Sunday, I raced the Essex County Cherry Blossom 10k in Newark’s Branch Brook Park.
This is a big local race, and it fit pretty well into my Pfitz training plan. Pfitz called for tune up races with two and four weeks to go – this race was three weeks out from my goal marathon.
I was feeling pretty good going into it, and I was hoping to beat my 10k PR – which was set at this event last year. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you how I did.
About the Race and the Course
The Essex County Cherry Blossom 10k is run every April in Essex County’s Branch Brook Park – which spans Belleville and Newark. It’s timed to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossom trees throughout the park.
A lot of people flock to Washington, DC for their cherry blossom festival – and the running events. Fewer people know that there’s a larger collection of cherry blossom trees in Branch Brook Park – the largest collection in the United States.
The course makes a single loop through the park. There’s a decent hill at the start, and another hill about halfway through. The rest of the course is rolling, gentle hills. Near the halfway point, there are two short out and backs that add a little bit of distance. But otherwise, it’s a pretty direct route.
Training Recap and Goal Setting
I’m nearing the end of my training block for the Jersey City Marathon. I’m basing things off the 12 week Pfitz plan peaking at 85 mpw, and Sunday’s race marked three weeks to go.
Training has gone pretty well. I hit three weeks at peak mileage – 80 to 85. There was a fourth week in the plan, but I was starting to feel a little beat up so I decided to ease up for the week leading into the race and only run 60 miles. My workout paces were a little slow early on, but they’ve been getting better.
My last big threshold workout I ran 8×5 minutes at tempo with 1 minute of rest, averaging 6:41/mi. The two 5k paced workouts before the race were pretty short, but I ran the 5×2 minutes with 1 minute of rest at an average of 6:15/mi.
My PR from last year was a shade over 42 minutes. My goals this year were to PR and – if possible – break 40. Breaking 42 was my C goal and pretty much a given. I decided 41 minutes was a good B goal. And 40 minutes was definitely a stretch, but possible, so that was the A goal.
Leading into the race, I planned to go out somewhere around 6:30 to 6:40 for the first mile and then see how things felt. If I could move the pace down to the 6:20’s I’d go for breaking 40. Otherwise, I’d try and cruise through in 41 minutes for a solid PR.
Race Morning Routine
The race starts pretty late in morning – 10am. This makes for a pretty relaxed morning routine.
I woke up at 6am, so I could eat a bagel with honey well before start time. I drank two cups of coffee, hit the bathroom, and laid back down for a quick 15 minute nap before it was time to go.
I learned last year that parking gets crazy around the event, so I planned to arrive a little earlier. My wife came along to cheer me on, and we pulled in around 8:40. There was still plenty of parking, and after we walked to the start there was no line to check in. I pinned on my bib, hung around for a few minutes chatting with my wife, and then I left for my warm up.
I jogged around two miles, and there was still a half hour to go until the start. The weather was nice – high 30’s and mostly sunny – but there was a chilling wind. I wore a sweatshirt and some gloves to warm up, and we walked back to the car to get a blanket for my wife.
After that, we walked to the start line, I did a couple strides and a few minutes at threshold to finish my warm up. I dropped my sweatshirt and gloves off with my wife. Then I lined up at the start and waited the last few minutes for the gun.
From the Start to the 5k Split
The start of the race was cramped.
There were around 1,500 runners registered, and there was no separation into corrals. There were some speed demons up front, who would ultimately finish in the low to mid 30’s, as well as some slower runners.
I lined up about three people back from the start, and when the gun went off I shuffled ahead to the starting line. Things opened up quick enough, and after a few quick moves around people I had some runway to open up my stride.
The race starts with a fairly decent incline for a quarter of a mile or so. I didn’t want to go out too hard, so I just kind of went by feel and tried to keep things reigned in. When we crested the hill, I took a second to catch my breath and picked up the pace just a bit. I lapped the first mile at 6:36 – pretty much right on target.
