Race Report: A Cold and Rainy PR at Newark’s Cherry Blossom 10k

I’ve had two main goals while training this spring – to set a new a PR in the 10k and to set a PR in the half marathon.

The time finally came for my 10k. On a cold and rainy Sunday morning in April, I lined up for the start of Essex County’s Cherry Blossom 10k.

Setting Expectations for My 10k

Until this race, I had never actually run an official 10k race. I’ve done 5ks, a half, and a marathon. But the only 10k I’d ever raced was a time trial I did about a year ago.

Last spring, I put together my first real training block, focusing on a half marathon time trial. It was spring 2021, and the world was still recovering from Covid. Although I would have preferred an in person race, I wasn’t confident one would actually happen. So hooray time trials!

I ran that time trial around the Orange Reservoir on my usual running path, and I finished in a respectable time of 46:10. Considering I’d only gotten back into running a year prior (April 2020), I was happy with this. But I’ve come a long way since then.

My training in the past few months suggested that I should be capable of something in the range of 41 to 42 minutes. I had come into this training block with the aspirational goal of getting as close as possible to 40 minutes, but that always seemed like a stretch.

A 42 minute 10k is approximately 6:45/mi pace, and a 41 minute 10k is approximately 6:35/mi pace. I had a few good threshold sessions, where I averaged 6:45/mi across six one mile repeats with short rest. So the 42 minute mark should definitely have been within reach. In theory, I should be able to run a 10k a little faster than those threshold workouts. So the 41 minute mark was possible – if everything went perfect.

I planned to start out on the easy side – around 6:50/mi. From there, I could work my way down to 6:45/mi and see how things felt. If I was feeling good by mile three or four, I would try to push it a bit. Otherwise, I’d just hold on and aim to break 42 minutes.

Race Morning Prep

The race didn’t start until 10 am – mercifully late – so I had plenty of time for my morning routine.

I woke up around 7am. I immediately toasted a bagel and ate it with some honey, and then I leisurely sipped by coffee. After a trip to the bathroom, I climbed back in bed to kill time until 8:30.

I stopped at a CVS on the way to get a bottle of gatorade, and then I headed to Branch Brook Park. It’s only about twenty minutes from my house, and I figured over an hour would be plenty of time to register, warm up, and line up for the race.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the competition for parking. Parking was available at a hospital across the street from the park. By the time I got there, the main surface lot was full. After I circled through it, we were directed back to a parking garage. I was lucky enough to find a spot quickly enough, but only fifteen minutes later the entire area was gridlocked.

It took a little longer than I expected to park, but I was still able to register by 9:10. Plenty of time for a warm up. I jogged about two miles, including a stop at the car to drop off my shirt and a pit stop at the portapotties. There were many, and they were clean, so kudos to the organizers. Then I did some leg swings, ran a few quick strides, and ended with a short segment at about race pace.

Everything felt good, and I saw people heading towards the starting line. So I followed the crowds and lined up about two or three people back from the start.

Making a Decision About the Weather

The weather on this particular morning was pretty crappy.

Initially, the forecast was cloudy and in the 40’s. Perfect weather for me. But as race day got closer, the forecast included rain.

When I woke up, it didn’t look great, but it also didn’t look too bad. It wasn’t raining, and the forecast called for some moderate to light rain for a couple hours in the late morning.

Initially, I planned on wearing some half tights and a singlet. But the rain made me second guess that, so I grabbed the light quarter-zip tech shirt that I’d gotten at the Atlantic City Marathon along with the light gloves I typically wear in the winter. I figured it would be better to be prepared, and I could ditch the stuff in the car before the race if the weather looked ok.

On the way there, it still wasn’t raining. But as I walked to the registration tent, it started to lightly rain. It rained on and off while I warmed up, so I decided to keep the quarter-zip but to ditch the gloves. My hands were cold at first, but they were fine once I had gotten warmed up.

Standing at the starting line, though, I was starting to feel warm. I was second guessing myself, and if my wife had been there I would have tossed her the shirt. I probably would have been ok, but the rain did start up again towards the end of the race and I might have regretted it then.

All told, it was probably the right decision to keep the shirt on. But at the start, I was definitely envious of the few crazy folks who were running in nothing but singlets or tank tops.

Starting the Race

The start line is at the north end of Branch Brook Park. We all waited patiently for things to get moving, but people started grumbling when it got to be 10:05 and we hadn’t started. Another minute or two, though, and we were off.

We were packed together for the first few paces, but within a few seconds the front of the pack had spread out. There was a lead group with a few of the local running clubs, and they took off well below 40 minute pace. The winner finished in 31:56. The rest of the crowd quickly spread out, and after 30 seconds or so I was done weaving through people.

The race started with a moderate incline, so I tried to take it easy going up. I planned to start out on the conservative side – around 6:50/mi – and speed up from there. I waited until about a half mile in to check my watch, and I saw that my lap pace was closer to 6:35. A little hot, so I tried to ease up a little. But I felt comfortable, so I wasn’t too concerned.

