The 5K is seen as a beginners distance in running. It is often the first “proper” distance that runners will look to complete, firstly in their training, and then in racing, often in the form of the sorely missed parkrun format. It also offers up some neat time barriers for runners to break through. A beginner may look to train up to the point where they can break 30 minutes, for example. A more experienced runner may strive to break 25, or 20, minutes for the first time. It is basically a short enough distance that it seems manageable, but it also short enough that as you build up a decent base of fitness you may realise that you can actually maintain a tasty lick of speed across it. Of course, once you’ve maintained a tasty lick you’re likely to want to maintain an even tastier lick the next time you roll up on a parkrun morning. This is where things get interesting.
And by interesting, I mean hard.
For a ‘beginners’ distance, the 5k can be brutal. It carries with it a unique sense of pain. You won’t hit the wall like in a marathon, or even as you might in the last 5k of a half. It doesn’t rely quite as much on endurance as a 10k, and yet it is still almost exclusively a test of aerobic strength. For me, and I think for a lot of people, 5k pace is fairly comfortable in an interval session, up to a mile or so, but over the entirety of the distance it can really, really hurt.
To round out lockdown, I decided to unofficially go after my (also unofficial) 5km PB. Ideally I wanted to go under 17:20. In a dream scenario I would go under 17, as that is the sort of pace I think I would want to target in a real race (rather than just slogging it out by myself down a scrappy bit of bike path and country lane). My typical mistake in a 5k is to get out way, way too hard, so a serious goal of mine during the time trial was to keep things calmer during the first mile. Specifically, I wanted to be in and around 5:30 a mile pace, ideally a bit slower. I sort of achieved this, hitting 5:29 for the first mile – a teeny tiny bit too quick, but the first mile is slightly downhill so we’ll blame that. It didn’t feel too fast, I wasn’t panicking just yet, I wasn’t desperately worrying about how I could possibly maintain the speed for another two miles. But I’ve done a fair few 5ks at this point. I knew what was coming.
Mile two on the 5k course features a short, sharpish hill and an immediate descent. Perhaps it would be sensible to find a 5k without a hill at all, but by taking this route I usually get a tailwind down a very open stretch of road, which is a worthy compromise in my books. This mile was more like how I imagined my first mile, 5:32.
Then came mile three. The pain of mile three was in the plan: be sensible over the first two, then burn anything and everything to squeeze whatever extra seconds out of the run that I could. This is where the 5k hurts like pretty much nothing else. A mile, after you’ve already put two very strong miles in, can feel like a long, long time. Obviously it hurts the legs, obviously it hurts the lungs, but mostly the problem is in the mind. The brain simply does not want you to carry on into the third mile. It especially doesn’t want you to speed up. But what does the brain know? We don’t need to think to go fast. At some point, fairly recently, when the brain starts talking to me and telling me that it doesn’t approve of what I’m doing I’ve started grunting and barking back, making noises like some sort of gross, sweaty ape. It’s a pretty insane thing to do, and I’m glad that there was no one around that early in the morning for me to disturb.
I guess it worked, because I finished in 16:58 (I had to check after, I always tend towards overrunning the distance because Strava loves to round my Garmin distances down, and I’d be pretty pissed off with a 4.99km no matter how arbitrary it’d be). A 5km is just short enough that the recovery time isn’t so bad, but the pain in the moment is uniquely awful. So uniquely awful that it’ll be a good long time before I try it again, I’ll be out on the trail, rocking along actually having some fun. This week at least. But I will be back, for some reason, to make those numbers a little smaller.
Because everytime time those numbers get a little smaller, every angry grunt and groan represents a victory over the self and that, I think, is a worthy compromise.