Five Lessons Learned from Running the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler

On Sunday, April 3rd I raced the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in Washington, DC. My net time was 54:52 and I placed 46th out of 6,972 men. If you were to count women, I was 49th out of 15,968 total runners. Yes, three very fast women beat me.

Instead of a typical race report, I wanted to make this more helpful and talk about some of the successes and failures of the race. This will enable you to get more out of the race report and learn from my mistakes (and wins).

Cherry Blossom starts early at 7:40am so I was up at 5:00 to have breakfast, drink my coffee, and commute to the National Mall starting area. My fiancée Meaghan ran Cherry Blossom two years ago so I knew what to expect: long lines at the bathrooms and all of the congestion of a major marathon. There were nearly 16,000 people racing plus fans, so it was quite the scene on the Mall.

Before we get into the lessons, here are my mile splits:

– windy
5:28 – 17:00 at 5k
5:57 – long
4:51 – short – 27:17 at 5 miles
5:30 – windy, slight uphill

As you can see, I started to suffer during the last three miles and barely missed setting a personal record. I ran 54:50 a few years ago and was hoping to take that down. Alas, it wasn’t in the cards, but I’m still happy with the effort.

Don’t Take Mile Splits Too Seriously

Mile splits are important and give you a great sense of your effort and whether you’re on track to reach your time goals during a race. But keep in mind that mile markers aren’t always accurate. I ran the 4th mile at Cherry Blossom in 5:57, only to split 4:51 for the 5th mile!

They had a 5k mark slightly after the 3 mile marker, so I’m pretty sure the race officials measured the 4th mile a mile after the 5k point (4.1 miles). It all evened out, but there was a moment of sheer panic as I thought I had blown the race by running a very slow split.

If something like this happens, stay calm! Keep running at the effort you know you should be running and recognize that a mistake was probably made during the marking of the course. No big deal – and this happens a lot more than you think.

Plan Ahead

Taking the metro from Silver Spring to the Smithsonian stop may seem easy, but when your mind is busy thinking about race strategy and focusing on an important upcoming performance you become distracted. I don’t want to admit it, but I got off at the wrong metro stop and had to wait another ten minutes for the next train. Oops!

Lesson learned: plan your commute to the race and don’t wing it when saving time is crucial.

I mentioned the bathroom situation at the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler but let me repeat: it is abysmal. I waited in line for 20 minutes to use the restroom before the race and that caused me to only have time for a short warm-up, a full mile less than I was hoping. I also didn’t have time to run any strides.

Unfortunately, there’s really no way around the lack of bathrooms, but I should have arrived earlier to the race. Take into consideration the wait time of public transportation, potential wrong-turns (or wrong trains), and long lines at the bathroom. It’s better to be early than late.

Stay Calm When Shit Happens

After the first mile, my shins got incredibly sore. I haven’t had shin splints in a very long time so this took me by surprise. I was wearing a pair of CEP compression calf sleeves (full review to come soon), which are admittedly pretty tight on my lower legs, but in the past few weeks I’ve really enjoyed them. I’m unsure if they might have contributed to the shin pain.

The shin splints turned into a dull ache after the third mile; luckily, I kept plugging along and didn’t just give up. At one point the pain was severe but it didn’t last long.

Later in the race after the 7 mile mark my right soleus and upper achilles became very painful. I was in awe at how fast my body was falling apart during the race – as soon as my shins felt a little better, something else started to fail me. Unlike the shins, my soleus pain didn’t dissipate and it became a struggle to continue the pace I was going. Digging deep for a final kick was virtually impossible; the pain prohibited anything resembling a sprint.

Despite all of these setbacks, I tried to remain methodical about hitting my goal mile pace. I was a tad slow, but considering the muscle pains I was satisfied with running only a few seconds slower per mile. It couldn’t have been my racing shoes (ASICS Hyper Speeds) because I’ve worn them for numerous races, workouts, and absolutely love them.

