My eighth time doing Run Around the Square 5K

Today Abby and I ran in the annual Run Around The Square 5K race. As usual at this time in late August, it was a warm day.

This race is special because Run Around The Square was the first race I ever ran in my life, back in 2000, and because it is also the first race Abby ever ran (just last year, 2011): so today was my 128th lifetime race (according to my race log I keep) and Abby’s 5th lifetime race.

My goal this year

My goal for the race for this year was to run it faster than I did last year (which also would automatically mean running it faster than any year since six years ago, 2006).

My time from last year was 24:36, and I believed from my last timed interval workout, on Tuesday, that I could run 24:30 today at fastest, so there was little room for error. I had hoped months ago that I would be in shape to run considerably faster in Run Around The Square this year, but travel and other interruptions caused me to train only haphazardly for races this year.

Did I achieve my goal? The story turns out to be more complicated than I expected.

The race

First mile

I took care during the first mile of the race not to go out too fast.

We all passed by a lot of musicians on the streets, of course: a really fun tradition that goes way back. As I expected, I saw Kimberlee Faught playing violin at one point:

"Run Around the Square", Regent Square

As usual, I ignored all the champagne and beer stops on the race course. That’s a charming and venerable tradition at this race, but drinking alcohol would not help me run as fast as I can!

Second mile

Once in the trails of Frick Park, there is no longer any question of going too fast; there is only a question of avoiding going too slow. The uphill is really tough. And I’m much better running downhill than running uphill. During the second mile, my only thought is to maintain my effort level rather than my pace, because when the big downhill comes at the end of the race, I need to have enough energy in the tank to blast downhill, however crappy I might already be feeling.

Actually, that’s false: my other thought is to keep hydrated and cool. I sacrifice a little bit of time during the second mile because up near the tennis courts, I always grab a cup of water from a friendly volunteer and drink some of it while pouring the rest of it over my head and rubbing it through my hair and onto my face and neck. (I don’t take any more water after this point in the race.)

In any case, about halfway through the race, with more than ten minutes projected to go, I was feeling pretty pukey and my breathing getting harder. Good; that’s just a sign that I’m following my 5K race game plan. It is impossible to race a 5K without feeling pukey, whatever your level is. If you’re not feeling pukey by the middle of a 5K race, you’re not running the race as fast as you’re physically capable of running it. I realize that many people run just for fun and don’t want or need to feel pukey in order to enjoy a race, and there have been races in which I have not gone all out, normally, I run a race in order to test my limits of existence.

Third mile

Third mile, there’s the big downhill on the trail. The tricky thing is how to pass a lot of people. The problem with large trail races is that there are a lot of people who go out too fast early on or are much worse at running downhill than at running uphill; the result is congestion during the downhill parts of the course. I did manage to run downhill well without losing too much in efficiency.

Final sprint

My vision was getting fuzzy from the pain, and my mind confused, when I was approaching the finish line. I couldn’t tell from the big clock whether I had already missed my chance at beating last year’s time. Seriously. It was reading 24:3x as far as I could tell, which meant that I already lost my chance to run 24:30. But was I going to beat 24:36? I had no idea. I thought I was going to see the “3” digit move to “4” at any time.

Part of me wanted to shut down and quit and just watch the “4” digit arrive on the clock. Part of me knew that I still had enough energy to push harder, even as I was already sprinting, for another second or two (or more?!). Reality became distorted, I lost confidence, and I finished the race not knowing whether I had really tried my best at the end.

After the race

I checked my watch after I finished the race and didn’t know what to think. Did I succeed or fail at my time goal? My watch made it look like I finished in 24:40, but I wasn’t confident that I hit the “start” at the right time, and I was even less confident that I hit “stop” right after crossing the finish line (I was guessing that I didn’t hit the button until a second or two after actually finishing).

After Abby finished, I kept telling her I was upset that I didn’t think I really went all out in the final minute of the race. Then I got over my disappointment and let it go; in the grand scheme of life it hardly matters!

More comments about the race

Abby was initially confused that everyone got a medal for the race. It was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of this race.

As usual, there were refreshments and snacks after the race provided by many generous sponsors, and hot dogs and beer (I chose not to take any beer this year). I bumped into a lot of people I knew and met some friends of friends. One of them turned out to be someone who is apparently a friend of two completely different Pittsburgh friends I have. He took photos of Abby and me wearing our Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek shoes:

"Run Around the Square", Regent Square

Abby likes this race because much of it is on the trails of Frick Park and we end in Fern Hollow, where there is a lot of greenery, nature at work (as opposed to some races we’ve done, which have been pure road races that end in some parking lot). Whenever I hear positive comments about this area, I am reminded of how long it took to redesign and restore Fern Hollow such that it is one of the real pleasures for me when I run in Frick Park. Ironically, I do remember the early days of Run Around The Square, which did end in Fern Hollow when it wasn’t quite as nice as it is now.

Also, we appreciate the new moisture-wicking T-shirts given to those who registered. These shirts are much more practical and useful than the old cotton T-shirts. I’ll be happily wearing around the new Run Around The Square T-shirt when getting sweaty in the years to come.

So did I in fact achieve my time goal?

I wouldn’t know what really happened until many hours after the race when I saw the race results online: apparently my clock time was in fact 24:39.55, so I did finish before the “4” digit came to view. And my chip time (which is the one I consider my “real” time) was 24:35.6, nipping last year’s chip time of 24:36. I did it!!

Running this race over the years

A summary of the eight years that I’ve done Run Around The Square:

Index Year Chip time Comment
1 2000 27:23 First race ever, as part of radically changing my life at age 30
20 2001 23:19 4:04 faster after a year! Lost weight, trained seriously.
43 2002 23:01 18 seconds faster.
104 2006 23:27 Missed 3 years of the race; 26 seconds slower than last time
114 2008 24:39 Slow; untrained and unrested the night before race.
118 2009 25:20 Untrained; unmotivated to push hard at end.
121 2011 24:36 First time Abby ran in a race with me.
128 2012 24:35.6 Managed to achieve my best time since 2006!

Goal for next year?

I don’t know what goal to set for next year. I suppose I could set a goal of getting yet faster, breaking 24:15. That sounds reasonable to me. Going back down to 24:00 may even be possible. It’s too early right now to tell. But one thing is for sure: I have no intention of slowing down from this year to next.


Run Around The Square is a really fun community event and 5K race in Pittsburgh that I try to run every year when I can. It was my first race ever and this year’s was my 128th race, and it was Abby’s first race. Running a race for so many years allows me to appreciate its quirks, track the state of my fitness, and experience its evolution as an event. I’m very thankful for this long-running tradition that just celebrated its 30th anniversary with the help of the Regent Square community and all the sponsors.

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