Thursday, December 24, 2015

Race Report: UCSF Diabetes Center Holiday 5K Classic

Happy Holidays!! :D

We've been immersed in wacky travel (mis)adventures for the last two days, but I've been super excited about posting this race report & really wanted to get it up before Christmas. So, enjoy!

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On the last morning before my winter break, I got up at 6:30, went through the whole morning pre-race routine, & drove the three miles to my beloved stomping grounds in Golden Gate Park. My runs lately have been quite short, so I hadn't been out there in a while, and it was lovely to be back amongst all the familiar sidewalks and trails.

I didn't tell anyone about this race ahead of time (except Grace, Jen, & Cat) because whether or not I ran it would depend on how comfortable I was with how my leg was feeling, and if something felt off, I didn't want to feel pressured to do it or have to write another DNS post (because gaaaaaahhh so over that). I've been running up to 40 minutes & my leg has been totally pain free, but then a couple weeks back I crashed into a climbing wall and walloped my left leg *right* in the exact spot where I had the stress fracture, so it's been swollen and bruised and tender ever since. (NOT helpful in terms of reassuring me that the sfx is nice & healed.) But I haven't had any pain with running, so as long as that trend continued, I thought I was probably safe to race a 5K & see where I was fitness-wise after ~4 months of almost no running.

There's no shortage of laid-back, holiday-themed 5Ks in the area, but I felt like I was especially lucky to find one on my last weekend in town three miles from home on familiar terrain, with a fairly flat, USATF-certified course to boot. I stalked it for a while, not wanting to jinx myself by talking about it or signing up too soon, but when I was up to running 40 minutes just a week out from the race & feeling good, I figured what the heck & registered.

Conservatory of Flowers just west of the staging area.
Perfect racing weather as long as it stayed dry!

With my 20-40 minute easy runs and hours and hours of elliptical, I can't say I've really been training for this race, but I have been doing some shorter, harder intervals on the elliptical so that it maybe wouldn't be truly awful. Here's the thing, though; in the last 2.5 years, yes, I have run some races, but not once have I felt healthy and strong enough to really race all-out. I desperately wanted to do that on Sunday and get a sense of my fitness level. Thankfully all my parts seemed to be cooperating for the first time in what felt like forever, so I decided to give it a go.

You guys, I was as nervous as a virgin. It was so ridiculous. I left home probably earlier than necessary in case it was hard to park. I brought umpteen different layer options. (Rain was forecast, but it wasn't clear whether it would arrive before, during, or after the race or how bad it would be.) I brought four pairs of shoes so I could leave the decision-making to the very last minute, then changed my mind three times. (I was concerned about foot support/impact on my legs given my lack of fast running lately, and also about potentially slick ground. In the end I went with my Type A racing flats, if you're curious.) I went to the bathroom three times. I was actually even shaking a little when I finally got out of my nice warm car to go warm up for real.

Because God forbid I get it wrong...

Why was I so nervous? I think mainly two things:

1) As mentioned, I've been "training" maybe 3-4 hours a week for the last few months, mostly on the elliptical, and I hadn't run faster than maybe 9:00 pace on solid ground since July. I had no idea what my current fitness was like beyond "not great" and I was kind of terrified it might have regressed to "epic black hole." Part of me was a little afraid I would find myself pumping out 5K effort but seeing (2.5 years ago) marathon pace on my watch, and I didn't really have an emotional plan for handling that.

2) I was afraid of The Pain Cave and my ability to handle it mentally. In the past when I've been racing a lot, I feel like I've gotten "in practice" with embracing the suck in the last 25% or so of a hard race and not backing off and giving a lesser effort because it feels so terrible. I haven't been doing that much lately, so I was worried that regardless of what I was capable of physically I might not mentally be able to push myself to give 100% all the way to the end. And there is just no worse feeling in racing than going into it planning to leave it all out there & knowing you kind of chickened out when it started to hurt.

Huddling in the warm car for as long as possible.

In the past, I've learned that if I want to run a truly A+ 5K or 10K, I really need to warm up for a good half hour. I'm only up to maybe 40 minutes of running right now, though, and considering it was also going to be a much harder effort than I've run in a while, I decided to play it conservative & limited my warm-up to maybe ~10:00 of easy jogging & a few strides. I was kind of surprised to see that according to my watch I was warming up comfortably at ~7:45-8:00 pace, though, which I took as a good sign.

There were only 123 people in the 5K, so I lined up almost at the front (just behind the lanky teenage cross-country dudes). The start was a bit delayed due to some issue with the timing, and when it finally did come all we got was an abrupt "RUNNERS SET!" and then a bullhorn tone. Off we went!

