Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K

While the elite road runners of the world were at the New York City Marathon, and a lot of ultra runners were recovering from races like Javelina Jundred and Pinhoti 100, I ran a local 5K! The real performance of the day came from my 3 year old son, though, who crushed the one mile fun run. I originally signed up for the 5K because it was right after that and I thought, why not have my own fun run (by the normal definition, not the Barkley definition)?

This isn’t really a race report, as obviously I would never do a report for a “race” like this (I did throw a small one in, though). This is more a set of unexpected lessons I took away from the experience and if anything it’s more related to training than to racing. I’ve posted before about choosing goals and failure when pursuing them. This looks a bit at using component-level goals to build towards those main ones. A lot of training components go into meeting my primary racing goals, and having individual goals for each of those components is an effective, and fun, way of improving.

And in case your news feed was buried in football and you missed the first American woman winning the NYC Marathon in 40 years, check out the finish video below (this was the only video I can find that appears to actually be licensed on youtube).

I hadn’t run a 5K in nearly 15 years, and I think the last time I did I was dressed as a reindeer. What I remembered about them is that they hurt, I wasn’t all that great at them, and I almost always puked at the end. I wasn’t planning on going hard enough to make that happen, and I definitely wasn’t going to alter my training plans for it, but I was going to show up and give it an honest effort.

The Jingle Bell Run in Knoxville about 15 years ago. We”borrowed” a shopping cart from Walmart, made it look like a sleigh, had 3 of us with reindeer antlers tied to the front, 2 as elves pushing on the back, and 1 inside as Santa with a bag of goodies and a boombox playing Christmas music. We won the costume contest and got a restaurant gift certificate that may have gotten us each a drink once split 6 ways.

My decision to do a 5K also led to a couple of the most entertaining response threads I’ve had on Facebook and Twitter.

John Kelly on Twitter

Signed up for my 1st 5K since high school. Website gives no info on aid stations, crew, or drop bags. Not really sure what to do here. #fb

The Fun Run

Before we go further, let’s get to the most exciting part of the morning. About a year ago I took my son to the track (he was 2 and a half at the time) to see how far he would want to run if given laps that were larger than his normal route around our dining room table. With his hands in his jacket pockets the whole time and his Paw Patrol shoes strapped on, he turned in 5 laps, with a solid 17:24 over the first 4. I wish I had put the watch on him to see how many steps that actually took.

My son’s first mile

This fun run was his first actual “race” of that distance, though, and he had been excited about it for days. He upgraded this year to some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shoes, which I expected would shave off some valuable seconds.

He had a fall early on, which in this type of race is actually not an expected thing, but he got up and continued right along. We’ll have to work on keeping an eye on the terrain and not getting too distracted by the scenery.

He came in at 13:30, nearly a four minute PR on a rainy day! Also, much faster than my Barkley pace. I’m not sure if he won the 3-4 age group, but he was definitely one of the smaller kids out there. Watching him continue to grow has been absolutely amazing. Whether he continues to enjoy running or decides he wants to do something entirely different, even swimming (*shudder*), it will be incredible to see him progress and to help him do it. One of these days, that little guy is going to be able to beat me in anything athletic.

Post-race with his biggest fans. They cheered so hard they needed a nap.

The 5K

I really had no goals for the race, but thought I could do something in the 16-17 minute range. When we took off there was quickly a group of 4 of us that formed at the front. I was content to go with their pace and settled in for the long day, picking up a valuable draft off the leaders.

My plan was to make my move when they slept between loops, but they charged ahead without a single nap the entire race! We blew by the aid station, no one switched out shoes or got a rain jacket from their drop bag, and before I knew it we were headed to the finish line.

How far to the next aid station? Should I go ahead and grab my headlamp? Photo: ‎Yvette Gatilao Murphy‎

I was sitting in 3rd, but then I got outkicked to the finish. Not because I had nothing left, but because I’m apparently no longer capable of moving any more quickly than I already was. That, and I didn’t want to puke. So I let him go and settled for 4th with a 17:05, but I was 1st place old person (ages skew much lower in 5Ks than in ultras, and those fresh out of college kids are quick!). My award was an awesome new hoodie and a free appetizer gift certificate! Out of my 3 favorite awards I’ve ever gotten, 2 of them are food.

