by Ryan Hepworth
The Value of Commitment
Running a sub-17 minute 5K has been my biggest goal for the past two years. After numerous 17-minute clockings, I finally broke through and ran 16:50 at the Percy Sutton 5K. Though the race itself lasted only 16+ minutes, this required years of running and a big change in my training habits.
My Running Background
After initial rapid improvement as a newbie runner, I plateaued at an 18-minute 5K, where I remained until I finally joined a reputable running club. I chose the Dashing Whippets because the club seemed friendly and had dozens of dedicated runners who had kicked my butt in races (most notably Steve Wo, whom I inadvertently photobombed several times long before actually meeting him). I attended my first Whippet run in January 2015 and knew pretty early on that it was a good fit. The club strikes the perfect balance between being serious about running and fostering camaraderie among its members through social events.
As a newly-minted Whippet, I enjoyed immediate success, breaking 18 minutes (17:53) on the tough Washington Heights 5K course. For the first time, I wondered whether a sub-17 5K was possible. However, a big PR at the 2015 Brooklyn Half (1:22:58) and peer pressure from other runners instilled a desire to race longer distances, with an eye toward moving up to the marathon.
For the next two years, I tried balancing frequent short-distance racing with long-distance aspirations. Rather than commit to a single training schedule, I cherry-picked workouts from the Whippets’ short and long-distance plans, prioritizing immediate race goals over long-term development. This à la carte training led to consistent 17:20-17:50 5K’s and 1:22-1:23 half-marathons, but failed to produce big breakthroughs at either distance.
After another disappointing half-marathon earlier this year, I finally accepted that I was hindering my potential by training for long and short distances simultaneously. Due to my love of the 5K and the fact that speed tends to fade before endurance as one ages (not that I’m THAT old), I chose to go short, registering for a late spring 5K as my goal race.
I prepared by attending the Whippets Thursday night track workout every week, regularly following the short-distance plan. I resisted the urge to dabble in the more popular marathon workouts. My training was more focused than ever and I was rewarded with a PR (17:06) in my goal 5K. After that race, I fully bought into being a short-distance specialist, scrapping my fall marathon to train specifically for the Fifth Avenue Mile.
As late July approached, I continued following the Whippets short-distance plan as it became more mile-focused, occasionally supplementing it with workouts from another mile plan recommended by Matt Wong. There was some trepidation as my “bread and butter” sessions of 800-1600m repeats gave way to shorter repeats at faster paces. A disappointing performance at Team Championships did little to assuage my fears, but I convinced myself that it was a warm-weather aberration and stuck to the plan.
Needing a tune-up race for the Fifth Avenue Mile, I signed up for the Percy Sutton 5K, a NYRR club points race held three weeks prior. I had no aspirations of PRing, even after seeing the unseasonably cool race-day forecast. The hilly, crowded course appeared ill-suited for a PR attempt. I convinced myself that anything under 17:30 would be acceptable, reminding myself that the mile was my true goal race.
The Percy Sutton 5K Recap
After arriving for the race rather early, I did a standard warm-up: a 15-minute jog followed by strides and leg swings. When I entered the start corral, I purposefully avoided lining up close to the start, not wanting to get sucked into a fast early pace. I knew the first mile had a steep uphill, so I planned to start conservatively at 5:40-5:45 pace and save energy for the downhill third mile.
As the race began, I found a surprisingly clear running lane on the far right of the road and followed it for the first half-mile. I was shocked to see 5:20 pace on my GPS. I assumed there was some signal interference, as it did not feel like I was running that quickly. However, after I crested the big hill and passed Matt Wong and Jonathan Kline (both of whom had beaten me at Team Championships), I began to believe that this race could be something special.
I continued to push the pace and pass runners in the latter half of mile 1, being mindful to avoid a series of speed bumps reminiscent of an American Ninja Warrior obstacle. I passed the mile 1 marker about 10 seconds faster than planned, but nevertheless feeling fresh (Mile 1 = 5:32).
As mile 2 began, I found myself in no man’s land, caught between a large pack of runners about 50 meters ahead and a trailing group I had passed in mile 1. Not wanting to race alone, I knew I could either dial it back and work with the trailing group for a 17:10-17:20 finish or go for broke and try to catch the leading pack. I made a split-second decision to chase the pack, holding a 5:20ish pace over rolling inclines to whittle away the gap. I was definitely hurting, but still felt like I was running within myself. Plus, I knew that mile 3 was downhill, so if I were to crash and burn, the terrain would at least mitigate some of the damage.
As I approached the end of mile 2, I caught up to the pack and got a much-needed cheering boost from fellow Whippets Patricia Tirona and Katherine Edwards. I responded to their cheers with a weird fist-pump/thumbs-up combo, speeding up to pass a Gotham City Runner just before the mile 2 marker (Mile 2 = 5:27).
As mile 3 began, so too did the downhill and I took full advantage by accelerating to catch a tall NBR runner. The two of us traded places back-and-forth, but I pulled away on the last turn of the course. After that turn, the course opened up onto a long (approx. half-mile) final stretch. At my current pace, I would cover this stretch in about 2 and a half minutes, but it felt like 2 and a half hours. The finish line was visible almost the entire time, taunting the runners with its apparent proximity despite being fairly far away. In the distance, I spotted a Whippet running in the recently-commissioned neon green and black team shorts, so I used that as a focal point to combat the monotony (I guess I need to get a pair for myself now). I knew that if I could just hang on for a couple more minutes, sub-17 was going to happen.
I passed mile 3 (5:16) and was greeted by a course marshall motioning me to the opposite side of the road. As it turns out, he was clearing a path for the first place woman to break the finishing tape. Undeterred, I crossed the line seconds later in 16:50 (5:25 pace), a sub-17 5K’er at long last.
Post-Race and Final Thoughts
After finishing, I spent the next few minutes catching my breath, still unable to process what had just happened. As I regrouped and spoke to teammates in the finish chute, I learned that most were happy with their races. “Happy” was not a strong enough word for how I felt. I had just run over a minute faster than I did on this course last year, an almost unfathomable improvement after 8 years of running.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the Whippets coaches for putting together excellent training plans for both short and long distances. I finally found the courage to commit to one of the plans long-term and could not be happier with the results. My experience has also taught me that, despite my past struggles with longer distances, I can run them well too, provided that I commit to them in the same way. For now though, I’m content being a short-distance runner and can’t wait to fly down Fifth Avenue on September 10th. Hope to see you there!