I ran my PR 5K in 2012 at 6:40 pace and my PW in 2014 at ~7:07 pace (coming off my first stress fracture, incidentally), so I'd decided to try going out at around 7:00 pace & seeing how that felt. I know that I have a habit of going out way too fast in 5Ks (like, sub-6:00), so I'd reminded myself at the start that for the first half mile or so I should hold back pretty aggressively and that it should feel SLOW.

And I really felt like I was doing that, cruising along at a quick-but-comfortable clip! Until I looked at my watch & realized, nope, I was still running like ~5:50. I basically spent that whole mile trying to slow down and convince myself that no, my post-injury, de-trained ass had not been magically sprinkled with pixie dust last night and there was no way in Hades I could keep up anything *remotely* like this pace for more than the first mile and if my body insisted on testing that hypothesis I was going to have a very, very sad third mile.

I think I was running roughly 7:00 pace by the end of mile 1 but when I hit lap at the 1st mile marker (GPS with all of my Garmins has been hugely unreliable lately so I'd turned off auto lap) I saw a 6:39 split. Still, I was encouraged by the fact that I wasn't hurting yet. Around this time I found myself gradually catching up to a very young-looking girl who I thought might have been a high school cross country runner. It might have been mental but I found myself settling right in with her at a pace that felt challenging but doable, and we ended up running mostly neck-and-neck for a good while. There were times when she started to push ahead and my brain would think, "Eh, she's faster than you & starting to kick, the smart thing is to let her go."

But then, something in the body-brain complex would go "NOPE NOT GETTING DROPPED" & bump the pace up just a notch so that I stayed with her. And then some other, more conservative part would yell back, "NO NOT GOOD VERY BAD ABORT ABORT." And yet, somehow my body hung in there. It was my like my experienced, intuitive runner-brain sense of what kind of effort I should and shouldn't be able to sustain & for how long was somehow out out of sync with my body and my body was winning.

By the end of mile 2 things were quite unpleasant and I felt like I was running way, way faster than I should be and should really ease back a bit if I didn't want to blow up in the last half mile. But again, my body resisted any and all efforts to slow down. It was like someone had hacked the controls and all I could do was hang on and suffer. I was still sticking to my cross country girl; we went up a couple of short hills where I thought for sure she was finally going to drop me but somehow my legs had decided they just couldn't let that happen.

At this point, I wasn't even looking at my watch anymore because I just felt so sure I was running a completely insane pace, I was completely incapable of slowing down, and all it would do if I looked was scare the pants off of me. As mile 2 ticked off I honestly didn't feel like I could possibly run any faster and that seemed like a really bad sign with over a mile left to go.

In mile 3 I started counting backwards from 400 (my best trick for getting through a hard mile). Somewhere in there my cross country girl started sucking wind pretty badly, and though I wasn't trying to shoot past her, that's kind of what ended up happening. Soon after a younger-looking boy up ahead (12-13 maybe?) that I really didn't think I would possibly catch up to started to fall further and further back. Somewhere in there I caught up, then passed him. At this point I was absolutely red-lining and the runner voice in my head was 100% freaking out, because there was no way in hell we should be generating this type of effort so far from the finish. But, like I said before, the controls had been hacked and I couldn't have slowed down if I wanted to (barring some kind of catastrophe).

I don't remember much about the last half mile or so except that I wanted so so badly to not be running anymore and obviously the quickest way for that to happen was to get to the finish as fast as possible. There was no one else even remotely within passing distance in front of me and (based on what I could hear) no one else coming up behind me. I sprinted hard for the the finish, crossed the mat, and very nearly went down on my hands and knees. I was dizzy and seeing spots and it was all I could do to stumble out of the way of other runners coming in and convince the volunteers in the chute I wasn't having a medical emergency.

At this point I had no idea what my time was, and to be honest I was just pleased that I'd managed to run so hard all the way to the end. It's been a long time since I've finished a race disoriented and barely able to see and it was incredibly satisfying! I do honestly think that a big part of why I was able to sustain such an uncomfortable pace from so early-on had to do with pushing and being pushed by the one younger girl I ran with for so long, which is one of the reasons why solo time trials will never really compare to racing. (Seriously; for entire second half of the race part of my brain was wringing its hands and going, "WOW, this SUCH a bad idea." There's no way I would have *ever* pushed myself that hard alone.)

Alas, I was so busy keeling over & trying not to vomit that I totally forgot to stop my watch, and by the time I looked at it it read 22:13. While I'm not exactly sure how long I spent stumbling around and trying to catch my breath, I feel pretty sure it was at least 20 seconds or so, so my time was probably somewhere in the 21:45-21:55 range (so, 7:01-7:04 average pace).

When I figured this out, it was such a huge relief! Like I said, I'd been dreading that I was maybe in the worst shape of my adult life running-wise, so it's good to know that I'm actually in a fairly respectable place in terms of starting a training cycle. (Not that it means much in such a small, non-competitive field, but it also didn't feel too terrible to come in 1st female out of 65.)

