Winter Chill #1: Fear the 5K

The fat man throwing handfuls of salt on the steps of the Methodist church. The three boys playing hockey on a paved park path path (yes, the puck was gliding over the ice.) Even my baby son, fighting sleep in his car seat. At 10 o’clock this morning, I envied all of them.

Why? Because I was on my way to run a 5K race—the first of Finger Lakes Running Club’s Winter Chill series, the lowest of the low key local races—and they were not. I found myself wanting to switch places with nearly everyone I saw during the drive to Cass Park.

I was scared.

Many people have fears and phobias. Fear of heights, fear of spiders. Fear of flying or exams. Fear of dental procedures. None of these scares me at all. In fact, I kind of like going to the dentist.

But line me up at the start of a race, especially the 5k distance (for some reason, longer is better) and I feel a little like I’m on my way to my own execution. There’s before and after and the dividing line is that starting line.

It’s a mystery I’m trying to solve because I love running. And I love community. Running + community = 5K races.

Therefore, I must run 5K races in order to be part of the community?

My husband, Bill, loves races. As soon as FLRC announced the return of Winter Chill in 2022 (I ran the 2020 series, and I was scared for that one, too), he enthusiastically nudged me to sign up. At first it seemed like a good idea. My triumphant return to social/friendly-competitive running after having a baby; a weekly family outing; a way to count through Sundays during the bleakest month of the year.

This morning, it seemed less like a good idea and more like something I had to get myself through.  

As we drove slowly through Cass Park, I noticed that the paved paths, the race course, looked completely iced over. The three boys practicing their hockey stick skills outside the Cass Park rink confirmed it. “My new goal is to not kill myself,” I told Bill. I secretly hoped the race would be cancelled.

Not a chance. “We’ll be running cross country today!” yelled Adam, the FLRC board president, as soon as we got out of the car. “Five times around the soccer fields.”

Indeed, the organizers had pivoted quickly and with a few orange cones and a GPS watch, they’d plotted a vague 1K loop.

I ran the loop a few times for my warm up, the whole time my mind making up excuses. The footing is bad, my hip hurts. Nobody is making me do this. I could just step out.

As my brain spouted reasons to give up, I sifted through the reasons a 5K scares me:

—Trauma from high school cross country? I ran one season, my senior year, and my first race genuinely frightened me. It was hot, it hurt, it was long. It did not feel like practice, and I didn’t like that one bit. Pure physical misery. Did the races in the season get better after that? I can’t remember. I do remember sifting through excuses every single time—and sometimes caving to them.

—The Clock: There is, of course, a timer running on each 5K and the timer is a measure of how fast you run. That’s the whole point of a race, rather than a practice, a casual run, a daily jaunt. Something in me hates being measured—because I can come up short. The clock can tell me how slow I am.

—Out-sized expectations: Somewhere back in my past, I decided I was physically capable. That’s not inaccurate, but raw physical ability needs development. I hopped from ballet to gymnastics to volleyball to track and finally to cross country all before I was 18. I wasn’t a star at any of them, and I didn’t land on one long enough or hard enough to get really good. By college, I was a jogger and casual volleyball player with my focus, I guess, on other things. A path similar to probably 98 percent of college students. Yet, I retained that early expectation: I’m an athlete: naturally fast. Every 5K I run at a slow-ish pace with people passing me at the end rattles this expectation.

The lumpy, rock-hard ground of the Cass Park soccer fields disrupted any expectations I had of myself this morning. I decided to keep running with the pain in my hip and showed up at the starting line. I even smiled for the goofy group photo. 59 runners showed up, most of them wearing various shades of red, the week’s theme color.

Winter Chill week one: Red. (Author on far left.)

The race started and I decided to just run. Just run. Follow the thread of red-clad people around and around the field. Somewhere along the way, I realized I didn’t feel awful and I realized I didn’t care. Then I realized I was having fun.

It was a goofy race, with the leaders picking slightly different lines on every lap. Runners with GPS watches recorded distances anywhere from 2.98 miles to 3.5 miles. My time, surprisingly, was better than three of my attempts in 2020. But with the wonky course, who cares?

I’m already nervous for next week, which could be on the real course where the clock means something. But I have one “just run it” race in the bag. I could do that again.

During my third lap of the course, a curious park visitor yelled to us runners as we circled and circled the field, “Are you running for a cause?”

He had to yell it twice before someone yelled back, “Just celebrating January.”

There you go: I am celebrating January by doing this thing that scares me for four weeks in a row. One down and I’m still breathing. More next week.

Leave a Comment