The sub-20 minute 5K is one of the holy grails of running. Of course, it’s at the opposite end o the spectrum from a sub-3 hour marathon but it’s no less of a challenge for most runners. It’s a goal I’ve had on my mind for a while without ever really training to do it – until now.
With the UK in lockdown and me working from home, before being furloughed, I became target-less when the Blackpool marathon was inevitably cancelled. While I can enjoy running simply for the escapism, I also enjoy training for an event and pushing myself.
My goal time for the Blackpool marathon was under 3 hours and 30 minutes. That was a stretch given my only previous marathon was in a time of 3 hours and 55 minutes. But you have to aim high to achieve big.
With the marathon gone until the autumn, I decided to change direction with my running goals.
Initially, I had insisted that come April 26th I would run 26.2 miles anyway – albeit on my own. But given the stretched NHS situation I decided to do something risky was not in anyone’s best interests. So, another challenge was required…
A sub-20 minute 5K
The sub-20 minutes 5K is something of a benchmark for runners. But getting anywhere near this time has been a long time coming for me. I can remember back to when I started running at the age of 31 and achieving a sub-30 minute 5K was an amazing feeling.
It’s all relative really. Achieving this time would be a personal success and mean something only to me. I engage with other runners online often and there are faster runners and slower runners than me – but all I care about is the fact people are running.
The 28-day challenge
So, with all this in mind, I set about training to achieve my goal in 28 days or under.
Given the state of the coronavirus lockdown in the UK and our limit of a single daily outdoor exercise, I decided that this would be a treadmill challenge. My daily allowed time outdoor would be reserved for walking the dogs with the family.
I also chose not to consult the internet for specific training plans. The logic, if you can call it that, was that I wanted to do this my way in the same way I’d been preparing for the marathon.
Friday, 27th March 2020 – Day 1
Day one of the challenge began with me not even knowing I was embarking on this journey.
I was working from home and my daily routine was to get on the treadmill before starting work for the day. On this particular day, I felt like pushing myself so tried to run the fastest 5k I could.
21 minute and 13 seconds.
Not too bad at all and from that I had the idea to set myself the challenge of getting under 20 minutes in 28 days – I had just done day 1.
Seven days later at the end of my first week of training, I tested myself again. This time I did a proper warm-up and gave it a good go.
I came in at 21 minutes and 4 seconds. I’d taken 9 seconds off my previous week’s attempt and I felt like I was getting stronger.
The following Sunday I did a 10k on the treadmill for my LSR and got a great time of 43:13. I was feeling fantastic.
Fast forward another week and on day 14 I tested myself again to get a 5k PB. I got 20:38. I’ve never run so far and I was mullered!
But, a great sub-21 and gave me the boost that the training was paying off.
The good thing about treadmills is that you lock in a speed and you try to maintain that pace. On the road, I’ve always found it tricky to maintain a consistent pace.
With the machine, you are more inclined to try to keep up. This is especially true if it fast and getting to that decrease speed button can be tricky, to say the least.
But sprint finishes on a treadmill are limited. Limited by the top speed of your machine. In my case, that 10mp – or 6 min/mile pace if you prefer. If you are barrelling towards that finish line and you get that adrenaline rush then you can only push as fast as the machine will let you. I realised this was a problem for me.
The accidental PB
Halfway through the 3rd week of the challenge I ran 20 minutes and 8 seconds. I shocked myself and then felt frustrated that I could have got that sub-20 were it not for a little more effort.
What I do know is that it was the music that helped me on this day. My issue with looking at the treadmills data display too often was annoying me, so I created a new playlist and focussed on that, keeping my eyeline up and stopping myself from looking down.
The problem was that when I eventually allowed myself to look at the distance and time it was too late. I knew I was running well and running fast and on checking, I realised that I could get a great PB.
But I also knew, because maths is maths and maximum speed is finite on a treadmill, that I could not get sub-20 minutes. It’s a frustration that I was becoming all too familiar with.
But this almost-a-record achievement was not the best thing to have happened to me. I foolishly believed that because I came so close that it was inevitable that I could just keep trying to it would come.
The next day – 20:31, the day after that 20:55, followed by 20:50 a day later. My training had gone out fo the window. I was looking at the calendar and starting to wonder if I would actually manage this in the 28 days.
Then came Saturday and another go. I was relentless in my now daily attempt to go sub-20. When I once again didn’t achieve it I just kept going and did 4 miles in 27:27 – that a PB in itself.
Sunday came and I changed tactics. I went out on the road early in the day. I picked as flat a route as I could and went for it. I worked so hard and got 20:34. A road 5k PB and yet I was disappointed. I was annoying myself by now.
As some kind of punishment I went and did another 5k hard, hard treadmill workout later in the morning.
I decided on a rest day but I couldn’t even manage that. Helen was back at work so in the afternoon I took Delilah and Verity out for a steady little jog with the dogs.
The last push
It was Tuesday. Three days left to get that sub-20 and I was nervous. I really wanted the achievement and it was playing on my mind.
Helen was on an evening shift and after I’d got the girls in bed I hot the treadmill. Maybe an evening attempt would work.
Again, when 3.1 miles rolled around and I’d missed my goal I pushed on and got another 4-mile PB – 27:13 this time.
I needed a rest day.
I didn’t run on Wednesday. This was hard as this left me with Thursday, day 28 or 28, to get to my goal.
I woke on Thursday not feeling that great. I’d hoped I would feel refreshed after my day off but I felt lethargic and ached.
I made the decision that I would wait until the evening to have my final attempt.
At 7 pm I set off on my warmup. I ran over a mile. Not just getting my body ready but my mind.
This was going to hurt. Pain is temporary but the achievement will be permanent.
I’d built a playlist of songs using jog.fm where you set the pace you want and it suggests songs with a BPM that would fit. I was ready.
I don’t remember much about that 20 minutes. I know it hurt and I know that I worked so bloody hard to keep going.
I crossed my imaginary finish line (denoted by the buzz of my watch) and I stopped it tracking. I fell to my hands and knees in the middle of the lane. I was done.
It felt fast. It felt like I’d done it. I look at my watch.
I’d done it. I’d cracked the nut that I set out to crack.
That feeling was amazing and yet empty at the same time.
I was alone on a deserted country lane with nobody to celebrate with.
I returned home and casually told my family members that I’d done it. They said “well done”.
Did I really expect them to be as elated as I was?
So that was it. 28 days of slaughtering myself and I had achieved my goal.