A Mid-of-the-Packer’s Secrets of Placing Well… For Your Age

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I’m not fast and I’ve never been. A solid 9:00- to 9:30-min/miler, I stick to long distances and at almost every race I do, you’ll find me in the middle of the pack. The occasional 5K or 5-miler I may push to run a sub-9 pace and, trust me: by the time I reach that finish line I’m grunting like a power saw.

Yet I do love when I “place” in my age group. Not first, second or third, and not overall (pffff, like I could ever!). But somewhere in the teens among those ladies aged 30-34 (and let me tell you, I’m about to cross over to the next one pret-ty soon). That’s good enough for me!

It just happened this weekend, in fact: I came in sixth in my age group at the Firefly Run in San Jose. My time was by no means impressive: 26:38 for a 5K; an 8:35 min/mile average.

Before that, I semi-limped in to an 11th place at the inaugural San Jose Giants Race, with a freshly-twisted ankle (thank you Rock Tape — and no, there is no official payment/ endorsement here to be disclosed, I just love it so). This five-miler I ran in 44:06, an 8:49 min/mile average.

By all means, laugh. Those are not at all impressive for serious/ fast runners out there and I shouldn’t be one to give advice on running fast and placing high. But I can share my conclusions on what it takes for a middle-of-the-packer to finish somewhere in the top 10th or such percentile. So here:

1. Lose weight

Obviously, training like crazy and dropping those nagging extra 15 pounds of thigh, butt and stomach jiggle would help, a lot. My fastest races I’ve run at my lightest, and that’s no coincidence. But let’s not kid ourselves. Who can give up ice cream? Not me.

2. Go for the party runs

Some races are for running, others are for fun with friends. You’ll know the difference when you take stock of those running in crazy costumes (chickens? bananas? White Goodman’s entire dodgeball team?) vs the actual moisture wicking apparel-clad runners. The Firefly Run is one big night-time LED-light party and sure, maybe 10% of the people go there to race, but the rest are walking, talking and, at best, trotting. So there’s my chance (and yours) to place in the top 10%!

Same goes for San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers where people famously get drunk pre-race (or run naked). Sure, you won’t share in the fun (and booze) with the crowd — but you’ll be one proud top-finisher at the end of that race. And, you know, those bragging rights have no expiration date.

3. Inaugural races

I don’t know whether it’s because fewer people know about them, or because the really fast/ elite runners don’t include them on their racing schedules on purpose. (Maybe they need more advance planning? Don’t want to risk an unfamiliar course or possible first-time logistical mess-ups? Tell me if you know!)

But there’s got to be something about inaugural races, because any time I’ve run one I’ve placed well. Including 17th at the inaugural Giant Race in San Francisco back in 2010, with an 8:55 min/mile (I only did the 5K, and I still remember that 80-degree heat. At 8 a.m. In June. In San Francisco. Go figure!)

4. Small, local events

It’s one thing to try to outrun 20,000 people, another to compete with 200. Small, local races are a secret I almost like to keep to myself, but there you have it. At the 2012 Marsh Madness 10K, I placed 6th in my age group with a not at all impressive 9:57 min/mile pace.

In my experience, these tend to not only be seamlessly organized (the organizers are usually ultra-dedicated runners themselves), but:

  • have better treats at the finish line (ice cream sandwiches and home-baked pie, anyone?),
  • are more likely to print race numbers personalized with your name – coolness!
  • because there are fewer of us sharing the road or trail, there’s more space to run, and run fast!

In the end, be sure to enjoy your ice cream!

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