My watch beeped for the first mile, and I looked at the split – 6:38. Not the plan, but it’ll do. By this point, the crowd had thinned out and there was a long stream of runners stretched out along the course. I could see about a dozen or so people ahead of me, and I’m sure there were more strung along behind. At this point, I was pretty confident that everyone around me had a similar goal, so I decided to just stick with the group and ride things out. I spotted a woman towards the front of the group, and decided to track with her for a while.

Mile two went smooth as well. After the initial hill, it was flat for a while. There was a little incline at the end of mile two, but I came through in 6:42. Everything felt good. I decided to give it another mile and see if I should speed up a little or not.

By mile three, we were getting to the southern end of the park where we would turn around. There are a couple of places where the road in the park goes under roads that cross through the park – which creates fairly steep declines followed by fairly steep inclines. I powered through the downhills, and tried to keep a steady pace going back up.

Somewhere around this point, I found myself running next to two people in particular – a guy in a red shirt and an older guy with gray hair. We traded positions back and forth for a while. Every time one of them passed me, I’d pick up the tempo a bit to move back up. There were a few points where I found myself letting up on the pace, and this back and forth helped keep me tied in. Otherwise, I might have fallen off the pace and slowed down. It’s amazing what a little competition will do!

I came through the third mile in 6:44. I still felt good, but I was no longer optimistic about speeding up. My plan now was to just hold on to the pace at 6:40 to 6:45. That should bring me to the finish right around 42 minutes.

We made one turn around by the roller rink at the southern end of the park and started back north. There was a second turn around by the big church, and I felt relief at the idea that we were past the halfway mark. Mile four clicked off in 6:46. It was close enough to my target, but a reminder that I needed to pick up the pace just a little bit. I was getting tired, but I couldn’t afford to bail out now.

Around that point, we passed a woman who shouted, “You can do it!” The gray-haired man in our little trio mumbled, “Yeah, the only question is how long it’ll take.” I mumbled some words of encouragement, and noted that we only had two miles to go. We were almost done.

By mile 5, we were done with most of the hills and it was pretty flat until the end. I was working hard to maintain my pace, and my split at mile 5 was 6:40. I was a little surprised that I’d been able to speed up, but really I was just focused on making it to the end. Around here, I noticed that the woman I’d been following in the beginning was starting to fall back. I caught up with her, and I could hear her breathing very hard. As I passed her, she slowed down significantly to catch her breath. With only a mile to go, I didn’t want that to be me.

I pushed through the last mile, despite my legs being heavy and exhausted. I thought I picked up the pace, because I dropped the gray haired man and the red shirt. But as I finished mile 6, I saw 6:46 flash on my watch. It was still on target, but I had been hoping that mile clicked off a little bit faster.

With a quarter mile to go, I tried to give it everything I had. It wasn’t much. I was able to speed up a little bit, but I just didn’t have much left in the tank. The finish line came into view, and I could see the clock. It was closing in on 42 minutes, and I tried to sprint as a I watched the seconds count down. According to my Garmin, my average pace for that last bit was 6:26/mi – so faster than I’d run throughout the race but not all that much faster.

I stopped my watch as a I crossed the finish line and looked down – 42:03.

Final Reflections and Looking Ahead

On the one hand, I was very happy with my performance. I ran a good race and maintained pretty even splits throughout. 42 minutes was a huge PR compared to my last 10k effort.

But I’ve got to admit that I was a little disappointed, as well. I hadn’t quite beaten the 42 minute mark. I had come in thinking that would be an easy bar to clear, and that I’d be closer to 41 minutes. In the third mile, I found myself easing up a little too much, and I wish I could have those few seconds back. But it is what it is.

The race itself was a good experience. There was a huge crowd, and the buzz beforehand was exciting. The weather put a damper on things, so there weren’t huge crowds along the course. But the scenery was still amazing. The cherry blossoms were just coming into bloom, and the park itself is beautiful. There wasn’t anything fancy after the finish, but there was a good supply of bagels and water. I chewed on a sesame bagel, downed a bottle of water, and decided to head home as the rain started to pick up.

Looking ahead, I’ve got a half marathon in two weeks.

My aspirational goal there was initially to try and beat 1:30. I don’t see that happening, and frankly by the end of my training I’d given up on that goal.

But the VDOT Calculator converts a 42 minute 10k into a 1:33 half marathon. That seems attainable. 7:06 doesn’t sound like an intimidating pace, but we’ll see. I’ll be happy if I can beat that and ecstatic if I can work down to an average pace of 7:00 (~1:32 finishing time).

That would put me in a great position for this fall, where my ultimate goal is to run the Philly Marathon somewhere in the realm of 3:00 to 3:05. More on that to come.

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