We had been warned about the hill, the final quarter-mile stretch that would be the toughest hurdle of the otherwise seemingly basic course on my first 5K road race.
It was the Cigna/Elliot Corporate 5K Road Race a few years back, set in downtown Manchester, N.H. I completed the 3.1-mile course almost two years before I ran a half-marathon that included parts of that same route.
The final hill, looping around Commercial Street before finishing on Elm Street, was the one I most worried about. Though the 5K distance was manageable, the end of the race was not quite the sprint to the finish line I’d imagined.
Covered in sweat, trying to contain my breath and slow down my heart rate, hands on my knees, the words of a stranger found me as I tried to regain my composure after finishing. I was not — and am still not — a runner by any definition, so it was a moment of relief feeling a hand on the back of my shoulder and hearing, “Don’t worry, you have your whole life to chase the perfect 5K.”
The world of 5K races has changed dramatically over the years as runners of all levels are tying up their laces to hit roads, trails, fields, and all sorts of terrain for a chance to complete something that’s becoming as common as summer Little League.
“I don’t think you can go anywhere in the country now and not find 5K races running through the summer months, or year-round if the weather allows,” said Barb Berry, race director for the YMCA of the North Shore.
“It’s almost odd to meet people who haven’t either walked in or run a 5K at this point; they’re just everywhere.”
On Aug. 1, the Beverly YMCA will host the Beverly Yankee Homecoming 5K Road Race, as part of the Y’s annual 5K road race series, which features 12 professional races each season.
Runners can compete in as many races as they’d like or they can complete at least six races to qualify for the Karhu Series Finisher Challenge. Created in 2006, the series offers races for all levels, beginners through advanced runners, and also has children’s races. Points are awarded for each race a runner completes and competitors are separated into age and gender groups throughout the season. Runners who qualify for the series will have their top six scores combined to determine the final standings.
Also, as a part of the YMCA’s series, a pair of races are scheduled for Thursday in Haverhill: the Hillies Havoc 4 Mile Race or the Hillies Havoc 5K Trail Run.
Before the adult races, there will be a Fit-tastic Kids Fun Run; all races start at Winnekenni Park.
“The kids’ runs are such a huge component of 5Ks these days,” said Berry.
“There are so many reasons this is a good thing: It involves the whole family and parents can compete right after the kids, it encourages kids to get out and be active. I know so many racers in middle and high school or even older who remember running their first road race in one of these kids runs.”
Along with YMCA-sponsored road races, local running clubs are joining in.
The Greater Lowell Road Runners club hosts races with varying themes. Next Tuesday, it is the PR 5K, in which runners setting a personal best will receive a special prize. And on July 23, participants in the Coaster Toss 5K can flip a bar coaster into a bucket at the 1-mile mark, and hope their coaster will be chosen raffle-style for a prize at the end of the race.
At 8 p.m. Friday, the Wicked Running Club of Salem will host its annual Miles Over the Moon road race. In its third year, the race has a 4-mile, mostly flat course, which begins at the Salem Common.
“5Ks are just such a versatile type of race,” said Berry. “They can be as easy or challenging as you make them, you can run them on a whim or as part of a larger training plan. Friends do them together, or you can go alone and make new friends or run for charity. Basically all of them have competitors that walk the course too, so really they are accessible to every single person.”
For more information on upcoming 5Ks in Massachusetts, go to www.runningintheusa.com.