Lining up for my first Firecracker 5K three years ago introduced me to an entirely new race-day motivator: fear.
I had never raced 5Ks all out. Nerves before a race are normal, but on the Fourth of July, 2013, I was scared.
My new running group did a great job telling me what to expect from the Firecracker course. Hill after hill after hill, all in the perfect position to incite pain.
I knew the race was going to hurt, and I wanted to prove myself as a real runner to my newfound community. I started working at Sportspectrum less than two months before that day. I was terrified I might embarrass myself with a poor race. I wanted to earn a Firecracker mug so badly — given out to the top 101 men in 2013. At the time my current 5K PR was slower than the previous year’s mug cutoff.
I lined up in the Mall St. Vincent parking lot next to many faster runners. I knew that anything less than earning a mug would be a failure, but I had a plan: hang on to Wallace Robertson. I knew he would finish with a mug, so if I could hold pace with him, I would as well.
The first Firecracker 5K lesson I learned: expect a chaotic start and be prepared at all times. I was facing the wrong direction and talking to other runners when the firecrackers went off to start the race. I wheeled around and tried to sprint for the first bottleneck, completely panicked. Then I searched everywhere for Wallace. I didn’t see him until more than a quarter mile into the race. He was at the top of the first hill, well ahead of me. I spent what felt like all of my energy trying to catch him, which I did right before the one-mile marker.
Thoughts of failure flashed through my mind, and I struggled to hold pace. What if I couldn’t earn the coveted mug, and what if Wallace had a bad race? Maybe I didn’t deserve a mug.
With Wallace as my guide, I forced myself to run outside of my comfort zone. Every bit of that race hurt. By the time we hit the long downhill coming back on Fairfield, I was far past my red line. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to walk. At some point, I stopped caring about what the rest of the running community was going to think about me. All I cared about was proving to myself that I could finish a hard race. In the final three quarters of a mile I decided I didn’t even need the mug. I just needed the finish line.
As we rounded the final turn, the person announcing finisher numbers over the sound system said: “and that was No. 99.” Wallace and I both heard the same thing, so we both kicked as hard as we could knowing just two mugs remained. We finished and received cards No. 66 and 67. We were nowhere near the cutoff point. Our ears lied to us. I had hit a PR by almost a full minute during a hot day on a tough course. All of my trepidation evaporated.
Running scared had paid off.
Half an hour later, as everyone circled around to share their race stories, I heard Wallace complaining about someone running right behind him and breathing really heavily for the final two and a half miles. I laughed nervously, because I knew I was the culprit.
A year later, I ran 1:19 faster to set another 5K PR on that Firecracker course. The Firecracker fear was gone, and that turned out to be a bad thing.
I expected to get a mug last year. I had set new PRs for two straight years. Why wouldn’t I continue the trend? My running buildup through the spring had gone well. Firecracker was becoming easy.
I should have stuck with fear. I suffered through a terrible race in 2015, miserable the whole way. I knew I was running fast enough to get a mug, so I didn’t try to fight through the pain. I backed off to relieve the torment, and I lost nearly 40 seconds off my time.
Firecracker has taught me much. Now I know how to use fear as a motivator (this year, I’m terrified of the race after my recent running struggles and time off). I know to face forward and stay on my toes when we get within 10 minutes of the start. And I know I need to drink plenty of water immediately after the race instead of running more out of frustration (last year’s lesson, which included a dehydration migraine and a day-long vomit session).
The good news? This year there are 120 mugs for the men in the race.
But finishing with a mug isn’t the main goal anymore. Instead, I’m focused on using my anxiety to my advantage, and I want to be proud of the race I run.
It’s officially Firecracker weekend. Is anyone else scared?