~15:00 post-race, mostly re-composed :)

On the other hand, there were two weird & semi-disappointing things to note:

1) None of my Garmins (even the new one!) have been anything remotely approaching accurate lately. Like, I'm finally starting to wonder if it's not the watches and there's some sort of legit satellite problem in my area that's new in just the last few months. Case in point, the (new!) Garmin I wore for this race only registered 2.85 miles, which (not gonna lie) might have ruined my entire day if I didn't know for a fact that the course was USATF certified. Even so, I double-checked the course on Map My Run, which agreed with 3.1. (Phew!)

2) When the official results were published, my time was listed as 22:37, which is obviously inaccurate. I mean. My GPS may be off lately, but I'm pretty sure it still works as a basic stopwatch. There were timing chips and a finish mat, but no professional timing service and no start mat (we only got gun times), and between that & the fact that the race started late due to issues with the timing system, it's maybe a little disappointing but not totally shocking.

To be honest, though, I'm not too hung up on not having an *exact* super-precise result. I'm pretty happy just calling it ~21:55ish, knowing I ran with heart & didn't chicken out, & feeling like I won't be digging myself out of TOO too much of a hole as I start for-realsies training again in 2016.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: San Francisco, CA (Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park)

Date: Sunday before Christmas (Dec 20, 2015 this year)

The Deal: Proceeds benefit research, education and patient care conducted at the UCSF Diabetes Center.


  • One Mile - $40
  • 5K - $40
  • One mile and 5K - $45
  • 1 Mile, 12 & under - $20
  • 5K, 12 & under - $20

Field Size: 123 in the 5K, 46 in the mile

Deadlines/sellout factor: People were registering morning-of, so not really an issue.


You can't park on JFK because it's closed to traffic, but that early in the morning, it's pretty easy to find either street parking just outside the park or on the nearby side roads in the Park that aren't closed off. Because these are my stomping rounds, I think I probably parked about as close as was possible (probably less than a quarter mile from the start).


The race was staged at Peacock Meadow in Golden Gate Park, just east of the Conservatory Flowers. Super small race so no bag check, but parking is so easy & close that it's not really necessary. I actually left my bag with my sweats & what not right under the volunteer table & it was fine.

GG Park has actual flush restrooms near the Conservatory of Flowers (right by the start), so that was nice. When I'm running in the Park I usually don't assume that they will be open, functional, & stocked with toilet paper, but I figure the race probably checked on that as they advertised that those restrooms would be available (which they were). I never had to wait and actually I don't think anyone else was ever even in there at the same time as me.

Bib/shirt pickup

Start area ~45:00 before the 5K

Runners finishing!

The Course:

This course was what I think they call a lollipop, basically an out-and-back with a loop instead of a simple turn-around, which I MUCH prefer over a simple out-and-back because you don't have to slow down to make a hair-pin turn & then re-accelerate. It ran maybe .8 mi west on JFK Drive, around Stow Lake for maybe a mile or a little more, & then .7-.8ish east on JFK back to the start/finish.

It's pretty flat, with a couple of noticeable but brief gentle hills. (I can think of one on JFK and one approaching/leaving Stow Lake.) JFK is closed to car traffic on Sundays so we got to run on the road (plenty of space & no crowding), & the path around Stow Lake is paved and in good shape & plenty wide enough for a field this size. All in all a pretty decent 5K course. (And, the fact that it's certified is *huge* if you're looking for a reliable time trial-type situation.)


A cotton logo T-shirt (which I skipped) & a pretty nice metal water bottle (which for a short race I will take in place of a medal any day).

Overall Assessment:

Except for the timing issue, I was pretty pleased with this race. It was close to home, reasonably priced (at least as 5Ks are going these days), well-organized for such a small race, and a pretty darn good course if you're running for time. (And like I said, I was so so excited that it was certified & honestly I would have paid $40 just for that.)


  1. Oh, wow! You're back racing, and with a win to boot! Good for you. I know how exciting it must be to realize you are still fast and fit. This is the perfect way to start things back!

  2. That's an awesome time and especially awesome as a first race back from injury! Your comment about the Garmin and USATF certifications made me look up a few of the races I ran earlier this year that seemed short but apparently were not. Good news for my fitness, bad news for my Garmin!

  3. Great run! You've got the heart of an athlete to keep pushing hard all the way to the end. Pity that you'll never know exactly what your time was but at least you know it was better than what you were expecting.

  4. Congratulations on your successful race. Looks like all that boring ellipticalling (not a real word) paid off! So happy for you that you are on the mend!

  5. So late commenting but I read this the day you published it and was so delighted for you!! Congrats, speedy!! xx