In the second mile, I aimed to pick things up a bit more and see if I could ease down to the 6:20’s without the hill. The second mile also included a slight but sustained downhill. I slowly picked people off and moved up the pack a bit. I think this helped me speed up a bit more than I expected, and I lapped mile 2 at 6:19. Woah! Can I keep this up for the rest of the race?
Mile 3 includes a few shorter hills, as we went under an overpass and meander down to the southern end of the park. I had tried to dial it back a little bit, thinking 6:19 was unsustainable, and I think I dialed it back a bit too much. Or maybe it was the hills. I lapped mile 3 at 6:44. Hmm…
There was a timing mat and clock at the 5k split, and I crossed the line at 20:15. A little disappointed with the previous lap pace, but overall I was in a good place.
From 5k to the Finish Line
After the 5k split, there was a short out and back. This included a decent incline. I powered through, but I was breathing harder by the end of it than I had for much of the race. I did manage to come through that mile 4 in 6:36 – looking good for 41, but looking bad for 40.
Mile 5 is where things threatened to fall apart. After I caught my breath from the hill in Mile 4, I thought I was back on pace. But my watch was telling me I had slowed down significantly. I didn’t feel any slower, but I was getting a little tired. I decided to just cruise at a comfortably hard pace and pick it up in the last mile. There was a slight but sustained incline throughout most of the mile, and I more or less kept pace with the people ahead of me. I lapped mile 5 at 6:54.
I was pissed about that split, and I kicked it into another gear for the final mile. There were a couple people ahead of me, and I picked them off as I made my way back to the north end of the park. At one point, I heard some footsteps on my shoulder I thought the last guy I had passed was fighting to keep up. But then someone passed me, and I realized it was another guy altogether – pushing hard to bring it home. He was going too fast for me, but I kept powering through – lapping mile 6 in 6:23. I definitely could have gone faster in mile 5.
The last .2 miles seemed way longer than it should have. I picked up the pace a little bit more. Someone came flying by, screaming, “Let’s break 40!” I glanced at my watch, confirming what I already knew – that there was no way in hell we’d break 40. So I yelled back, “Good luck!” I tried to kick it up and sprint the final bit, but I didn’t have that much left in my legs.
Instead, I cruised in. Gave a fist pump to my wife, who was filming, which the course photographer also caught. I looked up at the finish clock ticking down to 41 minutes, and I picked it up in the last few paces to make sure I crossed the mat at 40:59.
Final Thoughts and Looking Ahead
I crossed the finish line, took my finishers medal, and grabbed a bottle of water. As I sipped on the water, I circled back to find my wife and chat for a few. A friend of mine came in a couple minutes behind, and I went to say congratulations. Then, after watching the finishers for a bit, it was time to find some recovery food at a nearby diner, have a shower, and lay down for a good nap.
Overall, I’m pleased with my performance. I finished with a solid PR, and I felt really good throughout. If I had pushed the pace more, I think I could have finished under 40 – but with three weeks to go I’d rather be a little cautious and leave some time on the course. I also think that the high mileage has built up a ton of endurance, but the Pfitz 18/85 plan doesn’t have enough quality running to sharpen your speed at shorter distances.
My legs weren’t shot after the race, and I’m recovering well. I went for an easy four mile trail run with my dog Sunday evening. Monday was a four mile trail run in the morning and four miles on the treadmill in the evening. This morning, I went out for eight easy miles on the trails – expecting to take it slow and finding myself surprisingly fresh. Another sign that I probably could have gone faster in the race if I had really gone for it.
If I plug my finish time into the VDOT calculator, 41 minutes equates to a 3:09 marathon. Considering the fact that I’m probably capable of running faster than 41, and I’ve put in a ton of miles, that leaves me pretty confident that 3:09 is within reason. My base goal for this marathon is to break 3:10 and qualify for Boston, and everything else is gravy.
So I’m going to take it easy the next three weeks, taper down, and get fresh. And when I get to Jersey City, I’ll start out targeting 3:08 to 3:09, and see if I can pick it up in the last 10k. I’d love to hit 3:05, but I’m not willing to push it too far and risk missing out on the BQ.