Exactly one year ago, I watched Jon Adler, half of FM 102.1's morning show, emcee the Storm the Bastille race to kick off my favorite French-themed Downtown festival. Adler needed a wing man that night, and I was happy to oblige, listening to him playfully taunt runners as they crossed the finish line in the 5K race.
As funny as he is on the radio, Adler is funnier in person, and in between laughing at his unrehearsed one-liners, I studied the people participating in the race. Many were young, lean and fully prepared for the challenge, while others were older than me and equally out of shape.
I decided, right then, that I would run in the Storm the Bastille race in 2009. For a few weeks last summer, I actually jogged a mile or so around my neighborhood to prepare.
Then winter came. Then spring. And life got busy. A month out, I decided it was time to step it up, and I ran about 1.5 miles -- twice -- through Bay View.
But watching Brewers games and covering Summerfest took up most of my available free time during June, and before I know it, it was last Wednesday, eight days before the race.
I Googled "how to train for a 5K race" and found plenty of routines that could get a doughy, out-of-shape non-runner like myself ready in a mere eight weeks.
I Googled "how to quickly train for a 5K race" and found a plan to get me up to speed in just four weeks.
Again, uh oh.
Desperate, I Googled "how to train for a 5K race in one week." Unsurprisingly, it returned zero results.
I now realized I had made a terrible mistake in procrastinating for so long. Keep in mind that 5K is only 3.1 miles, just a light workout for a real runner. On the other hand, as someone who hasn't run that far since I did Al's Run at age 8, it might as well have been a marathon.
With no better plan available, last Wednesday, I ran as far as I could, which turned out to be about 1.6 miles. I then downloaded an App for my iPhone that uses GPS to track distance, time and pacing so I could better evaluate my progress.
On Thursday, I did 1.85 miles. Feeling semi-inspired, I bought a new pair of running shoes, some space-aged running shorts and T-shirts at Target, and made it 2.25 miles on Friday.
On Saturday, I pushed it to 2.6 miles, exhausted, panting and aching the whole way. Apparently, you're not supposed to run every single day while training for a race -- I just didn't have the luxury to take any time off.
Sunday, I hit a bit of a wall and ran just 1.5 miles.
But Monday, I wolfed down a protein bar, cranked the music and ran 3.3 miles in 34 minutes, 44 seconds. Tuesday, I did it again, running an even 5K in 33 minutes, 20 seconds.
Yes, I fully understand how slow this pace was -- it averaged out to 10 minute, 43 second miles -- but I was astounded that I ran the length of the race, twice, after just a week of training. My stamina was much higher, already, and I only walked small portions of the route. I decided to rest on Wednesday.
On race day, yesterday, I took any advice I could get. Most of it came from my friend, Sean Reti, a former Wave player and a guy who can run 5-minute miles effortlessly. Sean is married to FOX 6 sports anchor, Jen Lada, who is no slouch, either, when it comes to running. Both gave me encouragement, and Sean prescribed a race day diet that I adhered to religiously.
At about 8 p.m., we drove to Cathedral Square. Jen was equipped with a tiny camera to record the race, so we dropped our stuff in their TV truck, while Sean showed me how to properly warm up -- something I hadn't really done the previous week.
Then, we met my co-worker, Drew Olson, who graciously offered to run alongside me. Drew told me he runs this distance as a regular workout, but didn't do any specific training leading up to the Storm The Bastille. While I was gulping three liters of water all day, Drew had a single cup at the water cooler. We took our positions shortly before 9 p.m.
I won't lie to you, I was extremely nervous. While I now knew I could physically run 5K, I didn't know what it would be like to do it in a crowd of thousands or with a running partner, or up and down the hills that the course provided. So, as the race started, I tried to pretend it was just like running in the park at home; I cranked up the music and started to jog.
Except running in a crowd of thousands starts out more like a walk. Drew warned me not to expel energy bobbing and weaving through the crowd; instead, he urged me to wait until it thinned out, which it did after about half a mile.
But before that, I saw a scene that will stick with me forever. Heading east on Wisconsin Avenue, I looked downhill at thousands of bobbing heads, fanned out in front of the art museum. I felt like I was part of something great, and it fired me up, forcing me to run a little too quickly.
I soon came back to earth, but a few things happened around the one-mile mark that began to discourage me.
First, I was sweating so profusely from the humidity that my headphones wouldn't stay in my ears. I eventually gave up and ran the rest of the way without music. Second, the outer sides of my calves started stinging badly. While I had more energy to keep running, I had to walk a little while the pain subsided. And finally, I had to go to the bathroom. Badly. All that water I drank Thursday wanted out of my system in a hurry. By the end of the race, I was actually more motivated by the sight of a bathroom than the appearance of the finish line.
Drew turned out to be an excellent running partner. He recommended leaning forward as we climbed hills. He told me how to position my hand like I was throwing a changeup, to keep from wasting energy in a clench. He told me how to breathe when I started to flame out and, for the final 300 yards, he encouraged me to sprint home.
After a grueling portion of the run down Broadway and into the Third Ward, we made the final turn uphill and back to Cathedral Square. The GPS told me that we had only a bit to go, so we pushed it, running hard into the finish line. Legs stinging and burning, I felt a surprising burst of energy and finished with my hands over my head, as if Id just won the Boston Marathon. I didn't come anywhere close to the front of the pack, but there were many, many people behind me.
I checked my running app, and the time read 37 minutes, 18 seconds, which is a terrible pace for anyone -- roughly a speed of 12-minute miles. However, since my goal was simply to finish, I wasn't too upset -- though I'm sure the throng of people at the beginning of the race slowed me down by a few minutes.
Drew and I met up with Jen and Sean, and Sean told me that he finished in an amazing 20 minutes. Jen, camera and all, ran the race in 22 minutes. Both of those times are really, really impressive. Drew, Jen and Sean seemed barely winded, while my OnMilwaukee.com headband was thoroughly soaked.
I asked Drew how I did, and told him not to pull any punches:
"For 3.1 miles, I considered you to be Private Ryan," he said. "I wasn't going to leave your side."
He said, "Except for 100 or so super-skinny serious runners, Bastille Days isn't really a race. It's a fun event, a chance to sweat with a bunch of people and then drink beer. Because you were a first-timer, I just tried to help avoid the usual mistakes -- like wasting energy weaving through traffic and sprinting and slowing down in the first half-mile.
"You did a pretty good job with pacing yourself. Running in a group is A LOT different than running on your own. You can get swept up in adrenaline and end up puking on your shoes."
Thankfully, I didn't puke, but I certainly didn't sleep well, since my knees and legs felt like wooden stumps last night. And today isn't much better.
But I did it, and I hope to keep on running. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that people as out of shape as me follow my training method, but it is possible to go from the couch to 5K in just a week.
I think, however, I'll train for the next race a little more conventionally. If possible, I'd like to be able to walk up the stairs the following day.
Or maybe not. My body hurts something fierce right now, but my sense of pride feels great.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.