did start climbing another hill. Still unable to catch my breath, I offered myself up one of two options: 1) keep running and feel awful for the rest of the race (that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?) or 2) walk strongly up the hill, catch your breath, reevaluate, and run strong. I chose option 2, and it paid off. After a few seconds of walking and deep, slow, conscious breathing, I was able to catch my breath and take off. By the time we hit the one water stop, I had finally fallen into a rhythm.
The rest of trail became very narrow and incredibly windy. Much of this section of trail is used for mountain biking, and I recognized the narrow switchbacks…as well as the numerous trees I have previously crashed into while on my bike (I’m still learning.) The views were simply stunning, as to be expected on a Vermont autumn day. The trail was impeccably well marked, which I thoroughly appreciated, as I was keeping my head down to watch my footing more than I was keeping it up to follow trail.
I did a little back-and-forth with a few firefighters that were racing in this wave. They’d pass me on the uphills, I’d pass them on the downhills. On and on it went. I was still holding 2nd place female; first place had long since disappeared into the distance. I occasionally looked behind me to see if I could see any females gaining on me, and I never did. Until all of a sudden, there she was, practically on my shoulders.
I had no earthly idea where we were in relation to the finish line. I was exhausted, and with the speed this woman had come up behind me, I was certain she would pass me. But all of a sudden, the single track opened up to a clearing I recognized: I knew at the end of this opening we would start to hit the main trail which was entirely downhill. A long downhill another 3/4 of a mile, but a significant downhill none the less. It was only a small local 5K, but once that inner voice takes over, it doesn’t matter if you are in the Olympics or simply racing your dog to the mailbox: you GO.
So I opened up my stride and went for it. I started barreling down the hill. I feared it would be far too soon, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I ran recklessly. I could hear her footsteps becoming farther away, but never far enough. I recognized the part of the trail where my 6 year old son Kain ALWAYS falls, because it’s so steep and covered in loose rock. For a fleeting second I considered using caution, but figured I was way too close (now maybe a quarter mile from the finish line) to worry about caution.
I ran. My lungs screamed. I hit the flat and took the 90 degree turn towards the finishers chute. So close, yet so far away. I could feel footsteps racing up behind me. I glanced over my shoulder fearing it was the other girl, but it wasn’t. It was one of the firefighters I had gone back and forth with for the entire course instead. In the good natured, competitive “I don’t care who you are, you still aren’t going to beat me” spirit, I started SPRINTING with everything I had left. He did as well. It was a crowd pleaser for sure, as people screamed and cheered from the finish line. I truly hope there are pictures of this moment, though I’m certain I look atrocious, because those “sprint to the finish line” photos are never very flattering, and instead are sort of terrifying. Total oxygen depletion isn’t a pretty sight.
I beat him. Not that it really mattered, but it was a fun ending to the race. I crossed the finish line and immediately felt like I was going to puke everywhere. I could not stop moving for fear of yaking. I love/hate that feeling. It is one of the worst physical feelings on earth, yet somewhat satisfying, as you know you truly left everything out on the course. The “don’t stop moving or you will toss your cookies” feeling lasted so long, that I couldn’t even properly joke with Geoff that he had completely missed my sprint to the finish line moment, since he was off picking up a free Frisbee from one of the sponsors. Instead, my lactic acid fueled body must have given off the impression that I was truly livid as I made a jest and kept walking by, as this nearly led to the first massive fight between the two of us.
And I’m not kidding. Chalk that one up to athlete problems.
But, we sorted out that misunderstanding, and stuck around to cheer the rest of the crowd in. A few of the local firefighters had run the entire course wearing full uniforms, complete with their oxygen tanks, hats, and boots. I can’t even imagine how uncomfortable and difficult that must have been, I was simply in awe. The highlight of my entire day, however, was when one of those firefighters crossed the line to be immediately met by his (I’m assuming) young daughter. She said “Daddy, where have you been? We’ve been waiting here forever”, as if he was the slowest runner on earth, the equipment should be no excuse. It was hilarious and adorable.
I managed to snag second place elite female, Geoff took home 5th male. There were some amazing prizes for the top runners from some great local sponsors. I ended up with a gift certificate to a local bike shop, Geoff with a gift certificate to a local diner. Race local, support local. It felt really good to be a part of.
Shortly after the awards ceremony, there was a firefighter fitness challenge, but unfortunately Geoff and I weren’t able to stick around, as we were headed a few hours North to Benson, VT for a night race.
To the Brattleboro Fire Department and all of the volunteers that helped organize the first annual Firefighters for Fitness 5k: excellent job. There was absolutely nothing I would have changed about this race. It is always such a pleasant surprise when a first time race seemingly goes off without a hitch. I truly hope that you were able to raise funds for your wonderful cause (the Brattleboro Firefighters Benefit Association), and that this race will continue for years to come.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.