The Long and the Short of It

Most runners start out relatively short – with short distances, that is.  Whether as track athletes steered by coaches to an event which best suits them (100m, 200, 400, 800, 1600…), or recreational/fitness runners who choose a mile, 5K or at most a 10k for their first official  target.  Only after substantial experience with those more modest distances do they build up to hours-long efforts in half-marathons, marathons, or ultras – if ever.

As it happens, my first-ever organized running event was a half-marathon (or ‘hemithon’, if you’ve read an earlier post on giving this distance its due) which I entered with an over-ambitious buddy who’d started training and wanted company in his challenge.  It also doesn’t hurt that I live in a small town many miles from larger communities – it’s difficult to justify driving several hundred miles and spending one or two nights in a motel for any event that will last less than a couple of hours.  Whatever the factors, I tend to focus on events of 13.2 miles or more, and maybe not to fully value their more compact alternatives.

This year’s though, a local Turkey Trot 5K provided a good reminder of something to love about shorter events: the high ratio of Start/Finish time to cruising time.

It’s no secret, after all, that the start of a race is very exciting. The crush of bodies before the tape, the inspiring music, the cocky buddy-chatter with whoever winds up at your elbows.  The possibility of a new experience, a new PR, or just another notch in the old shoes…  Enough excitement and joy that many of us have to consciously avoid going out too fast and hurting later performance.

And the finish has an appeal all its own: that competitive burst as the line approaches (if there’s still that much gas in the old tank…), the imminent relief of ceasing to run (without guilt!), the after-race beverages – whether water, electrolyte or brewed…  The celebratory connecting with friends and co-runners.

In contrast, the mid-part of any event tends to be considerably less intense.  Unless you suffer a cramp or collision, or make a wrong turn and have to find your way back to the course, it’s mostly steady-state pacing and self-control (and how many people find self-control exciting?  not a lot of hands shooting up there…).  No wonder so many distance runners strike up conversations with strangers, or plug-in to music, podcasts or talk radio (well, maybe not that last one, we want to spend our energy running, not raging).

What struck me this turkey day is that the start line time and energy of a 5K can be just as great as that of a marathon.  In fact, it’s actually more related the size of the field than the length of the course.  The Bolder Boulder is a 10K,  for example, but with a field of nearly 50,000 it boasts remote parking, city-wide shuttle buses and a plethora of waves and corrals, meaning one may leave the house three or more hours before toing the line – plenty of fantasy time for any of us feel like an athlete in the Olympic Village.

And the emotional weight of a finish is really determined by one’s strategy and approach.  Sure, if you start accelerating at mile 23 of a marathon, that’s 3 miles of buildup and anticipation: hopefully enough foreplay for a satisfying release after the line is crossed.  But heck, you can get the same duration in a 5K; just start anticipating the finish at .1 mile in – right after you’ve forced your pace down from that initial foolish start-sprint.

The point is, these precious moments are just as accessible and meaningful no matter the length of the event!  We can have as many minutes of juicy start and finish experience in a 5K as in an Ultra, if we just remember to focus and enjoy them.

Long, short or in between, every organized event is a chance to experience excitement, anticipation and release.  What’s not to love about that!


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