Lesson learned: shit happens in a race. You can’t always race 100% pain free and feel like the Incredible Hulk. Take it in stride (running pun!) and try your damnedest to hit your goal pace.

Run the Tangents

This is road racing 101, but I was in shock at how many runners I saw running the long way on the course. Clearly, this isn’t known by everyone so here’s a reminder: courses are calculated by measuring the tangents. If you don’t cut the tangents, you’re running MORE than the race distance!

If you’re not sure what I mean, this visual helps:

Don’t make racing harder than it has to be: whenever possible, run the shortest along a curved stretch of road.

Recovery is Your #1 Priority Post-Race

When I finished, my legs were trashed. My lower legs, from my shins to both of my soleus’ and calves, were throbbing, tight, and sore. Meaghan was at the finish line, so I got some water and changed back into my Adidas Adizero Mana’s for a 2 mile warm-down. I knew some slow running would help my legs loosen up.

I was probably running really slow but that’s just fine after a race. As soon as I finished I drank some Vitamin Water, had a muffin, and kept moving toward the Metro. I was hoping to stay later but Meaghan was freezing and I knew I needed more substantial food. I had some almonds, a lot of water, and made sure to do a core workout as soon as I got home. Then I had an enormous plate of food.

For more on how to avoid soreness after a race or especially tough workout, check out my post on running recovery. That routine is typically what I’ll do after any long run or hard workout.

Considering my lower leg pain, I’m actually very pleased with this race. Without the tightness and pain, I know that my last few miles would have been a lot faster. I wasn’t aerobically stressed in any way which is a great predictor for the Delaware Marathon next month, where I’m hoping to run just under 3 hours.

I’m glad you read this far, so here’s a special BONUS VIDEO LESSON: How to lose a final sprint.


Tangents Image Credit

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  1. Some great lessons here. I have gotten better about not even looking at my watch early in a race. It helps me settle into a groove and not worry about my pace or allowing panic to set in. It’s working quite well for me. Also, I like what you say about the tangents. It’s something not written about enough. I see people weave in and out without a strategy and taking very high lines on out-and-back courses or on turns — in races where seconds matter in hitting a PR, the line you take makes a huge difference!

    • It’s definitely a common sense thing, but a racing tactic that’s not well enough known among new runners. It would be like running a track race in lane 3!

  2. “Stay calm when shit happens.” I like it. I get all worked up when things are going the way I think they should. I do it even in training.

    I love the final sprint. I’m sad that you lost it. I smacked a guy in the butt last year and told him to move it or lose it, he was being passed by a big girl. In all fairness to me, we were running on a trail and the crowd was closing in on the finishing line. This guy was just lobbing along, and very much in the way. I smacked him and sprinted by. I was a little embarrassed after the fact, given I don’t usually touch other people’s backsides. It’s a common practice I try to avoid. 🙂 He ran faster the last 20 steps though.

    Great job, even with the trashed legs.

  3. Way to gut it out thru the race! I can’t believe you ran so well with the issues you were having. Congrats!

  4. Great report Jason and thanks for those pointers.

    I know my road racing experience is nothing compared to yours, but there is one modification to the “run the tangents” rule that I picked up during my bike racing years that I think applies to running. If the road has an extreme camber, especially going uphill and especially in the mountains, sometimes staying extremely tight to the corner can actually work your legs more. You basically drop off into a low spot and then have to climb back out. In these situations, I try to stay more to the center of the road where the camber is minimal.

  5. How did you handle the 180 degree turn?

  6. Great race and lessons Fitz, it can be so tempting to read too much into a race from the early splits, even if they are measured accurately. I find (as do most others, I’m sure) that faster than planned splits feel so easy early in most races, especially the marathon, and it becomes easy to convince yourself that you were conservative in your race goals. This becomes a double-whammy when the pace does start to slip, as you’ve spent more energy than you should have and your confidence simultaneously dips. Your splits were steady throughout, an additional lesson for each of us.

    • Thanks Greg. Except for the last few miles where my right soleus was especially sore, I was pretty even. I’d have a shiny new PR if not for that pain….