The craziest thing was that I finished, and it was still morning. The race was already over, and it was still breakfast time. That was kind of awesome. I don’t know that a 5K warrants a post-race splurge, but who could pass up an opportunity like that? Plus, I’m still kind of “between” seasons.

One other thing that was awesome at the race was the community support. A lot of people came out to help and cheer, and it was cool to see some of the same people that I’ve seen at other events in the area. Local races are critical in building a strong running community, so supporting those races and the groups that organize them should be a priority for all runners.

Component Goals

Something I’ve become familiar with through work, to both my joy and misery, is systems engineering. Basically, it’s a formalized way of breaking extremely complex projects down into subsystems, components, parts, etc. that are more manageable and will ensure success of the overall system when completed.

For example, no one says “let’s build an airplane,” then puts one together and measures performance solely on whether it flies. There would be no way of knowing which component was bad if it failed or how the plane could be improved. Instead, the plane can be broken down into subsystems: frame, propulsion, navigation, etc. Each of these can be further broken down into components and parts. Then optimizing the system as a whole is a matter of evaluating and improving each of those pieces. Instead of “does the plane fly?” more addressable questions emerge such as “how much thrust is the engine generating?” or “how much lift are the wings producing?”

Thanks Wikipedia!

Sports are quite similar. I learned the hard way at 2017 Kona Ironman World Championship that my lack of attention to the swim component put me at an unrecoverable disadvantage when going up against the best in the world. Even in a sport that appears to be simple on the surface like running there are quite a few things we have to address: endurance, speed, lactate threshold, climbing, descending, technique, strength, technical terrain footwork, nutrition, and, well, napping in some cases. I’m sure that list could go on much further.

As ultrarunners, we often neglect the speed component. We never need to run really fast (and as I learned while getting outkicked by a 22 year old, I can’t run all that fast anymore). Our speed is our limit on what we can do, though. If our running capability were a house, ultrarunners are really good at using every square inch of that house, right up to the roof. If we want to improve further, we absolutely have to raise the roof (I tried really hard to think of a phrase there that wouldn’t bring forth memories of what was the 90’s version of a meme, but I failed). Want to run a sub 3 marathon? Better be able to do a lot better than 6:52 for one mile.

To make working on components as effective as possible, we need to be motivated and have solid goals. Intervals are crucial for building speed and lactate threshold, but let’s be honest: they’re boring, usually pretty miserable, and if done solo it’s easy to not push as hard as needed. A short race, on the other hand, is pretty fun and has competition to help push us to our limits.

A short race also provides an opportunity for an easily defined, measurable goal. Sure, we can have goals with intervals, but those goals aren’t as motivating for most people. I doubt many people know what their PR is for a 12 x 800 workout. I finished the 5K in 17:05, so clearly I have to do another one to go sub 17, and then I think I can even get a sub 16. Maybe I’ll even spend some time on a track and see if I can finally get that sub 2 minute 800 that constantly eluded me in high school.

These goals can’t interfere with my primary goals, but if managed correctly they can become a key part of reaching those primary goals. Going back to the airplane example, if my engine can produce more thrust with the same amount of fuel then I’m going to be able to fly faster. I just have to continue to be sure that my frame can withstand the force of the added thrust, or my improvement would turn into a disaster.

My examples here focused on speed, but that’s only because I just ran a 5K and got the inspiration from that. Having motivating, quantified goals for each of the other components that go into racing is just as important. Looking at the big picture is awesome, but if we want to reshape that picture we really have to focus on the details that create it.

2 thoughts on “Component Goals – Lessons from a 5K

  • November 7, 2017 at 6:23 am
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    Nicely done – from a fellow geek (enjoy the systems engineering/component discussion). And laughing at the 5k commentary (shoulda done 10k, given you that distance advantage LOL) Easy to focus on the big picture and keep doing the same things (and the ones that are more fun/hurt less), wonder why results aren’t improving, whatever your definition of that is. Some of that tussle, for some of us, may also be aging/health stuff, but we can still try to work on the pieces!

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    • November 7, 2017 at 11:24 am
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      Haha the 10K started too soon after the Fun Run for me to be confident I could make it to the starting line in time. But yes, getting comfortable with the same things and plateauing (or declining) is easy to do. Age is one of those factors we can’t control, but there are still a lot that we can!

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