Reflections on my slowest Run Around the Square 5K in 13 years

This year was the ninth time I ran in the annual Run Around The Square 5K race, and Abby’s third year in a row. The conditions were great: cool and dry, in contrast to the usual hot and humid conditions at this time of year. (Last year I reported on my eighth running of the race.)

Both Abby and I ran this race rather slowly, but were happy and enjoyed the day. Here’s why.

Both of us coming back from setbacks

The first thing to note is that both Abby and I have been recovering from setbacks this year, as I reported two weeks ago after I ran the second GNC Live Well Liberty Mile 18 seconds slower than last year. That race had me vowing to get back on track, and the very next day I did begin getting back on track. The road back to a regular exercise routine has not been easy in the past two weeks, but I have very gradually ramping up on running as well as minimal strength training every single day since then.

Last year, I ran the Run Around The Square 5K in 24:35.6 and was pretty to have recovered from several years of decline in fitness and self-care, by running my best time since 2006. For this year, I wrote, “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.”

Unfortunately, I did not set a firm enough goal. I have learned the hard way that if you don’t make a commitment (and then follow up with the discipline and sacrifices required to achieve it), then even in the absence of accidents, a maybe-goal is worthless.

This year, I went into the 5K race so untrained (two weeks of slowly ramping up before the race is not enough for any training benefits to kick in) that I basically knew that I was going to be super slow. I figured that since I lost 18 seconds in the mile, I would be happy if I lost only one minute in a 3K. So that was my expectation: finish around 25:36 this year.

Before the race

I decided that this was the race in which I debut my new orange running singlet, to replace my over-decade use of a blue singlet that Abby has gotten very annoyed with:

Franklin wearing orange singlet

Also, note that since I bought a SPIbelt earlier this year, I now always run races wearing a SPIbelt to carry my phone. This is particularly convenient when running a race where you have to park far from the start line and want access to your phone after a race.

I wore my Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek shoes again. Since last year’s fiasco in which I injured my left foot from having the straps on my left foot too tight, I never again put the straps on too tight!

Hanging out before the race start in Regent Square:

Before start

Franklin ready

Start line just a few minutes before race start:

Start line

The race

(Race results.)

Different race logistics

One very important change to the race, and one I greatly appreciated, was the staggered start. Faster runners were told to line up front and start up first. This is very helpful to control the congestion and confusion that happens in a large race when too many slower people start up front and have to be passed (including unfortunately young children that Abby and I have seen trampled on every year!). In particular, it is really tricky to be passing lots of people once in the trails of Frick Park.

First mile

Because of the ridiculous problems I created for myself by going too fast two weeks ago in the Liberty Mile, I vowed to go out at a reasonable pace in this 5K. I found this easy to do because of the staggered start, which meant that there were fewer people to have to accelerate past throwing off one’s own internal speedometer.

The usual lot of young and old musicians were playing music along the course. What a great neighborhood tradition!

I still get confused seeing the champagne stop near the end of the first mile at the entrance into the trails of Frick Park.

I did the first mile in a leisurely 8:15 (compared to 7:18 last year).

Second mile

I did the second mile in 10:17 (compared to 10:11 last year). I did not feel too bad. I was running a bit conservatively, because my training runs had been so slow and short and tough for me in the past two weeks. I wanted to be in position to run really well the final downhill in the third mile.

Third mile

I let loose in the third mile. Because I had avoided going pukey in the second mile, I covered it in 7:06, actually a second faster than the 7:07 of last year.

Because of the staggered start, there was not bad congestion during the third mile, and I found it safe to pass people at will.

Final sprint

I didn’t have a gut-wrenching final sprint. I wasn’t even looking at the clock or my watch. This wasn’t one of those races in which I put it all out there on the course. Instead, this was a race where I was grateful to be running at all, and had no expectations other than to finish strong.

So I finished in 25:38, just a bit longer than a minute over last year’s 24:35.6. My slowest Run Around The Square 5K time in 13 years. But it was a clean finish, and I was so excited to simply be back and running faster than 26 minutes, at least.

After the race

Although I was not pukey, I was certainly breathing hard when I finished.

Franklin after the race

I went off to drink water and start eating some food.



Then I went back to the finish line to wait for Abby to finish. I saw Todd and his wife Gabrielle hanging around. Gabrielle said she took my “advice” (from last year) to go all out to the point of feeling pukey. I admitted that this time around, I didn’t follow my own advice. Gabrielle finished over 5 minutes faster this year than last year!! Todd finished over 8 minutes faster!! It’s great to see people in their late 40s improve their fitness so much in a single year. I saw the couple running together a couple of times in Frick Park this year.


Abby finished. She was out of breath and pukey, but I was proud of her for finishing. Because of the tremendous decline in health and fitness she has experienced this year, I was not sure she would actually finish the race.

Abby finishing

More food and refreshments

We lined up to sample more food and recovered. It was a beautiful day to be outside.

The hot dogs and beer line was particularly long, but we finally reached the tables.

Hot dogs and beer

Walking out of Frick Park back to the car

I couldn’t help taking a photo of the sign for beer and champagne that was still up on the trail entrance as we passed by:

Dunning's beer and champagne stop

Concern about Abby

Although I was happy that Abby managed to finish the 5K race, I was very concerned about her overall health and fitness, which have continued to be poor this year since she broke her foot in February. Here are her Run Around The Square 5K times since she started doing it with me:

She was almost 4 minutes slower than last year. She’s lost several years of fitness this year, and came in 105th of 116 in her age group. Again, we are grateful she is walking and running at all, but this has been a very bad year for her, and this impacts not only her own life, but ours more generally. We need to work on getting her back on track.

Goal for next year?

Right now, my real goal is to simply continue my exercise program and not break it again, and that includes the winter slump I usually enter. Last year, I had a slump in the final months of the year, and then woke up and started exercising again around New Year, and even signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon as a way to force myself to stay active in the winter. I believe that if I simply avoid self-caused setbacks, I should be able to return myself to a decent level of fitness. I am not going to sign up for the Pittsburgh Marathon again. Almost certainly, however, I will sign up for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon! Last winter, I rather enjoyed training for and running the Just A Short Run half marathon. I reached good fitness through that, but squandered my fitness through overtraining and injury leading up to the marathon.

Races this year

In the shorter term, I have two races to run in the coming month: the CMU Pretty Good Race 5K and the Great Race 10K.

Last year, I did very poorly in the Pretty Good Race 5K because I was injured and exhausted, running 26:05. This year, I expect to do better than that. I’m not going to do the 24:36 of 2011, but given that I easily beat 26 minutes today, I will beat 26 minutes two weeks from now.

In the Great Race 10K last year, I was still in a state of exhaustion and undertraining, so I didn’t even pay any attention to time goals, and finished slowly in 48:23. I see no reason why, if I continue improving my fitness in the next month (in contrast to last year’s dreadful September), I should not be able to run under 48:00.

(Update of 2013-09-06)

See my report on running the Pretty Good Race 5K this year.


Run Around The Square continued to thrive and improve, and I’m grateful for both the registration cap (to maintain the quality of the event) as well as the staggered start. And all the sponsors feeding us afterwards!

Abby and I were happy to have finished the race, even if we are both less fit now than we have been in years. But I think this is a wake up call for us to get back in shape. For example, I miss the long hikes we used to do last year when we had the stamina to actually do and enjoy them. The example Todd and Gabrielle set as they massively improved their fitness in the past year is inspiring. Abby and I should be able to do this too, if we make it a priority.

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