Running For Pork Skins: A Pacer’s (Pig) Tales of a First 5K

Event: Nags Head Woods 5K
Where & When: Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, Kill Devil Hills NC, 8 a.m. Saturday, May 10
Results: 39:11 (12:38 minute/mile) 

At the start of the year, my good friend Mert bought her first pair of running shoes and embarked on a beginning running program. She logged run/walk workouts two to three times a week, gradually increasing her running to 30 minutes without a walk break. It was time to get a taste of racing.

The Nags Head Woods 5K, an annual run and perhaps more popular post-race party on the North Carolina Outer Banks, was coming up. Mert signed up, along with our friend Priscilla. As promised, I planned to pace Mert to her first 5K finish and registered as well.

Mert helped cheer me to a marathon PR in December 2007 with her very motivational phrase “Run, Bitch! Malt Balls!,” using my favorite candy as a dangling carrot. Now it was my turn to support her with some company and encouragement.

Priscilla’s family has a beach cottage in nearby Southern Shores, so we were able to avoid hotel costs and a pre-dawn hour’s drive from Elizabeth City on race morning. We spent a sunny Friday afternoon relaxing with some shopping, soaking up the sun, picking up race packets, dog-walking, and seafood dining before an early bedtime. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed at 9 p.m., and I must admit I loved the extra rest.

On Saturday we woke at 5:30 a.m. Four of us (Priscilla’s husband and Official Race Sherpa, Mike, had arrived Friday night) took turns getting ready in the small cottage bathroom and ate a quick breakfast. We drove to the shuttle pick-up site and had an uneventful ride to the start area, arriving at 7 a.m. The hour passed quickly with plenty of chatting, Port-a-John visits, applying bug spray needed for a run in a maritime forest, and a quick walk/jog warm up. The weather was perfect: 50 degrees, sunny, and low humidity thanks to a cool front arriving the previous evening.

The Start

It was time to line up on the dirt road where most of the 5K takes place. Mert chose a spot near the back of the pack so she could avoid going out too fast. Soon there was movement and we crossed the starting line at a relaxed pace.

Mile 1

We settled in to running. Mert did an excellent job of sticking to her intended pace, instead of getting swept along too fast like many new (and, er, not naming names but, uh, at least one more experienced) 5K runners do. She completely stayed in her own head. The course is slightly rolling with the longest uphill at mile 2.75, which we already planned to walk. Mert decided she would play every uphill by ear, walking if she felt like it. As a pacer I did my best to keep her going but not pull her along too fast, and keep her mind happy with encouragement. I carried a water bottle so she could drink whenver she wanted, and my camera to record the event for posterity:

Mert looking great in Mile 1

Mile 2

Shortly after our first mile, we caught up to another runner, Steven. He told us it was his first 5K and asked if he could stay with us. We became a trio for the rest of the race, and I did my best to distract both of them with stories of mishaps and adventures I’d encountered in previous races.  I pulled ahead again and snapped a photo of them.

First-time 5K runners Steven and Mert

By this time the leaders were approaching on their way back to the finish. “Use their energy to keep you going,” I told my runners. We cheered for the first woman and all the people we knew as they passed, making the time go quickly. We got to the half-way point in the course, where runners turn and run the circumference of an open field. The ground was spongey and muddy from Friday morning’s rain, more challenging for new runners to deal with. We walked a little more here and took off running again when we were back on the more solid-feeling dirt road.

Now it was time to dangle Mert’s favorite snack as the proverbial carrot. “Run Bitch! Pork Skins!”

One Mile to Go

At the one mile left point, the race clock read approximately 26 minutes. “Only if you feel like trying a time goal today, you can break 40 minutes by keeping this same pace to the end,” I told Mert. Both she and Steven were feeling a little fatigued, but showed no lag in energy or pace. I continued chatting as we headed to the finish, trying to be extra encouraging without going into all-out annoying cheerleader mode. “Every step is one step closer,” I told them, reminding them how satisfying it would feel to finish and how strong they would find out they were. It wasn’t long until we reached the 1/2 mile to go point and then confronted the “walker” hill before the final push to the finish. Steven was struggling a little, but not giving up. Mert, on the other hand, reached the top of the hill and shot forward. “You’re a sandbagger!” I said as I ran hard to catch her. “Keep going, we can see the finish now!” I said before running ahead one last time to get her photo finish. Priscilla was heading back to find us, and I yelled for her to run in with Mert.

The Finish

I felt silly being cheered for crossing the line at 39:11, when I all I was interested in was seeing my runner finish. I got in position and camera ready. There she was! She did it in 39:23, easily beating her impromptu time goal!

She did it!

As I went to hug Mert, she looked a bit shaky. “I’m going to throw up,” she announced. Pulling off to the side of the finish area, she promptly bent forward and made a not-so-pleasant reacquaintance with the contents of her stomach.

A sign of a gutsy run

“You’re a real runner now,” I told her proudly. “If you ran a race so hard that at the end you throw up, you know you gave it your all.”

Before long Mert recovered, and was ready to celebrate her accomplishment with her favorite snack.

Recovery fuel? 

I haven’t done that much pacing, but was reminded yesterday of what a sweet gig it is. The pacer is rewarded with considerable pride and more fun, along with the good feeling of helping — all for covering a distance at a very comfortable, non-puke inducing pace.




3 Responses to “Running For Pork Skins: A Pacer’s (Pig) Tales of a First 5K”

  1. 1 Carla May 12, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Fun to read as I get ready to do my first 5k on Saturday!

  2. 2 Andrea May 12, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Woo hoo Carla! Good luck! I wish I could be there to pace you. Please let me know how it goes.

  3. 3 Lloyd May 14, 2008 at 7:42 am

    Way to go, Mert!

    I enjoyed the report of a first time racer. Thanks for sharing the photos. Beautiful and healthy scenery and runners!

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