Race Recap: 2014 ZooZilla 5K

On Saturday I ran the ZooZilla 5K, my third race in three weekends following the Jack-O-Lantern Jog last weekend and the Buffalo Creek Half Marathon the weekend before that. The race starts and ends in the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot and goes around and through the zoo. I'd been warned that it was a challenging, hilly course. Because I hadn't tried hard in the Jack-O-Lantern Jog last weekend, my goals for this race were to: a.) beat my 32:23 time at the Jack-O-Lantern Jog, which wouldn't be hard, b.) get experience with a hilly course, c.) get experience with races in general to get over my race anxiety, and d.) push hard and don't give in when it gets tough. It never even occurred to me to shoot for my sub-30 goal I've tried for all year. On a a hilly course, what were the chances? Well! I am absolutely elated and proud to report that not only did I meet all my goals, but I got my sub-30 PR too! Yes!!!! Here's how it all went down.

Amanda and I are very happy after getting our big PRs!
The strategy of running more races to help get over my race anxiety seems to be working. I wasn't terrified the night before or morning of like I usually am. Even though I knew I was going to be pushing hard and had a time goal (though a pretty easy one), I wasn't even very nervous.

Amanda from Crazy Cat Lady Runner also registered for the race, so I was happy to run it with her. We met in the parking lot shortly after 7 a.m. before the 8 a.m. start. It was cold, dark, and rainy, so I was very happy to sit in her warm car after we picked up our chips and shirts. We started warming up about 7:45 with a warm-up jog around the parking lot and some lunges. I asked Amanda to try to yell at me if I started falling behind her but keep going if I couldn't keep up. Then we lined up near the middle and after a few minutes were off and running!

Mile 1: 9:20 pace
We took off at a pretty good pace and weaved around people until we could get our own space, which we were able to keep and not be crowded. The first mile is mostly a loop around the parking lot. As we were running that loop, you could see all the runners, and I was slightly surprised to realize we were in about the first 25% of the pack. In Amanda's recap, she said she looked down at her watch and saw we were running a 9-minute pace (but wisely didn't mention that to me), so that would explain why we were toward the front. The course leaves the parking lot and goes onto Butler Street briefly before heading up the steep One Wild Place hill. Right before we started up the hill I glanced down at my Garmin and saw 9:14. That's the one and only time I looked at my Garmin the whole race. I don't like to start off fast, but I was okay with the fast start because I knew I'd be losing time on the hill. We started up the hill side by side and shortly after saw the marker for mile 1.

Mile 2: 10:35 pace
The hill went up and up, with no end in sight. I used a mental strategy I learned from another runner at the Just a Short Run 5K last March: Keep your eyes on the runners in front of you and let them carry you up the hill. I really tried to focus, but I could feel myself start to slow. Amanda, the awesome runner friend she is, kept her promise and motioned me to keep up with her several times. I waved her on. I was giving it my all, but I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up with her. I saw her pull away and weave around a few people, and I tried to push my pace a bit too. I wasn't too far behind her. Seeing her in front of me definitely motivated me to keep pushing and not give in. Finally--finally!!!--I saw the turnaround at the top of the hill, and Amanda and I waved at each other as she passed me on the downhill. The downhill was steep but all too short before a very steep but short hill took us into the zoo. Right after that came more hills! In Amanda's recap, she described this section as rolling hills. All I seem to remember were uphills, at least for the first part. And at this point, I really started to fade. In fact, it was all I could do not to walk, and no one around me was walking. But I didn't let myself walk and instead focused on pushing. I was so focused that I wasn't even paying attention to the zoo, and only looked at the animals when other people pointed them out. "Look at the red panda! He looks like my cat sleeping like that!" "Flamingos!" "Where are the polar bears?" One woman near me asked one of the race volunteers. "They're letting them out in two minutes," he said. "You just missed them!" Apparently a lot of the animals hadn't been yet let out of the enclosures they go into at night, since the race happened before the zoo started. Finally, it seemed there were some downhills as we ran through small rolling hills, and I took advantage of the downhills to catch my breath.

Mile 3: 8:49 pace
Right before mile 3 was one last small uphill. There was a volunteer standing there who told us it was the last uphill and that the rest was downhill. I was so happy to hear that! The women around me, who were with me all through the zoo, told each other to pick up the pace, and I picked it up with them. Then we left the zoo and ran back down One Wild Place. I really let my legs open up and pushed my pace. My breathing evened out a bit and I was able to push my pace without too much problem. On the way down, I saw lots of people slowly running or walking up the hill, and I felt for them because I knew they still had a lot of tough course to go. But at the same time, a small voice in my head registered that, Hey, I'm not with that group. I'm not in the back of the pack. Realizing that made me continue with a strong pace all the way down the hill. I had lost sight of Amanda as soon as she went into the zoo but on the downhill I still didn't see her. I knew she must have pulled way in front of me. Finally, near the bottom of the hill, I saw her reach the bottom of the hill and turn to go back into the zoo parking lot and knew she was at least a minute ahead of me. I didn't want to look at my watch because I wanted to keep my focus on pushing hard, but if I was trying to beat 32:23, which I knew I would based on my effort, and if she was running a minute or more faster than I was, I thought she'd have a chance at breaking 30 minutes. I was really happy for her, and that motivated me to keep up the pace. I got to the bottom of the hill and turned to go into the zoo parking lot. At that point, I nearly gave up. It was flat and I had to work more, and I felt like I'd given the race everything I had and didn't have anything left. Right then, a woman in front of me turned toward me and said, "Come on! We're so close!" like she had read my mind. I don't know if she thought I was someone else or if she somehow sensed I was struggling, but I listened to her and forced myself to push and give it all I had. I turned the corner and saw the finish line flag, which looked far away, and forced myself to push.

Mile .09: 8:45 pace
Right before the finish line, I saw Amanda, and she jumped onto the course to run with me. And then, as we came up to the finish line, I saw the clock: 29:40, 29:41, 29:42....WHAT?!?! I never knew how fast I was running since I didn't look at my Garmin, but I never imagined that I would come in under 30 minutes. I crossed at 29:43 on the clock, stopped my Garmin, and walked. Amanda was saying, "You did it!" but I couldn't talk for some time, and when I did could only manage a few words at a time. Finally my breathing settled and I learned that she had come in at 28:09! My Garmin registered 29:30! I could not believe it! I did it! We both did awesome!

My watch on top and Amanda's on bottom
We hung around for a bit eating bagels and comparing out splits. I was partly in shock at first but then so happy once it all settled in. While I wasn't focused on breaking 30 minutes like I had been in other 5Ks--in fact, had never even imagined I could do it on a hard course--I focused instead on pushing hard and not giving in, and it paid off! We were both very happy!

My official stats are 29:31 for a 9:31 pace! My Garmin came up short (3.09) and so did Amanda's (3.08), but I'm sure that extra .01 would only have added seconds on, and I'd still have been under 30 minutes. I placed 7 (out of 26) in my age group, just missing the top 25%. Amanda placed 10 (out of 91) in her age group, so she is in or near the top 10%. I finished 128 out of 372 overall, though I know there were a lot of walkers. Still--we both did great!
Very happy with my sub-30 time!
The first training plan I did this year was for a sub-30 5K, and I finished that race in 30:06 in March. I have wanted to break 30 minutes so badly, and to finally achieve it is a huge accomplishment. It's probably the one that means the most to me in my short running career.

I've learned a lot from this race, but this post is already so long I'll save that for another day. :-)

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