My very first 5K, I ran in something like 35:XX. At the time I was thrilled; in all my Couch to 5K training, I was planning to barely slide in under 40 minutes, but the race day adrenaline got to me and I was pleasantly thrilled at my time. I, of course, being who I am, immediately set my next goal – sub 35. That took until August 2013, about 3 months after my first 5K, when I ran the Kentlands/Lakelands 5K, which I ran in 33:XX. So of course, what did I do next? Immediately started gunning for sub-30. And I got close. Really close. In October I ran my first 30:XX. It was an entirely flat course, and yet, the next one I ran was super hilly and I still PR’d. By February of 2014, when I ran the Run Your Heart Out 5K, I slid in with 30:13, and was both excited I’d PR’d by a few seconds and yet so close to tasting that sub-30 it was like somebody waving a pizza in your face when you haven’t eaten all day but you’re tied to a wall or something. I just couldn’t quite reach.

At the start line
At the start line

I had 3 miles to do on the Thursday of my second week of marathon training, but with everyone signing up for 4th of July 5K’s, and the knowledge that I was probably going to eat like a horse throughout the day, I decided instead of taking my rest day on the 4th, I’d rest on the Thursday and run my 3 miles on the holiday, getting my day off to a good start — that is, provided I ran a race I was proud of. I signed up for the Autism Speaks 5K when I got an email inviting me to it and it was cheaper than the other one I had my eye on, the Firecracker 5K. It advertised a technical t-shirt, but on race day we were given plain white cotton t-shirts. Completely lame. I can understand if the race is for charity wanting to save the money and doing cotton shirts instead of technical, but then don’t advertise for technical shirts. That is what we call “false advertising.”

The night before the race I was dreaming of having a super relaxing holiday, and the number “30:13” kept dancing in my head. So I set a goal. If I finally broke 30, I’d allow myself a beer on the 4th of July. Normally I don’t drink when I have a run the next day – and the day after the 4th was my long run – but for the holiday and to celebrate, I’d allow myself a beer.

And that promise worked. I arrived at the race chanting in my head “sub 30 or bust, sub 30 or bust.” I had two goals, an A and a B goal. Either A, break 30, or B, run 3 miles. There was no in between anymore. Normally I go into races a little more self-accepting and self-forgiving, but not this one. This one, I went after it like a lioness goes after prey for her children. It was a matter of need.

I saw MarΒ at the start line, and spotted a guy I knew from my local Fleet Feet store, but was mainly just so ready to get the race started I wasn’t very chatty with anyone. There was this, though:

President Woodrow Wilson, duh.
President Woodrow Wilson, duh.

Mar was there working Secret Service for our 28th President, of course, President Woodrow Wilson, in recruitment for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon that happens in November. The President did some stretching before the race like any smart runner would, so you know, happy 4th of July America.

The race started and I was off. In fact I was off so fast I think I was running a 7 minute mile pace out of the chute, because about a quarter mile in I was pretty sure I couldn’t breathe and wondered if something was wrong with me. I slowed up a bit thinking sub-30 was worth a lot of things but not worth collapsing, but quickly realized as I “slowed” that I had just gone out WAY faster than I meant to, and my “slowing up” still had me at about a 9:30 pace. If I could sustain that for the race, I could do it.

Then the hills came. I clocked the first mile at 9:12 and checked the difference on the clock at the mile 1 marker and the time on my watch, finding I had about an 18 second net time difference from the clock. This knowledge came in handy right at the end.

The hills were unrelenting and frequent. The downhills were steep but it was so slippery from the rain the night before I worried if I went to fast down them, regardless of the beating on my legs and knees, I’d slip and tumble. And the uphills were not fun on my lungs. I was really pushing. There were no walk breaks on this one. It was hard. Every time I wanted to stop and walk for a minute, or slow down to a comfortable pace, I thought about how short 3 miles are now and how much I would enjoy my lemon shandy if I just kept pushing. I thought about how this pain was temporary but knowing I’d broken 30 would be forever. I even told myself I never had to run again if I could just do what I set out to do almost a year ago, before I ever dreamed I would run a full marathon or had even signed up for the Richmond Half, what would be my first half marathon. Before I’d even run a 10K. Before anything else I wanted to break 30 on the 5K. I am not fast. And a 30 minute 5K is not fast by seasoned runner’s standards. But for me it is hard work.

And when mile 2 clocked in at 9:01, I wondered if I was crazy. The last mile had what felt like the steepest incline ever but it might just have felt that way because I’d just run 2 miles at 9:09 pace, fast for me. My lungs were burning as I climbed that hill, and when I crested it, the people around me kept hearing me mutter “fuck, fuck, fuck this, fuck this, fuck, fuck this.” I don’t know if it helped. I could feel my body slowing. I knew I’d banked some time for the last mile to still break 30, but I tried not to slow too much.

When my watch showed 2.85 miles, but I was creeping up on 28 minutes, I knew I’d slowed dangerously. I had to put a move on it. I pushed my body as hard as my legs would let me, and focused on my breathing and just kept moving. When I came up on the advertised “downhill finish,” I knew this was my moment of redemption for the time lost on the third mile. As I flew down the hill I checked the clock and did the math. I watched the seconds count up toward 30:18. It hit 30. I knew I had a few seconds left. I was already sprinting, but as my eyes stayed on the clock I just said “NO” out loud, meaning “no, I will not get this fucking close only to miss it by a few damn seconds,” and I sprinted harder than I knew I was ever capable of.

I even heard a little kid, as I crossed the finish line, say, “whoa” as I flew past him, blue sparkles flying behind me.

Autism Speaks 5k

I fell into the grass, about 99.9% certain I had hit 29:59. I couldn’t even think about getting up to find the results table as I caught my breath from that last sprint. I rolled over and coughed and I’m pretty sure the people next to me asked if I was okay. Eventually I stood up and looked around in a daze. I saw my friend K from the Fleet Feet when he touched my arm to say “hey,” and my response was to bulldoze him for a hug. “IthinkIjustliterallygot29:59, likeliterally29minutes59secondswhichismyfirstsub30OHMYGOD.” I don’t even remember what his response was other than that he seemed to be humoring my incoherent babble.

Then I saw the results table, with live ChronoTrack results, and looked myself up. 29:58. I whooped and hollered and smiled and texted everyone I could think of. That’s the major bummer of coming to races alone; the most celebrating I got to do was by bulldozing K, who had no idea how much the sub-30 meant to me.

I was so happy downing my water and wandering around, but upon realizing if I was going to celebrate in person with someone who knew how much it meant to me, I’d have to leave and go find my people (Mar was busy on Secret Service duty of course). I was so dazed I couldn’t find my car for a while, forgetting which streets I’d crossed to get to the start line. But finally I was at my mom’s house, recounting every second to her, and she humored me with a smile and a “wow, Nev!”

Sub-30. Count it.